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.

Grower meetings planned

“Murphy-Brown is planning to hold grower meetings in the next couple of months to solicit interest. With enough grower commitment, we can justify handling sorghum separately at the mills and changing milling practices to get the most out of the sorghum we purchase.

This is great news to Tandy Ogburn of Willow Springs. He was looking for a crop that would allow for herbicide rotation, fit well with small grains and soybeans, reduce soybean cyst nematode populations, improve soil structure on his less productive soils and resist deer damage.

Although these objectives seem daunting, he has been able to meet them by using grain sorghum in his rotation. Another advantage is that he has not had to purchase any specialized equipment. He sees this as a plus for any grower who wants to try the crop.

“I wanted a viable crop,” Ogburn said. “Sorghum can sit dormant 45 to 60 days during a drought. If rain comes in time, it still has the potential to make a crop. It’s almost bulletproof.”

Grain sorghum has exceeded Ogburn’s expectations. Despite planting late or receiving sporadic rain, he has been able to harvest a crop. At first, yields were somewhat erratic, but after consulting with Nicholson to get the fertilization worked out, he was able to reliably attain his target of 70 to 80 bushels per acre.

“With sorghum, I don’t have the yield potential of corn,” Ogburn said, “but I also don’t have to make as large a per-acre investment either. I get the same rotational benefits as with corn, and I can pretty much use the same equipment I was already using for soybeans.”

For some growers, sorghum may require a few minor investments, such as no-till equipment or new plates for planters to accommodate smaller seed.

“I’ve gone 100 percent no-till since I switched to sorghum,” Ogburn said. “Leaving the residue on the soil enhances moisture-holding capacity and will aid in building soil structure. As my soils improve, I hope my yields do, too. As added benefits, I can chemically control tough weeds like Palmer amaranth and marestail, and the rotation suppresses the nematode populations that harm soybeans.”

This year Ogburn confidently increased his acreage from 250 to 400 acres. His concerns now revolve around market stability and selling price of grain. He wonders what will happen in a “good” year when corn yields are high. He’s afraid no one will buy sorghum if corn is plentiful.

"I’m not sure what will happen in a ‘normal’ year,” Ogburn said. “We haven’t had one yet. As long as there’s dry weather, farmers will be interested in growing grain sorghum, but the situation is still premature. It’s got to be profitable. Right now growers can only sell it for 85 to 88 percent of the value of corn, yet it has the same feed value as corn. If the animal industry will support it equitably though, then grain sorghum production should take off here.”

Gaddy, the Murphy-Brown agronomist, believes grain sorghum has a future in North Carolina.

“Sorghum seems to be a good fit on marginal land,” he said. “It works well in rotation. It gives farmers a way to manage pigweed. It has other benefits, too. Since it is not as sensitive to manganese as soybeans are, it would be a better receiver crop on company farms where effluent tends to raise soil pH and lead to manganese problems. There are some challenges, but I think we can handle them.”

Growers who would like to attend one of Murphy-Brown’s upcoming informational meetings should contact Josh Gaddy at 910-293-5338 or 919-385-6184 (mobile).

NCDA&CS regional agronomists provide advice on production issues, such as sampling and fertilization. For contact information on the agronomist for your area, go to http://www.ncagr.gov/agronomi/rahome.htm.