About 50,000 acres of grain sorghum were grown in North Carolina this year, an estimated 10-fold increase over 2011.

Growers are choosing the crop for the real advantages it provides: 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.

(For another look at the expanding interest in grain sorghum, see Carolina sorghum acres likely to climb in 2013. For a good look at the pros and cons of double-cropping sorghum with wheat, see Mid-Atlantic growers eye sorghum, wheat double-crop).

“With corn, it’s always going to be feast or famine,” said Don Nicholson, regional agronomist with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “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.