Grain sorghum gets nod on farmer's toughest fields

One crop seems to handle adversity better than any other for Newport, Ark., farmer Malcolm Haigwood — grain sorghum.

Haigwood, who farms rice, soybeans, wheat, cotton, corn, grain sorghum and peas with his brothers, Dennis and Stan, on D&M Farms, says the extremes of weather don't impact grain sorghum as much as other crops, meaning it usually gets the nod on the farm's toughest fields.

“Corn will do real well on flat, irrigated ground, but not all our ground is like that, and that's where we put grain sorghum. It's a water-sipping plant compared to corn, and you don't have the potential for aflatoxin.”

The crop tolerates the other end of the moisture spectrum, too — like this spring when several fields flooded. “If grain sorghum gets under water, it will survive. If water gets over corn, it kills it.”

Grain sorghum is also a good crop to come back with if corn is flooded out, Haigwood noted. “With corn, you have atrazine down, so you can't come back with another crop, and you don't want to come back with corn late. So we'll usually put grain sorghum there.”

On D&M Farms, grain sorghum is rotated with soybeans, and sometimes with wheat and peas. “We don't like to put rice after it, because we're about 75 percent no-till, and rice doesn't work very well with the residue from grain sorghum. On the other hand, grain sorghum will really build up the soil.”

Phosphate and potash for grain sorghum is put out on the soybean crop. After soybean harvest, the Haigwoods apply glyphosate, Valor and dicamba in late November. That takes care of everything including marestail. I start out with a perfectly clean field.”

Haigwood says it's important to plant grain sorghum early. “Generally in Arkansas, we're going to get plenty of rain in the early spring. We'll also miss the midge and the insect pressure. We might have to spray a few fields for cutworms early.”

In early April, they drill 8 pounds per acre of Pioneer 84G62 on 15-inch rows. “That has been the proven variety for the past eight to 10 years. It's top of the line. It wins that yield contest almost every year.”

The 15-inch rows help to close the canopy quickly and minimize grass and weed problems. “That seems to be the best row spacing for our yields.”

Right before grain sorghum comes up, Haigwood applies a quart of glyphosate with Dual, “which kills everything out there. Hopefully, within a few days we'll get a rain, and we'll have a good grass program. When I see that I have a good stand of grain sorghum, I'll put out 2 pounds of atrazine. When it gets 6 inches tall, we hit it with roughly 200 to 275 pounds of urea. Then we're done.”

Rotating grain sorghum also helps Haigwood manage herbicide resistance on the farm because he's introducing different chemicals which take care of known glyphosate-resistant weeds.

By the middle of August, the Haigwoods are ready to harvest with a Case IH rotary combine with a 30-foot flex header. “You really don't have to have any special equipment. If you have equipment to harvest soybeans, you have what you need.”

Moisture should be 12 to 14 percent around harvest, but the crop usually dries down quickly in the field, “probably because it has an exposed head,” Haigwood says.

A 6,000-pound yield is considered good for the Haigwoods, but 8,000-pound yields or more are not uncommon. Finding a local place to take the grain sorghum can present some problems, however. The Haigwoods either store the grain on the farm or haul it to Osceola, Ark.

One of the biggest advantages for grain sorghum comes at the end of the year. With input costs between those for corn and soybeans, “you can make a good crop and not have to spend a bunch of money on fertilizer and irrigation. There can be some extremely high yields. Last year, we averaged about 8,600 pounds.”

To push potential yields even higher this year, the Haigwoods are irrigating a few hundred acres under a center pivot. Once the crop is heading, they'll terminate irrigations. “We have found on our farm that applying water after grain sorghum has made a head will not make any difference in yield.”

Haigwood says the recent approval of the National Sorghum Checkoff program will be another plus for grain sorghum in the state. “There hasn't been much money spent on grain sorghum research,” said Haigwood, who sits on the NSP board. “Our acres have declined, and when acres decline, you lose state checkoff money. The national checkoff is going to help us because a lot of funds will be available to go into research and development.”

Haigwood says some checkoff funds will go into developing high yielding sorghum varieties with a non-transgenic, herbicide-resistant trait for grass control adapted to Arkansas. Better disease control is also a target.

To reach returns similar to corn will require high levels of investment in research, although Haigwood prefers not to invest in genetic modifications for grain sorghum. One reason is overseas markets will often pay a premium to growers for non-GMO crops.

Grain sorghum also has to promote its desirable feed and fuel characteristics to the world, noted Haigwood. “Our poultry industry won't use it unless corn is not available. They say it discolors the meat. But it has less fat and more protein than corn and exactly the same amount of ethanol value per bushel as corn.”

Haigwood is optimistic that one day, improvements in technology for grain sorghum will help it compete with corn for acres. “If we treated grain sorghum like we treated corn, we'd see a bump in yields. We could make 8,000- to 9,000-pound grain sorghum consistently, which equates to 140- to 150-bushel corn.”

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