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The Basics of Palm Oil

:: Tuesday, December 4, 2018 :: Posted By Weng Kee Ch'ng

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil extracted from the mesocarp (reddish pulp) of the oil palm fruit. The oil primarily comes from the African oil palm and to a lesser extent from American oil palm and maripa palm (Attalea maripa).

Scientific name Elaeis guineensis Elaeis oleifera
Common English name African Oil Palm American Oil Palm
Common Malay name Kelapa Sawit Kelapa Bali Kelapa Sawit
Common Chinese name 油棕 油棕
Origin West Africa South and Central America

Climate and soil

Oil palm is grown commercially in more than 20 countries. These countries are located in the humid tropics within 10˚ north or south of the equator. Suitable climate is important for successful cultivation. The main climatic factors affecting palm growth and oil production are:

  1. Sun: The plant must have more than five hours of sunshine a day, and seven hours of sunlight a day is preferable.
  2. Rainfall: Most palms need 2,000-2,500 mm of evenly distributed rain per year. Dry months should have at least 100 mm of rainfall.
  3. Temperature: Palm thrives in areas with an annual average temperature of 24-28˚C (75-82˚F) for high production. The average maximum temperature should be 29-30˚C (84-86˚F) and the average minimum temp about 22-24˚C (71-75˚F).

Oil palm can grow in a wide range of soil types. However, the best soil must have:

  • Good drainage and water holding capacity
  • pH between 4 and 8
  • No limitation to root development

The soil must also have high fertility—naturally or artificially created. Irrigation is generally not practiced, but can increase fresh fruit bunches (FFB) yield to 40 tonnes per hectare per year in dry areas.

Uses of oil palm

In the past, oil palm was used in the following ways:

  • Soap
  • Sheep combing
  • Stearic wax (as an additive in candles)
  • Lubricant for locomotives and wagons

Currently, we use oil palm in:

  • Cooking oil
  • Oleo and margarine
  • Shortening
  • Food additives
  • As an ingredient in cosmetics and household goods
  • Biodiesel

How is oil palm cultivated?

First, a site is chosen and prepared. At the beginning of the rainy season, a cover crop is planted at about 4-6 kg of seed per hectare.

In the oil palm nursery, a selection of good seed is kept in a very hot room. This causes the seeds to germinate sooner, usually after 90-100 days. Once germinated, seeds are planted in small plastic containers where they for the next four to five months.

Once leaves with two points begin to come up, the seedling is transplanted into the nursery. The seedling stays there for about 1 year.

After a 16-18 month period, they are ready to be planted in the palm grove. In the field, pegging out the planting pattern is a must before planting oil palm. All planting holes are incorporated with 0.5 kg of CIRP before oil palm is planted.

Oil palm plants mature about 36 months after field planting. A cluster is ripe for harvesting when the fruit begins to turn red, and when more than five fruits drop to the ground. If farmers wait too long to harvest the fruit, it will become over ripe. The fruits will yield less oil and will be of a poorer quality.

Fertilizer methods

Proper fertilization plans depend on soil type, plant age, deficiencies occurrence, and rainfall. Three of the most common ways of applying fertilizers are:

  1. Manual broadcast
  2. Mechanical spreader
  3. Sub-soil application

Oil palm requires different fertilization at different points in its growth:

  • Immature stage (first 35 months in the field): Depending on soil deficiencies, the plant requires more nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) for root and palm development
  • Mature stage (36 months to 18 years): Requires high N, potassium (K), and magnesium (Mg) for bunch production and to improve palm development
  • Older stage (After 18 years in the field): Requires N and K for palm development and bunch production

U.S. Borax recommends the following fertilizers for different applications:

  • Soil application:
    • Fertibor®: For direct application or compound fertilizer production
    • Granubor®: For direct application or fertilizer bulk blending
  • Foliar application:
    • Solubor®: For amending boron via foliar application or water soluble fertilizer production
    • Solubor Flow: For amending boron via foliar application
  • Drip irrigation:
    • Optibor®: For water soluble fertilizer production

 

Resources

U.S. Borax, part of Rio Tinto, is a global leader in the supply and science of borates—naturally-occurring minerals containing boron and other elements. We are 1,000 people serving 500 customers with more than 1,700 delivery locations globally. We supply 30% of the world’s need for refined borates from our world-class mine in Boron, California, about 100 miles east of Los Angeles.  Learn more about Rio Tinto

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