It’s officially called grain sorghum, though in the Upper Southeast it’s known more commonly as milo.
Regardless of the name, interest in the crop is growing in the Southeast primarily because of one word — money.
In North Carolina grain sorghum production is up five-fold from 2011 acreage, with final acres likely to top 50,000. In other areas of the Southeast growth is up significantly, if not as dramatically as in North Carolina.
In South Carolina, Clemson Soybean, Corn and Small Grain Specialist David Gunter says interest in grain sorghum is definitely up. “I don’t remember us ever having a situation in which a buyer comes to growers and says I’ve got a market for your crop and I’ll pay you this much for it — before the crop is planted,” Gunter says.
Much of the new market for grain sorghum in the Upper Southeast comes from Murphy-Brown a large livestock production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc. — the world’s largest producer of pork products. Murphy-Brown is headquartered in Warsaw, N.C.
Murphy-Brown has been paying 95 percent of harvest cash price of corn for sorghum delivered to select delivery points.
A signed contract committing to deliver a set number of bushels to a specific delivery point has been required.
Sorghum has been contracted for delivery at eight locations, including SGC Elevators in Bentonville, LaGrange, Bladenboro, Clinton, and Mount Olive, N.C.,; the Murphy-Brown Elevator in Nichols (S.C.); and Murphy-Brown Feed Mills in Laurinberg and Waverly, Va.
Gunter says a few growers in and around Bishopville, S.C., have grown sorghum for 5-6 years, primarily for a large poultry company in the area, and have done well with the crop. However, until the push by Murphy-Brown, there wasn’t much interest in growing sorghum in other areas of the state.
“The renewed interest in sorghum provided the impetus for us to begin working with the crop again. The first thing we did was to create an OVT, or official variety test, for grain sorghum. The results will be available to growers to help them pick optimum varieties next year,” Gunter says.
So far a number of varieties look good in tests at the Pee Dee Agriculture Research and Education Center in Florence, S.C.
Good rotation crop
Though results of the grain sorghum OVT won’t be available until later this fall, it is already apparent that sorghum will be a good rotation crop for some growers, Gunter says.
“Some of the varieties in our OVT test program were planted in a double-crop situation and sorghum in these plots is doing well. For growers who don’t want to go back to beans again, sorghum should do well. It may also be a good fit on land with high nematode populations — nematodes don’t seem to like sorghum as much as they do other crops,” Gunter adds.
One of the few problems with grain sorghum production this year has been with grasses like signalgrass and Texas and fall panicum. There are plenty of herbicides available to manage grass in sorghum, but it does take some timely application, Gunter says.
He adds that the inputs for grain sorghum are lower because the crop requires less nitrogen than corn, for example. There is no technology fee for grain sorghum, but varieties are available from well known companies like Pioneer, DeKalb and Southern States.
Variety tests at the Pee Dee Station are being conducted in both full-season and double-crop situations and sorghum seems to be doing well in both, Gunter says.
The crop has a lower water requirement, which can also be a risk reducer, he says.
In both North and South Carolina much of the sorghum planted in 2012 went on soil that historically doesn’t produce yields as high as more fertile ground. Sorghum tends to do well in sandy soil, as long as it’s not too sandy, the Clemson specialist adds.
Another niche area for grain sorghum in the Upper Southeast is on farms on which grain crops are traditionally damaged by deer.
Though birds, especially migratory birds, can be a big problem with grain sorghum, deer don’t seem to prefer it over native vegetation and definitely not over other grain crops.
How much acreage will increase from 2012 to 2013 in the Carolinas likely will be determined by the acceptance of the grain for feeding chickens and turkey.
If high corn prices continue to force livestock producers to look for other, less expensive, sources of feed, then demand for sorghum may increase significantly.
Where the sorghum acres will come from may be a tough situation. Replacing $18 an acre beans in a double-crop will not likely be an option for most growers.
Taking corn acres?
Surprisingly, the new grain sorghum acres may come at the expense of corn.
Monroe, N.C., grower Allan Baucom planted 1,000 acres of grain sorghum this year. “We used 90 percent of corn as the base price in our planning, and sorghum looks like it will be more profitable for us than corn this year,” Baucom says.
More so in the Midwest than the Southeast, many growers prefer corn over grain sorghum because corn “dies” so well. Grain sorghum tends to hang on longer in a drought situation, while corn goes fast and makes it much easier to collect crop insurance.
Planning for failure with any grain crop is a really bad idea. It surely cuts total grain production and in the grain deficit Southeast, that’s a killer for livestock producers, regardless of which grain crop is grown.
Perhaps more importantly, planning for anything other than a bumper crop is a bad message to send out to the non-agricultural public.
Grain sorghum acreage in the Southeast will likely ride along with demand from the poultry industry and to a lesser extent the swine industry and helping livestock producers stay in business is likely to send a positive message to many of the politicians currently petitioning the EPA for reduction or temporary end of the Federal mandate for ethanol production.
David Hull, a grain buyer for Murphy-Brown, says his company is committed to helping livestock producers find lower cost grain.
Shipping cost of grain from the Midwest and Canada, plus the current high price of corn is really hurting the livestock industry in the Carolinas and Virginia, Hull contends.
A problem for the 2012 sorghum crop in the Southeast was availability of high quality seed, because of extreme drought in the region in the 2011 growing season.
This year, sorghum appears to be growing in a near perfect growing season throughout the Southeast, so seed quality and availability should not be a problem.