Delivering stories of the lessons they’ve learned in through years of production, eight farmers offered insights during farmer panel discussions at the 2017 Sorghum U programs in Wichita and Hays, Kansas.
Sorghum’s fit in the rotation
Mike Andra, a farmer from Sumner County, Kansas, who also farms in northern Oklahoma, told the story of his experiences that began more than 30 years ago.
“When I first started growing sorghum, our whole operation was nothing but wheat,” Andra said. “My dad was a custom harvester, and we cut multiple crops. I saw what sorghum could do.”
Andra’s yield goal is 80-bushel sorghum. “In our rainfall area, we can grow pretty good sorghum. It’s been a tremendous crop for us, and it’s helped us grow better wheat.”
For growers who also have cattle, grazing sorghum stalks adds even more value.
“Sorghum is a linchpin in our cattle operation,” said Dan Atkisson, who farms near Stockton, Kansas. “From milo stalks to baled forage sorghum, we also use grain sorghum to get them through the winter. Sorghum really is the money-making crop in our rotation.”
Longtime no-tiller Craig Poore, from Alton, Kansas, farmer, grows sorghum in rotation with wheat, corn and soybeans.
“I try to shoot for 100-bushel yields and above with a good nutrient program,” said Poore, who sits on the United Sorghum Checkoff Board. “I have a cattle herd, too, and sorghum provides my feed for my cows.”
2016 was the first year to grow sorghum for Brian Ballou, a Furnas County, Nebraska, farmer. Beneficial summer rains resulted in 130- to 150-bushel per acre grain sorghum yields.
“We planted milo back into corn last year and intend to do it again this year. We plan to eliminate wheat from our rotation, until the price recovers,” he said.
Solomon, Kansas, farmer Marc Pettijohn maintains crop rotation flexibility every year, with a dryland soybean, wheat, sorghum, corn, sunflower and cover crop rotation. Although he prefers full season sorghum hybrids to try to obtain maximum yield, “We also do quite a bit of double crop milo, which has been real successful,” he added.
Kent Martin, who farms near Carmen, Oklahoma, faces high heat during summer months, plus occasional drought. Grain sorghum helps spread the risk in his crop rotation, which also includes wheat and canola.
“We have some soils with some relatively low soil capacities. They dry out real easy and so I use the grain sorghum as kind of a risk-minimizing crop in my rotation,” Martin said. “Early planting opportunities allows me to double crop wheat in behind the grain sorghum.”
Knowing when and how much to plant can make or break a sorghum crop.
Andra likes to begin planting in mid-April, dropping “super thick” populations of 80,000 to 100,000 seeds per acre.
“Some people try to plant three or four different maturity lengths, starting with the longest first so everything heads and flowers the same week,” he said. “I like a variety of different maturities, so we can plant in that early window all the way to July 4.”
Atkisson said he tries to push his sorghum planting closer to May, using medium to medium early varieties planted to 30-inch rows to control populations, normally around 42,500 seeds per acre. “With shorter season hybrids, we’ll push it up to about 50,000 seeds,” Atkisson said.
Poore said he will run about 43,000 seeds on 30-inch rows, but has in the past drilled in his sorghum on 15-inch rows. Yield difference between the two row widths is minimal, but he prefers 30-inch rows.
Fertility and weed management
The proliferation of herbicide tolerant weeds really hits home in grain sorghum, where there are post-emerge chemical options.
Pettijohn said he relies mostly on cultural practices when it comes to controlling weeds.
“We rotate fields between winter crops and summer crops. So we try to break that weed cycle. That’s the first thing we do,” he said. “The second thing is to rotate chemicals.”
Atrazine is particularly effective, he said.
Prior to grain sorghum, Pettijohn uses a vertical tillage machine to break down crop residue and provide an ideal field for fertilizer and soil-activated herbicides. He strip-tills sorghum, by planting and applying fertilizer into the strips. That may change in 2017.
“If we’re going to save some money this year, we’ll be skipping the strip till because we’ve already vertically tilled a lot of the soil,” he said. “So I’ll save that small cost, fertilize like normal, and hope for higher prices.”
Martin said taking soil tests and using previous crop removal rates help him determine how much fertilizer he applies. “We try to keep phosphorus levels close to where they need to be, although some years that’s more realistic than others,” Martin said.
Sugarcane aphid woes
If there was one thing that netted high yields for Andra, it was, unfortunately, a large infestation of sugarcane aphids.
“Our early sorghum was really good with really good test weights. We didn’t have to spray,” Andra said. “As the season wore on, even if you’d spray once or twice, and your sorghum looked good, when you went out in the fields and squeezed those heads, it just wasn’t there. The sorghum that wasn’t treated didn’t pay to cut. You didn’t even get the seed back, which is amazing.
“They can completely wipe out a field in three or four days, it was that bad,” he added.
Andra has a little different plan for aphid management, especially since he has already bought his seed.
“I’m going to plant quite a few acres of early sorghum early and up the population and try to beat that window when they all come blowing in,” he said. “I’ll try to have that plant flowered and filling before the fourth of July, and maybe not have to address them at all with that portion of the crop.”
Marty Williams, who farms in central Oklahoma, said sugarcane aphids have put a kink in his plans. “For 15 years, sorghum has carried my farm and been the most profitable thing that I’ve done,” Williams said. “Then in 2014, the sugarcane aphid showed up and took me out of the ballgame for sorghum production. They hit us really hard, really fast.”
Insecticide knocked out beneficial ladybugs, he said. “All of a sudden I had an explosion because a majority of the beneficial insects had been killed by that application.”