Fields of grain sorghum are an increasingly common sight in eastern North Carolina.

The crop finds favor with farmers because it can thrive despite drought, resistant weeds and marginal soils. As sorghum acreage increases, local buyers of animal feed grain are considering purchasing more for their rations.

In fact, pork producer Murphy-Brown, which has facilities throughout southeastern North Carolina, is just now winding up a pilot study to gauge performance of the crop. The pilot project, which included 2,000 acres on private farms and 550 acres on company farms, produced yields ranging from 40 to 100 bushels per acre. Where sorghum was double-cropped after wheat, yields averaged 70 to 80 bushels per acre.

“We need research on sorghum here in the southeastern Coastal Plain of North Carolina,” said Josh Gaddy, an agronomist with Murphy-Brown. “The crop can be drilled like small grain or planted in rows. It can be planted early or late. There are a lot of variables, so we need local studies to prove what production practices work best. I would also love to see a variety testing program in this part of the state.”

Rick Morris, regional agronomist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, works in the Fayetteville area where many contract livestock operations are located. He sees sorghum as a way to preserve farmland and is eager to help growers make the switch.

“The crop offers so many advantages,” Morris said. “A primary one is economic. With seed costs about $10 per acre and herbicide another $15 to $20, the biggest expense is probably nitrogen . . . so input costs are much less expensive than corn. As long as growers have the opportunity to choose a viable and profitable crop, they are more likely to continue to farm. And, hopefully, they’ll pass that opportunity on to their sons and daughters.”

Don Nicholson, another NCDA&CS regional agronomist, has been advising farmers in Johnston and surrounding counties on the benefits of sorghum.

“We say that sorghum is a ‘new’ crop,” he said, “but it’s really an old crop. It was grown here a long time ago. We are ‘relearning’ how to do it now.

“Sorghum meets a need because we don’t have the land to support corn in this area, Nicholson said.

“Farmers want to grow a crop they can count on harvesting. Large animal producers want local grain so they don’t have to pay the high price of transporting grain from out of state.”

One issue with sorghum is that it has to be ground finer than corn or wheat. And that means changing practices at the feed mills. Until recently, there has not been enough sorghum grown locally to justify that expense. Murphy-Brown officials thinks the time is right.

“Our goal is to get 20,000 acres of sorghum from local growers next year,” Gaddy said.