Grain sorghum gaining in popularity with N.C. farmers

by | Dec 1, 2012

Photo of grain sorghum

About 50,000 acres of grain sorghum were planted in North Carolina this year, a large increase from 2011.

North Carolina farmers grew about 50,000 acres of grain sorghum this year, an estimated 10-fold increase over 2011. The are several reasons why the crop is becoming popular with growers: drought tolerance; flexible planting dates; unattractiveness to deer; no need for specialized equipment or costly inputs; and improved rotation and double-crop options for management of plant-parasitic nematodes and difficult weeds. On light, sandy soils where little else will grow, grain sorghum endures, provides good yields, and commands a reliable, local market.

Farmers in North Carolina’s Sandhills region are particularly grateful for the opportunity to grow grain sorghum. They’ve tried growing corn but found it too risky. Corn needs timely moisture for successful pollination and grain production. The chances of getting enough rain at the right time are highly unpredictable.

“With corn, it’s always going to be feast or famine,” said Don Nicholson, NCDA&CS regional agronomist. “On light, sandy land, corn production isn’t consistent and reliable. Unfortunately, growers still have to pay rent on fields whether they make a crop or not.”

‘The deer didn’t touch it’

An estimated 3,500 acres of grain sorghum were planted in Harnett County this year. Grower Ricky Sears was responsible for 200 of those acres. He was first attracted to the crop by the claim that it could withstand deer pressure.

“The first year I planted grain sorghum, it was only on 20 acres where the deer were killing me,” said Sears. “The deer didn’t touch it. I was actually able to harvest a crop off fields where I hadn’t been able to harvest anything for several years.

“The next year, I picked up a field that was really sandy,” he said. “Grain sorghum did great there, too. It puts a lot of organic matter back into the soil and makes it easier to control pigweed. Tobacco works real well following sorghum.”

Sears is approaching sorghum production from many angles. He planted some in late May as a full-season crop. He planted some in late June as a double crop behind wheat. He used a herbicide to dry down the crop so he could harvest it in October. He rotary-mowed the stubble to the ground so it would decompose more quickly and not interfere with the setting of next year’s tobacco crop.

Sears’ next attempt will be to follow sorghum with wheat. He desiccated the crop in October to prepare for timely harvest. He tilled in the stubble and paid special attention to soil pH and nutrient levels. He will continue to monitor the wheat and keep tabs on its progress.

Some advisers express caution about planting small grain immediately after sorghum. The concern is that crop residue may interfere with germination, wheat nutrition and yield. At present, this concern is largely speculative, but NCDA&CS agronomists are working with several growers who have chosen this cropping system so they can monitor progress and try to address any problems that arise.

Sorghum preferable to corn on light land

Frank Hines, of Wayne County, is well pleased with his 60 acres of grain sorghum. “This was my first year,” Hines said. “There’s a place for sorghum here, I think. It’s better than corn on light land because there are fewer expenses. I especially liked double-cropping sorghum after wheat. I didn’t have to disk. I planted no-till right into the wheat stubble.”

Hines was serious enough about his new crop to thoroughly investigate best production practices. He gave NCDA&CS agronomists permission to carry out a nitrogen-rate study on his farm. In September, he hosted a local educational field tour. He collaborated with Wayne County Cooperative Extension agent John Sanderson to evaluate desiccation methods and their effect on harvesting.

“I’m learning a lot,” Hines said. “I’m sure the more I grow it, the better I’ll get at it.”

Sorghum is not without its challenges, and Hines readily concedes that fact. Even though the rotation is good for pigweed management, sorghum has weed problems of its own. In 2012, Texas panicum was the primary weed problem Hines had to contend with.

“We need something to control grass,” Hines said. “Even with bad grass though, sorghum can still average 65 bushels per acre. There’s some indication that varieties make a big difference. I don’t know that we have the best varieties right now. We use whatever is available.”

Harnett grower sees future for sorghum

In Harnett County, growers Ronnie Hall and Laurel “Stick” Cameron each have two years of experience with the crop. They both started out with 50 to 60 acres and opted for more the next year. These last two growing seasons represent the typical variability in the Sandhills region. In 2011, the weather was hot and dry. Corn withered and sorghum waited it out. In 2012, weather was near perfect. Corn probably would have done well, but sorghum did well, too.

“There’s no comparison between grain sorghum last year and this year,” Hall said. “Partly because the weather this year was so much better and partly because growers have more experience with the crop now. Next year, I’m probably going to drop back on soybeans and corn and go with even more grain sorghum. I’m pleased with yield, pigweed control and deer control. I think the crop has a good future in this area.”

Cameron concurs and is planning his own strategy. He grows soybean seed for Monsanto and has battled pigweed problems and infestations of plant-parasitic nematodes. The company approves of the way he is incorporating grain sorghum into his overall rotation.

“Sorghum itself is ideal because it is so drought-tolerant . . . it ‘waits’ on the rain,” he said. “I’d like to plant half my land in milo (grain sorghum) and half in soybeans and then rotate each year. The rotation provides good nematode control. Soybeans seem to yield better after grain sorghum.”

When the goal is to manage nematodes in soybeans, sorghum is a good choice for a number of reasons. As expected, host-specific nematodes such as soybean cyst cannot survive on sorghum. More surprisingly, southern root-knot nematodes, which are widespread and have a very broad host range, do not thrive on sorghum either. When sorghum is grown, several common nematode species are suppressed.

A collaborative effort

The recent turn to grain sorghum in North Carolina has been the result of a perfect storm of circumstances. Agronomists, extension agents, U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel and commercial livestock producers brought their expertise to bear on a complex, multi-faceted problem involving drought, poor crop performance, pervasive herbicide-resistant weeds, loss of effective nematicides, and high transportation costs for imported animal-feed grain. Through collaborative brainstorming, the idea of managing these problems by growing grain sorghum was born.

Support has come from both the private sector and government. Murphy-Brown solicited growers to produce grain sorghum in eastern counties. The company’s promotion was directly responsible for about 20,000 acres being planted in the eastern part of the state this year.

The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service made money from its Environmental Quality Incentives Program available to roughly 200 sorghum producers. The goal of this program was to encourage rotation of herbicide-resistant cotton and soybeans with sorghum as a way to manage pigweed and nematodes — a methodology that is compatible with no-till production practices. The NRCS incentive helped foster the planting of about 16,000 acres statewide this year.

“Grain sorghum has more than proven its worth, especially in eastern N.C. counties,” said Kent Messick, field services chief with the NCDA&CS Agronomic Services Division. “It is reliable and, in rotation, enhances production of crops like peanuts, soybeans and tobacco.”

For advice on nutrient management of sorghum and how to incorporate it effectively into your cropping system, consult a NCDA&CS regional agronomist. Contact information is available here.