Is Sesame a Viable Option for Eastern North Carolina

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Image of sesame plant in bloomSesame seed demand has been steady to slightly increasing over the past five years and is projected to remain steady or slightly increase. Currently, potential profit per acre is similar to soybean and corn. However, sesame offers the advantage as a good rotational crop, deer do not eat it, sesame is very drought tolerant, and current research indicates that it may actually reduce the root knot nematode population. Having thusly stated, it may not be for all producers. Below are some items to consider carefully prior to planting.

List of Items to Consider:  A Brief Summary

  1. Prior herbicide use and rotational restrictions – Much is simply not known. Some herbicides used for other crops can severely injure sesame.
  2. Soil Type – Sesame prefers well drained soils. It will not tolerate wet soils or standing water.
  3. Planting Equipment & Row Width – Rows of 15-40” are acceptable but modifications to planters will be needed to accommodate the very small seed.
  4. Fertilization – Sesame has a deep, fibrous root system that easily finds existing nutrients. High rates of fertilization in soils already with high nutrient values may actually delay fruiting and maturity.
  5. Timing of Planting – Sesame requires warm soils so planting occurs mid-May through June.
  6. Seeding – Germination requires that sesame seeds remain moist for 3-5 days. Thus, planting deep or irrigating regularly is necessary.
  7. Weed Control – There are limited herbicide products labeled for sesame. Cultivation, hoeing, and rapidly growing healthy plants to shade competitive weeds are best options until more products are labeled.
  8. Insect, Disease & Other Pest – Sesame does not appear to be favored by wildlife but aphids, corn earworms, or other insect may cause damage. Diseases, while not noted to be an issue to date in this area, should be monitored.
  9. Harvest – Due to the small seed size, combines must have specific settings and duct tape must be used to ensure no hole/airflow allowing sesame to escape. This is true for transport vehicles as well. Sesame is harvested when the plant is completely dry, about 120-140 days after planting.
  10. Contracts – There is no “market delivery” of sesame. One must contract with companies prior to planting. Most will arrange for trucks to pick up product the day of harvest.
  11. Other Critical Issues
    1. Sesame is sensitive to 2, 4-D and dicamba. If adjacent fields are peanuts or auxin tolerant crops where these products may be used, then any drift onto sesame will likely cause severe damage.
    2. Poor harvest that allows seeds to exit the combine will result in sesame emergence the following spring. Fortunately, sesame is easily controlled.
    3. Late plantings that results in frost or near frost prior to complete plant dry-down usually result in unmarketable seeds. Seed require 50% oil content to be marketable.

Prior Herbicide Use

Herbicide carryover from uses in other crops is not always clear. Prometryn (Caparol), imazapic (Cadre), trifloxysulfuron (Envoke) and imazethapyr (Pursuit) are known to cause severe injury to germinating sesame seeds. Rotation restrictions for sesame with these products can be as long as 26 months! Check labels of products used prior to planting sesame. If no information is listed, contact the manufacturing company. There is little data from land grant universities to support or refute planting restrictions for many of these herbicide products.


Current research at NC State University indicates that sesame does not respond to excess fertilization. Addition of phosphorous (P) or potassium (K), when recommended by the NCDA & CS Agronomic soil test reports are suggested. Nitrogen (N) rates between 50-100 lbs./ac have resulted in very good yields. When no P & K is recommended, nitrogen alone is sufficient. It appears, as with soybean, this crop has a good root system that will find existing nutrients within the soil and does not respond to luxury consumption of nutrients. Any fertilization beyond what has been discussed simply decreases profit. In fact, research shows that excessive fertilization may increase seedling growth yet delay the number of fruits set as well as delay pod maturity. This is quite the opposite of what we need for higher yield!

Research will continue to evaluate fertilization rates and timing. Since most soils within this area have very high soil P and high potassium indexes, it is simply suggested to apply N only to this crop. Obviously, soil test should be taken to ensure nutrient levels prior to planting. Simply be aware that this plant requires little fertilization.

Soil Types Preferred & Soil Management

Sesame prefers sandier soils to medium textured soils. It does not grow well in poorly drained soils or standing water. A range of soil pH from 5-7 has successfully grown sesame. It can be planted into conventionally tilled land or planted no-till. The main point is to plant the seed well below the existing soil moisture line (See Seeding Rate & Depth). Ideally, 15-38” rows are preferred. This allows cultivation and split-application of fertilizer.

Planting Equipment

Sesame seeds are very small. As such they can easily be crushed and clog the planter plates. It is strongly advised not to fill the planter boxes beyond 5-6 inches. Most planters can be modified with plates to accommodate planting this small seed. Some companies buying sesame offer discounts or specific recommendations.

