Down a gravel road a short drive from Ethel, Ark., you’ll find a beautiful grain sorghum field hemmed in by thick oaks on all sides. On a cool afternoon in early June, Lance Padgett surveys his crop.
“We’re hoping to get a good yield out of this sorghum even though I’ve never grown it before,” says Padgett, standing next to his daughter, Kassie. “This field is a prime example of why sorghum is a good fit. Put soybeans here and the deer just have a feast. So far, they haven’t bothered the milo.
“They don’t bother corn much either. They have to be really hungry to eat it. If the river is backed up and that’s all there is, they’ll graze on corn some.”
The deer are brazen. “I have a soybean field that is right between houses and the shop. The deer are actually coming right between the houses and the shop and eating those beans. I thought that would be the one field that wouldn’t be touched.
“It isn’t just us having the problem. Everyone in the area has gone to sorghum — at least somewhat — from soybeans because of deer.”
Padgett decided to go with grain sorghum in January. “I was a diehard and was planning to go all corn and not worry with the sorghum. Corn prices backed us off that.
“Price, of course, played a big role. It’s just a lot easier to pencil in a profit on the good basis levels versus corn and soybeans.”
Padgett farms about 3,500 acres with his father. “We have close to 600 of milo, about 850 acres of corn, 500 acres of rice, with the rest in soybeans. Our land is scattered around the Ethel area. You’re almost at the end of the road!” he says, laughing.”
This sorghum field, in soybeans last year, was planted around May 1. “We burned it down with Roundup the first of February. We went in with a field cultivator with a bedder right behind and planted on new beds. We have, roughly, 60 units of nitrogen under it at planting. All this is new to me, but I’m not going to short inputs.
“So far, this season has been wet. We’re lucky, though, because it hasn’t been so wet that there’s damage everywhere. It’s definitely been a struggle getting everything planted, but we’ve finally gotten finished. It was fortunate we missed some rains that others didn’t.”
Like everyone else, Padgett says some pigweeds are showing up on his acreage. “We’ve tried to have a good weed management program, and it’s helped. We haven’t escaped the problems, but we haven’t been overwhelmed, either.”
Padgett kicks at a weed in the field’s front row. “Everyone seems to have trouble with pigweeds — and we do have some. But that weed right there — smell melon — is what I have to deal with. I think that’s the primary reason we don’t have a terrible pigweed problem. Smell melon caused us to start a preplant program well before pigweeds became such an issue.
“They’ll run like a morningglory. We’ve had them so bad in soybeans before that we’ve had to stop the combine and take the screens off and clean them off.”
Right now, Padgett wants to go ahead and roll out the polypipe. “But it has to dry up enough to hold a tractor. If we put it out now we’ll cut the rows.”
Scanning some input sheet data for the farm, Pioneer’s William Johnson approves of Padgett’s fertility program. “You have 125 units of nitrogen out currently and are looking at coming back with 125 more pounds of urea to top out at nearly 180 pounds of nitrogen. That’ll be when the ground gets good and dry. That’s because when the soil gets a good crust on it, you’ll be looking at irrigation.
“When the boot starts swelling, a lot of people put out fungicide. When the head is out and flowering, check for midge. If there’s no midge, a lot of farmers put out Prevathon. If there is midge, throw in a little pyrethroid to take them out. Your crop is early enough, though, that midge likely won’t be an issue.”
What else should first-time milo farmers know?
“When harvest approaches, many farmers use Roundup as a desiccant,” says Johnson. “Whenever the bottom kernels get in the low 20 percent range, soft dough getting to hard dough, they’ll apply a quart of Roundup. That makes the plant begin to die about a week before harvest. It really helps with management of residue.
“If you don’t kill the plant, it’ll stay green and keep growing and sucker out. That can lead to multiple diskings. But Roundup prevents the need for all that.”
Padgett worries that taking that approach may cause a standability problem if he’s not able to harvest on time. His concern is legitimate.
“Sometimes rains will catch you,” says Johnson. “But when you’re ready to harvest in a week — typically, in late August and early September — go with the Roundup as a harvest aid.
“Now, some people plant grain sorghum through mid-June. When you do that it means you’ll often be harvesting in late September and the sorghum will dry down much slower. That’s a management challenge for June-planted sorghum. The sorghum yields are usually 70 to 80 percent what you’ll get from a May 1 planting. But when you’ve got $5 a bushel sorghum booked, 100 bushel yield is pretty good and should be profitable.”
“I’d have had a lot more sorghum planted this year if I were more confident in managing it,” says Padgett. “Hopefully, that confidence will come for next year.”
With corn and grain sorghum, “you’ve got to stay ahead of the curve, have your weed control and fertility set up,” says Johnson. “If those are taken care of the first three weeks of those crops, it’s much easier.”
Johnson points some interesting data out of the University of Arkansas experiment stations in Rohwer and Keiser. “Some years their dryland sorghum outyields the irrigated. I think the reason is that once the head is out, we can overwater. If I were irrigating and had soils that hold water pretty well, I’d really consider backing down on irrigation compared to other crops. In Sharkey clays, some farmers pull levees and flood irrigate at full boot and are done.”
Otis Howe, also with Pioneer, says in the past when sorghum began flowering, “we used to automatically spray for midge, which can be a problem. Doing that, though, can aggravate the sugarcane aphids because you’re taking out the beneficials. We don’t need to spray prophylactically anymore. Several of the fields that had very bad sugarcane aphid problems last year had been sprayed for midge.”
The field’s plant population is about 85,000, final stand. “We planted 90,000,” says Padgett.
Before insect seed treatments, grain sorghum seemed to be a weak emerging plant, says Johnson. “Any little stress and it seemed we’d lose population and we’d plant 20 percent more seed than we needed.
“Well, now, with the seed treatments we don’t have to do that anymore. About 10 percent stand loss is as much as we see.”
Padgett hopes for better than a 125-bushel yield and is willing to put out whatever inputs are needed.
“Our usual yield is 90 to 110 bushels dryland,” says Johnson. “On well-managed, irrigated land, 120 to 150 bushels is common. If there are cool nights, you can hit the low- to mid-160s. The last couple of years, we’ve had guys make 180-bushel grain sorghum.”