Investing in grain sorghum
While it's not considered the golden child of Kansas crops like its cousins corn and wheat, grain sorghum remains a sure bet to produce a crop in the High Plains. Farmers in this hot, dry area from South Dakota to Texas grow grain sorghum like Corn Belt farmers produce corn.
Often called milo, this small, BB-sized bronze-colored grain has been called the "water-sipping crop." It is especially suited for growing in semi-arid climates and uses approximately one third less water than its water-thirsty cousins.
Grain sorghum generally out yields other grains under conditions of limited moisture. Until the early "50s and the beginning of irrigation in the Ogallala aquifer, milo was second only to wheat production in Kansas and many Central and Southern Plains states.
For decades this hardy crop took root and flourished on millions of acres in the High Plains. During peak production in 1966-67, 13,902,000 acres of grain sorghum were planted in the central United States. Today, Kansas producers still grow more than 40 percent of the nation's grain sorghum every year. Kansas is the nation's leading producer of grain sorghum with 214 million bushels grown on 2.65 million acres
Kansas growers like Osage County farmer Jeff Casten value grain sorghum because it is well suited to perform in many types of soils and weather. Casten operates a diversified farm growing wheat, milo, corn and soybeans in the rich bottomland of the Marais des Cygnes River Valley. He's been elected to the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission for several years and currently serves as chairman. He's also past president of the National Sorghum Producers and serves as secretary of the newly formed United Sorghum Check-off Program
Kansas is a diverse state with soils ranging from sandy to clay to loam, and summertime weather patterns ranging from hot and humid in the east to hot and dry in the west. With these varying weather and soil conditions throughout Kansas, grain sorghum is a crop that Kansas farmers can depend on.
"I grow milo as an insurance policy," Casten says. "In Kansas, dryland corn has to have everything just right to grow a good crop. Beans are the same way and a dry year with low yield on either crop can really kill you. But with grain sorghum, it'll weather the dry conditions and punch out a pretty good yield."
And while this water-sipping crop has battled high temperatures and dry-weather conditions to a stand still, there's another adversary that's threatening. Dwindling sorghum acres and production have led to decreased private investment in sorghum. These declines have brought about a "technology gap" between sorghum and other crops such as corn, cotton and soybeans.
Casten believes this technology gap can be overcome by producers investing in their own research through a national check off.
"Funding hasn't been forthcoming to put into research for grain sorghum," the Osage County farmer says. "We haven't had significant research and development for this crop for 20 years."
The investment of check-off funds can address a lack of yield improvement, bolster sorghum market development and promotion and stimulate lagging ethanol research and promotion.
"Our objective with the National Sorghum Check-off funding is to increase crop yields, technology improvement, market enhancement and increase awareness of sorghum as both a food grain and a feedstock for ethanol production."
Check-off rate for grain sorghum is 0.6-percent of the harvested crop value. It is collected at the first point of sale. The check-off value for forage sorghums is 0.35-percent per ton above 5,000 tons.
"I feel really good about our grain sorghum check-off program," Casten says. "It's inspiring to see producers take it upon themselves to invest in their own industry and their future."
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.