According to Texas A & M Sesame Production Guide, planter modifications include:

  • International 186: Plate C-Sorg 00-30, Ring CFR- 1
  • International 386: Plate C-Sorg 00-30, Ring CFR-1
  • John Deere 71 Flex: Plate B-Sorg 00-30, Ring BFR-1
  • John Deere 800: Plate B-Sorg 00-30, Ring BFR-1
  • John Deere 80: JD Cups and shim set “Dryland sorghum” JD part #B31298 Feed cup spacer, B31205 32 Cell Feed Cup, B31300 Thrust Washer
  • John Deere Max-emerge: A25081 Shim, A36323 Plate, and AA253 19 bowl AA25319 set. One set per row.
  • JD Max-emerge II vacuum planter: using either a 45 cell H136445 “Raw sugar beet disc” or 45 cell A43066 “Small milo disc” Also need “Knocker Assembly” #AH129125 for each plate.
  • IHC 800, 900 air planter: IHC part #1546936C1 “Small seed drum” (Must shrink vent holes by hammer blows.)
  • NOTE: There have been mixed results with the IHC 800/900 air planter. It is difficult to plant enough seed per foot.
  • NOTE: Plates can be ordered from Lincoln AG-Products Company, Lincoln, Nebraska at (402) 464-6367. Cups and discs should be available at your local John Deere Dealer.

Timing of Planting

Sesame prefers warmer soils. Thus soils must be at least 70oF in the morning. As such, within Eastern North Carolina, this may be in mid-May through June. Planting past July 4th is not recommended. (For coastal areas, it may be possible to mature sesame but such late planting places the crop at risk of severe loss should tropical systems arrive prior to harvest)

Seeding Rate – Generally sesame is planted 2.5-4.5 lbs./ac, depending upon time of planting and row width. Aim for 25-35 seeds per foot of row. Be aware that under less than ideal planting conditions, 50-60% germination may result. Oddly, this is acceptable since the growing habit of the plant compensates with additional branching if populations are low.

 Seeding Depth – Sesame is a very small seed with a tough, thick waxy seed coat. As such, once it begins adsorbing water, the seed must remain moist for 3-5 days. For this reason, it is strongly suggested that seeds be planted 0.25-0.5 inch below the existing soil moisture line. Thus, seeds may be planted up to 1.5-2 inches deep with success. Failure to plant seed at a depth where the seed will remain moist for 3-5 days will result in poor germination. Remarkably, even though sesame is a small seed, it can germinate at greater depths than other seeds similar in size. Of course, if irrigation is available, then seeds may be planted shallower.

Weed Control

Herbicides currently labeled for sesame include glyphosate, and clethodim. Work is in progress to label the use of metolachlor, diuron, and linuron. NC State University is working to examine these products and others. Until then, realize that beginning with a clean seedbed and cultivation are the best means to manage broadleaf weeds. Grasses may be controlled with post emergence applications of clethodim. Fortunately, once the plant reaches about the 5-6th leaf stage, it grows rapidly and often outgrows competing weeds.

 Insect Management

To date, research from NC State University identify aphids and corn earworms as primary insect pests of this crop. Aphids are sporadic and may or may not be an issue. Conversely, corn earworms are known annual pest. Both can be treated with multiple products should damage occur. Currently, there are no established thresholds for application.

While these statements are true, one must realize that we do not have widespread planting of this crop. New pest may emerge. As example, within this area, we typically have stinkbug and plant bugs in cotton and soybean. With time, we may discover these to be pest of sesame too. However, they may not. Time will tell.


No known diseases have been noted within sesame. Some nematodes may be an issue, but to be blunt, we have not produced the crop in enough area to note any issues. So, all we can confirm is that we have currently noted no nematode concerns for this crop.


Typically sesame matures 120-150 days after planting. The entire plant does not mature at once. Like cotton, the fruit set on the bottom opens first and progresses upward. As such, growers must examine the plant and determine when best to harvest. Ideally, seeds will be about 50% oil but with low moisture and the portion of the sesame plant cut by the combine should be completely dry.

New varieties listed as “shatter resistant” will indeed hold seed better than varieties from years past. Some reports indicate dried pods will hold seeds 4-6 weeks after plant dry-down. However, the larger problem is not shattering seed pods, rather stalks that lodge or decay too quickly causing harvest difficulty.

A detailed overview of combine speed, suggested settings, concave surface, speed and more details is found within the Sesame Production Guide listed above from Texas A & M.

Tropical Storms

Early tropical storm are a risk. It is not known how the severity or timing of a tropical system will impact production or yield. Common sense seems to indicate that like frost, an early storm may stress plants to reduce yield or quality. A later storm may lodge plants or separate pods from the plant. No date exists revealing whether one might desiccate the plant prior a storm to harvest. However, data exists showing that early frost that arrive before pod maturity usually results in essentially unmarketable seed. As such, until data is gathered, one will simply have to assume risks and damages from tropical storm systems should they occur.

 Historical Yield

Sesame has not been grown long enough in this area to establish an average yield. Research plots have ranged from around 600 lbs./ac to as high as 2300 lbs./ac. It is projected that one should easily obtain 1000 lbs./ac.

Sales & Contracts

Contracts are available for those wishing to grow this crop. Seeds are sold at a given price per hundred weight. As such, $60 per hundred weight is $0.60 per pound.