Tried-and-true crop shows new promise
Any farming decision is a gamble, but grain sorghum’s basis was too tasty for Hunter Byrd to ignore in 2015. With the numbers penciling out to good profit, the 27-year-old Dundee, Miss., producer took his first shot at grain sorghum with 800 acres.
As a drought-tolerant crop with relatively low input costs, grain sorghum production surged across the U.S. in 2015, and Byrd’s choice was no exception. As he approached April planting, the basis on grain sorghum was attractive.
“It was really the only commodity I saw making money,” he says. “The basis on milo was 85¢ over corn. I was looking at $4.20 on corn while milo was climbing to $5.05.”
Starting April 27, Byrd planted 600 acres of grain sorghum on classic cotton ground around Dundee. After a weather break, he finished planting 200 additional acres across the Mississippi River in Phillips County, Ark., May 6. All of his 800 grain sorghum acres were in soybeans in 2014.
Grain sorghum proved to be a good crop choice to control Palmer amaranth. Byrd sprayed atrazine right behind the planter. The atrazine was combined with liquid fertilizer at 20 gal. per acre. Midseason, Byrd flew on 100 lb. per acre of urea for a boost.
The 600 Mississippi acres yielded 105 bu. per acre; the 200 Arkansas acres produced 112 bu. per acre.
Insect pressure is a major nemesis of grain sorghum, and Byrd’s baptism came by sugarcane aphid. He flew on treatment twice during the season.
“I’d call the crop year a fairly easy one overall, except for expensive bug issues,” he notes. “That’s $7 per acre for the crop duster, even before the expensive chemical cost.”
Byrd’s Arkansas acreage is conventional till, but his Mississippi acreage is no-till. The 7 bu. yield advantage on the Arkansas ground prompted him to step back and account for the difference. “I no-tilled in Mississippi by coming in behind the previous year’s soybeans and planting right through, but I think I made a mistake,”
he says. “The seed is so small, and you need milo to come up uniform. Tilling the ground would have helped a lot on my Mississippi ground.”
With a grain sorghum notch under his farming belt, what does Byrd plan in 2016? His grain sorghum acreage will rotate into soybeans, with hopes for a yield boost. “I’ve seen other farmers put beans behind milo and get a yield boost. In my first year with a new crop, I learned insects can get expensive very fast, but milo was a good crop for me in 2015,” he says.
Grain sorghum fills a key spot in the batting order for producer Erik Wiley. Since 1979, his grandfather, father and uncle have relied on grain sorghum to bolster a strict rotation regimen at Paul Miller & Sons, Deville, La. Wiley, alongside his father, Kim, grew 2,100 acres of grain sorghum in 2015, a number that remains relatively stable year-to-year on his farm.
Wiley’s central Louisiana operation is mostly heavy clay with a mix of sandy loam. Grain sorghum’s ability to tolerate drought better than corn has elevated it to a rotation slot behind soybeans and cotton. In addition, it’s a great source for organic matter.
Despite the overall increase in sorghum acres, Wiley hasn’t seen an acreage jump in his area. Due to the menace of the sugarcane aphid, he’s actually noted a slight decrease. In 2015, Wiley was fortunate to face minimal sugarcane aphid pressure, spraying a single time during the season.
Why the drop in pressure? “We didn’t have sugarcane aphid troubles due to a combination of factors,” he notes. “Grain sorghum behind cotton deals with the remains of potash and phosphates. I don’t have a scientific explanation yet, but at least in our fields, sugarcane aphids are less likely to get in grain sorghum rotating after cotton. We don’t see the same benefit in grain sorghum following soybeans.”
Wiley also cites his experience as a factor in successfully battling sugarcane aphid in 2015. “We’re learning how to fight. We learned not to spray for sorghum midge with a pyrethroid. That’s asking for trouble and kills your beneficials, which in turn lets the sugarcane aphids blow up,” he explains.
He’s also learning which varieties are most susceptible to sugarcane aphid and hopes to have a bearing on which varieties offer the most protection within a few years.
Typically, sorghum harvest spans from Aug. 1 to Aug. 20 in central Louisiana. On clay lands, Wiley normally hits 115 bu. per acre, and he harvests close to 140 bu. per acre on sandy loam soil. All of Wiley’s sorghum acreage is dryland, although in years past, he irrigated with center pivots, but the yield increase didn’t justify the expense.
Grain sorghum is an ideal fit on Wiley’s operation but presents a straw deterioration issue after harvest. “Some growers in other states might not think so, but our No. 1 problem related to grain sorghum is getting rid of straw,” he says. “We shred straw with a flail mower and it’s easy, but it’s also time-consuming and expensive. If we don’t shred it, we’ll disk it twice and let it sit all winter.”
In the field, tried-and-true grain sorghum is yielding consistent promise.