Sorghum Revival

July 26, 2013 08:21 PM
Sorghum Revival

Fine-tune management practices to achieve high yields

Sorghum has been part of Chris Curtis’ crop portfolio for the past several years. In 2012, sorghum was a standout on his Osborn, Mo., farm.

"I had corn that we planted on May 15 last year that I cut for silage because it was only 15 bu. or 20 bu.," he says. "The milo I planted the next day made over 70 bu. per acre."

While it shares many characteristics with corn, sorghum’s key advantage is that it thrives in hot, dry weather.

As Curtis puts it, "I can sleep when August rolls around because if it doesn’t rain, it doesn’t matter."

Texas and Kansas lead the U.S. in sorghum production, but with this past year’s severe drought, the crop has attracted more acres in Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska. As the Sorghum Belt revives and expands, incorporate the following management tips to achieve high yields.

Pick the right hybrid. A key appeal of planting sorghum is that it is less expen­sive to grow. Farmers can save $50 to $100 per acre, mostly due to seed cost savings, says Scott Staggenborg, director of technical services at Chromatin Inc., a company that develops hybrid sorghum seed.

To fully capture these savings, farmers should work with seed dealers to pick the right hybrid for their environment, Staggenborg suggests.

Nail seeding rate. Sorghum population is tricky, says Curtis, who has placed in the National Sorghum Producer’s Yield and Management Contests. "We keep thinning it back every year and getting good results," he adds.

For producers in high-yield environments (80 bu. per acre or more), Staggenborg suggests planting 70,000 seeds per acre. In lower-yielding environments, he recommends planting 35,000 seeds per acre.

"When it comes to seeding rates, sorghum is kind of like an unruly teenager," Staggenborg says. "The more you try to control it, the less it listens."

Sorghum plants have a lot of flexibility to produce extra heads or larger heads in good conditions, he explains.

Treat as a primary crop. "Yield contest winners stand out because of their management practices," says Justin Weinheimer, crop improvement program director at United Sorghum Checkoff Program. He advises farmers to set a yield goal, then apply 1 lb. of nitrogen for every intended bushel.

Sorghum is not a miracle crop, Staggenborg adds. "You get what you fertilize for, so don’t think you can cut your nitrogen in half and get the same yield. You wouldn’t do that for corn or wheat, so don’t do it for sorghum."

The Dynamics Driving Success

Sorghum acres should surpass 6 million in 2013, according to USDA’s June Acreage report. That’s a 20% increase from 2012. Justin Weinheimer with the United Sorghum Checkoff Program says three primary factors are driving the increase in sorghum acres.

Drought hangover. The severe drought in 2012 highlighted sorghum’s ability to withstand challenging weather conditions. Weinheimer says in areas where dry conditions have persisted for several years, farmers are leaning on sorghum’s drought tolerance.

Increased demand. Markets continue to evolve and grow for sorghum. The biofuels industry consumes about 40% of the sorghum grown in the U.S. It is also a major component of swine and poultry feed. Recently, sorghum has become a popular gluten-free food choice.

High grain prices. Like corn and soybeans, Weinheimer says, sorghum has been a profitable crop to plant, especially when you consider its lower input costs. 

You can e-mail Sara Schafer at

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