Going into this year, Brad and Jody Hearn were considering planting more grain sorghum. Then, the brothers kept watching the price inch up and, early this spring, decided it was time to act.
“When it hit $5.02, we forward contracted it and planted 1,250 acres,” says Brad. “It doesn’t cost nearly as much to grow compared to rice or even corn. When we started running the numbers, it was just more profitable. There’s much less tillage involved. When we prep fields after a rice crop, we normally make around seven trips across the field.”
Jody nods in agreement. “At least seven trips, sometimes up to 10. We’d like to go with more minimum till with the sorghum, maybe come behind it with soybeans.”
The Hearn’s decision wasn’t an uncommon one in the Delta. Grain sorghum, says Pioneer’s William Johnson, “has come in heavy this year. Seed sales have about doubled from last year. Actually, sales have doubled every year for the last three.
“We’ve been fighting (resistant) Palmer pigweeds with Liberty all over the Delta. But it seems especially bad south of West Memphis down to Helena. Liberty soybeans weren’t quite adapted to the area, according to some of the local retail outlets.”
Besides price, obviously, those are other reasons why sorghum has become so popular. “With the use of atrazine and once sorghum canopies, you just don’t see weeds coming through,” says Johnson.
“A lot of producers have been able to lock in sorghum prices at $4.50 to $5 per bushel. Last year, in northeast Arkansas, in our (Product Advancement Trials) plots, like this one, we had some yields pushing nearly 200 bushels. At $5, that means $1,000 gross per acre.”
When farmers began running budgets at the start of this year, Johnson and colleagues were frequently queried on the crop. “You know, ‘sorghum looks like the best deal going this year.’”
That’s exactly what happened with the Hearns. “We planted a bit of sorghum last year — about 100 acres dryland — mostly in places where we had bad deer pressure on beans,” says Brad. “The deer were tearing through our beans.”
The Hearns farm near the White River and when it rises, “the deer are pushed towards our fields,” says Jody. “They decimate soybeans, and they’ve begun to eat corn shoots, as well. They’ll grab the top of the corn plant and yank the shoot out. We haven’t noticed them eating milo much.”
The brothers are third generation farmers. “Our grandfather, who’s 88 years old, started farming back in the 1950s, and then Dad hooked up with him,” says Jody. “My grandfather has stepped back from it, but Dad still farms. It’s kind of a big family operation. He has his land and we have ours, but we do it all together and it works well.”
“Jody and I started farming in 1997,” adds Brad. “We have to travel some since we have a farm south of Tichenor and another north of Gillette. This land is just south of DeWitt. So, we’re spread out about 15 miles.”
Irrigation costs were also a consideration.
“Watering sorghum will be much less than watering rice or corn,” says Brad. “And on some of the farmland we work, water is getting a little short. Growing sorghum means we’ll have extra water to put on the other crops.”
Pigweeds are also an issue the Hearns hope sorghum will help mitigate. “At first, they inched their way towards us,” says Brad. “But over the last few years, they’ve taken over. We put out Dual and atrazine and the sorghum fields look clean.”
Johnson points to some nutsedge nearby. “In our soybean rotation, nutsedge is tremendously difficult to control. Dual has some activity. But in sorghum, you can come in with Halomax or Permit and really start knocking the nutsedge back. It gives a different mode of action, and you’re controlling weeds that, typically, you aren’t controlling as well in other crops.”
“The first year we started paying attention to resistant pigweeds, the news was they were bad north of the White River and even south of the Arkansas River,” says Brad. “People were really battling them. Here on the (Grand Prairie) we weren’t seeing much. Then, one year, a few showed up in ditches. The following year, they were everywhere — I guess that seed moves fast.
“For us, we found them hard to control in soybeans. We just weren’t proactive enough the first year in dealing with them. We actually had chopping crews in a couple of fields.”
However, with corn and milo, “we’ve been able to control pigweeds much better. The chemicals we use really do the job.”
“We started running some residuals in our soybeans early — worked in some Treflan,” says Jody. “Last year, we even sprayed some Fierce over the top when the planter left the field. When we got rain and incorporated that, it worked really well. We’ve learned to start controlling them early and keep them knocked back.”
The Hearns have a final stand of about 85,000 plants per acre.
“With corn, you’re looking at about 30,000 to 35,000 plants per acre,” says Johnson. “A lot of people don’t realize that a sorghum crop provides more biomass than a corn crop. Sorghum actually puts more biomass back into your soil environment.”
Soils in the South are often deficient of organic matter, Johnson says. “A lot of people have gotten into a rotation with crops that produce a lot of biomass. That’s led to a really nice bump in our soybean yields. Sorghum and corn take up a tremendous amount of potassium that is later released back into the soil. Soybeans are a potassium-loving crop. Corn grain removed more phosphorus and not as much potassium. That’s why these crops mesh well in a soybean rotation.”
What about the weather so far this season. Did the Hearns get planted on time?
“Weather has been a tremendous obstacle so far this year,” says Brad. “It seems we’ll have two days of planting and then a week of rain. Everyone is really pushing to get as much done as they can when it dries down enough.
“We were fortunate to get a four- or five-day window to plant and we ran two planters. We have a 16-row and 10-row, and with both running we were about to get all the milo planted.”
The 122-acre field the men were standing in was planted May 1.
“We were finished around May 3,” says Jody. “Just about all our milo will be irrigated. Obviously, we haven’t had to put any water out yet.”
The Hearns farm some 6,000 acres of land. “About 1,250 of that is in milo, about 1,200 in corn, 750 is in rice and the remainder is in soybeans,” says Brad. “We used to have a third of our operation in rice. In the past, rice has been good to us. But inputs are so high and the rice price is very low. In the end, it just doesn’t pencil out.”
Any profit “is thin,” says Jody. “Nowadays, you’d best be checking that bottom line very closely. Equipment costs are high and inputs are so expensive. We just hope and pray for a good yield. Right now, milo is showing the best return on the investment.”