Ten years ago, South Texas farmers didn't spend a lot of time deciding what commodity or how much to grow the following spring.

It was an automatic rotation. Fields that were planted to grain sorghum or corn would be rotated to cotton or vise-versa.

More time was spent deciding what kind of seed treatments or transgenic trait options to order than what commodities would be grown.

But times are quickly changing in agriculture.

The winds of global economic uncertainty are having an impact everywhere.

Petroleum product costs and skyrocketing fertilizer prices have narrowed profit margins on the farm. Increased demand for bio-fuel feed stock to meet renewal energy mandates pushed up grain prices that are now moderating faster than production cost.

Commodity futures market volatility driven by mega-hedge fund trading instead of a fundamental supply and demand principles have created turmoil for grain elevator operators, farmers and livestock feeders. Currently, the sluggish cotton market is in a decline that provides little opportunity for profitable returns.

All these factors have contributed to whirlwind changes affecting how farmers and ranchers choose to manage their production resources in the future.

The attendance of more than 50 Coastal Bend farmers at the first of three regional oil seed crop conferences was proof that growers are examining new production options.

The conference series is being sponsored by Texas Agrilife Extension.

Presentations highlighted projected growth in worldwide demand for plant-derived oils, along with comparisons of production cost for various oil seed crops.

This training armed area farmers with sound decision making information to analyze profit potential from various oilseed contract offers. About a third of the farmers in the audience had recent experience in growing confection-type sunflowers or sesame.

Others had grown flax back in the 1960's and were interested in looking at new oil seed crop opportunities as an addition to their current farming mix.

These farmers were paying close attention to Brandon Winters's presentation. He serves as oil seed procurement manager for Producers Cooperative Oil Mill, headquarters in Oklahoma City.

"Producers" is a farmer-owned cooperative that was established in 1944 to process cottonseed.

In addition to their oil mill in Oklahoma, the cooperative has three other mills located in Arkansas, Missouri and Tennessee.

Recently, Producers Cooperative Oil Mill made a major investment in modernizing their equipment and facilities to handle oil seed sunflowers and Canola seed processing.

They are actively seeking production acreage throughout Texas and are willing to offer acreage contacts to farmers for growing specific oil sunflower and Canola varieties.

If enough acreage can be contracted in a given area, Producers Co-Op will work to secure regional delivery points to reduce delivery expenses for growers.

Mr. Winters reiterated that their cooperative was excited about the potential for expanding spring Canola production in South and Central Texas.

"This is a high oil content crop that can yield 840 pounds of quality cooking oil that contains zero trans-fats and about 1,080 pounds of 36 percent protein meal from each ton of field harvested Canola seed", Winters said.

The meal is marketed as a plant protein supplement in livestock feed rations.

Canola seed requires less processing and can be processed more economically than cottonseed.

However, it produces a lower crude protein meal and fewer marketable byproducts than cottonseed.

Local farmers became even more excited about Canola following the presentation by Jeff Stapper, County Extension Agent for Nueces County.

Stapper reviewed results from spring Canola test plot work in the Coastal Bend that demonstrated yields in excess of 2,000 pounds per acre that had been achieved under dry-land production in recent years.

In South Texas, Canola is best planted with a grain drill equipped with good depth control and soil firming press wheel features.

The planting window runs from mid-November through early January when soil moisture will ensure good germination and favor quick stand establishment of the small seeds that are placed at a depth of a half- to three-quarters of an inch.

Stapper has planned two oil seed crop studies in Nueces County scheduled for planting in the near future.

One test will focus on identifying the best-adapted, commercially available spring Canola varieties for the Coastal Bend.

The other test will compare the productivity of Canola with flax, rapeseed and safflower varieties planted during the same time period.

Details from last season's oil seed tests are available at http://nueces-tx.tamu.edu/publications.cfm.

Then click on the "Oil Seed Demonstration" link.

Harvey Buehring is the former Agricultural Extension Agent for Nueces County. Readers may contact him at (361) 767-5223.