By Dale Stoltzfus and David Hunsberger, Kings AgriSeeds Inc.
Are you tired of the traditional and sometimes limited income stream potential of your corn, soybeans, and wheat grain rotation? Are you motivated to improve your probability of a successful whole farm crop yield even in a dry year? Grain Sorghum may be the alternative crop you need to boost productivity on some of your acres.
Grain sorghum is a very popular dry land crop in the Western and Midwest areas of the United States. Here in the East it fits well on droughty, shaley soils and in areas with high whitetail deer pressure. Compared to corn, sorghum handles heat and drought stress very differently. Instead of trying to grow though the drought, it will just stop trying to grow until it rains again. Corn on the other hand will just keep on trying to mature and grow through the drought and if moisture is limited both plant health and yield will be compromised. Grain sorghum, rather, is designed to close-up shop and put a sign on the door “GONE FISHING” during a dry spell. It does not open up shop again until the weather conditions permit. This “vacation” can make the harvest of grain sorghum later in the season; therefore it is not recommended to plant the absolute latest maturing variety for your area. Take note that sorghums differ from corn in that maturity ratings are measured in days to mid bloom, not in days to black layer as in corn.
Why grow grain sorghum? Sometimes we get stuck in a pattern of popular and familiar crops and do not consider other crops that may offer higher profit margins. Dale Stoltzfus, a King’s AgriSeeds dealer and producer from Schuylkill Haven PA, shares how several years ago he rented some land with very high deer population as well as some acres that he declares the “Lord did not create for the growing of corn!” Dale considered his options and although he was somewhat unfamiliar with the crop, he decided to try grain sorghum on a few acres. Five years later Dale shares some of the lessons he learned below:
The very first consideration with an alternative crop such as grain sorghum needs to be a viable market for the product; if you can grow it but cannot sell it, it is a useless exercise. We are fortunate in the Mid Atlantic to have a good demand for grain sorghum due to several bird food and dog food manufacturers. In fact, the demand is currently greater than the eastern markets can supply. However, a drawback to consider is limited drying and storage space as current buyers of grain sorghum typically do not provide a drying service. In Dale’s experience deer mostly leave the sorghum alone until the moisture drops to 18%after which they really seem to go after it. This moisture level is a good place for combining, so Dale typically will be harvesting it at that point.. If the seeds are allowed to dry further in the field they tend to shell out during harvest similar to the way soybeans behave at the combine header. An air reel system is very helpful to reduce header loss. When drying be aware that the grain dust is extremely flammable so take care to prevent combustion. Clean grain is very important.
If you are beginning to debate whether or not to attempt to raise this unique crop, a valid next question is “What does it cost to grow?” Compared to corn, the seed cost is much lower at $30.00 or less per acre. Yield target is usually around 100 bushels to acre. Fertility for grain sorghum is similar to that of corn so given this yield expectation the fertility requirement would be similar to that needed for 100-120 bushels of corn. Dale’s highest yield to date is 123 bushels/ acre. As he is using grain sorghum on his poorest soils, he expects that better soils would yield more. However, his experience is that sorghum has a yield drag of approximately 40 bushels lower per acre compared to corn. Dale recommends that if you can consistently average 160 bushels/A or better with corn on your tougher fields, corn will probably pay better. However, on acres that cannot yield above 140 bushels/A year after year, grain sorghum may be a good fit as it will thrive and your overall net profitability will be higher.
Along with fertility, chemical costs are also similar to corn. During the first two season, Dale found that Lumax (S-Metolachlor, Atrazine, Mesotrione) worked well as a one pass. Since then he has needed to go over with a second pass to control escaped weeds. Broad leaf weeds are easy to control with a Banvel (dicamba) type of product, but grasses have proved to be more difficult to control. He has had success with some lower cost grass control if he can apply before the 3 inch height. However if the grass gets above 3 inches, only Paramount (quinclorac) gave satisfactory control and it costs over $30.00/acre, so here the word to the wise is to scout your crop early and often in the first stage of emergence! Grain sorghum is currently only available as non GMO seeds and due to a high demand for non GMO grain exports, this will likely not change in the near future. There is some excitement over a natural selection breeding effort that shows natural resistance to a popular grass herbicide. Keep your eyes open for new varieties hitting the commercial market soon.
Sorghum is a warm season C-4 grass and needs warm soils to germinate and prosper. When danger of frost is past and the soil tempature is 65 degrees and warming, it is safe to plant. Harvest can be expected to be in late October or early November, depending on your location and the weather. Double cropping has not worked for Dale in the Schuylkill Haven area, but if you are farther south it may be an option.
Should you plant grain sorghum? Evaluate the crops currently under cultivation on your high deer pressure areas and on droughty soils and calculate the potential return grain sorghum could offer. Dale is currently set up to dry and store sorghum and has several strong relationships with brokers that can help producers find the best markets. Farming on marginal soils with tight margins is challenging under our current commodity price structure. Hopefully this information can be used to determine if you can be more profitable with an alternative crop. If you want to ask Dale specific questions he can be reached at (717)222-4116. We are looking forward to a new growing season and wish you success in your 2019 cropping endeavors!