Though final proof will be in the harvest, Monroe, N.C., grower Allan Baucom says the 1,000 acre investment in grain sorghum looks like a really good fit in their production system.
One impetus for growing milo, or grain sorghum, comes from a well-planned and well-implemented move by Warsaw, North Carolina-based livestock buyer Murphy-Brown.
David Hull, a grain buyer for Murphy-Brown’s Laurinburg, N.C., facility says the growth in grain sorghum production in the state has been encouraging.
It is unusual, if not unique, that a company comes to farmers, offers a good price, and helps with production issues before a crop goes into the ground, says South Carolina Small Grains Specialist David Gunter.
In the past growers have tried growing a number of new crops, found they could grow the crop, but after the crop was harvested had no market for the end product, he says.
With the new marketing opportunity for grain sorghum from several grain buyers, combined with Murphy-Brown’s strong push with growers, production in North Carolina is expected to be near 50,000 acres, roughly five times the acreage from 2011.
Clemson University Researcher Jim Frederick says South Carolina production is up some this year, but he contends growers in the Palmetto State will follow North Carolina with a significant increase in grain sorghum acreage next year.
Both the Carolinas and Virginia are heavily invested in livestock production and all are in a grain deficit situation. Hull says Murphy Brown is firmly committed to buying all the grain they can locally and to helping growers figure out the best way to get alternative grain crops, like grain sorghum, into their rotation.
The push for more grain crops has bumped acreage up among both small and large acreage producers. The primary stimulus to farmers, like Baucom, appears to be having a firm market for their crops, though he notes grain sorghum fits into his operation from a number of perspectives.
Baucom grows corn, soybeans, and has a large cotton operation. A.L. Baucom Inc. also grows a number of vegetable crops and operates a roadside store to market crops. Finding a crop that fits into such a diverse operation isn’t always a simple thing to do.
Has long history
He calls grain sorghum milo and recalls growing the crop many years ago.
“I grew up on a farm, and I remember growing milo, but my family had a very small farming operation, and it was just one of several crops we grew as livestock feed. We planted it on land not conducive to growing cotton,” he says.
Any grower with a large and diverse row crop farming operation struggles to find crops that fit from planting, to crop protection, to harvesting and marketing. Looking for the best fit for milo, Baucom planted single-crop on lighter soils, double-crop milo behind wheat with irrigation, and double-crop milo behind wheat with no irrigation.
“Our business approach to all crops is bottom-line based. We are looking for net profit per acre, per crop. When we planted milo, double-crop behind wheat for example, we had a target yield of 80 bushels per acre.
“If we meet the target yield for the different systems in which we are growing milo, it will be better for our bottom line than corn this year,” Baucom says.
The North Carolina grower says budgets are based on milo selling for 90 percent of the going price of corn, even though Murphy-Brown is strongly committed to buying the crop at 95 percent of the base price of corn.
We would like to see 105 percent the price of corn, he jokes, but notes that even at 90 percent of corn, grain sorghum can provide a good bottom line net in his farming operation.
In addition to being a strong player on the economic side of his farming business, Baucom says milo is also a good fit for their long-term goal of building up the soil on all the farms on which his company grows crops.
“All our land is planted no-till, and we feel like we need to improve the quality of the topsoil on some of our farms. On some of our land that is not ideally suited to corn production and is marginal for cotton, grain sorghum is a good option for building up the quality of soil on these farms,” Baucom says.
Milo is more water-forgiving — it will wait a little longer for moisture. It also leaves a good quality of residue on the soil, all of which helps build up subsoil microbes and beneficial insects that help open the soil and make it easier for plants to get nutrients and moisture, he adds.
This year they planted 1,000 acres of milo under several different planting systems, looking for the one that fits best into his operation.
“Milo is a new crop, so we started with varieties — we planted two DeKalb varieties and two Pioneer varieties. After we get the milo crop harvested, we’ll take a look at which ones performed best and make decisions about which ones to plant in the future,” he says.
For the North Carolina grower planting milo was much like planting corn, about the only difference was changing the disc in the planters.
Same strategy as for corn
They used the same strategy of soil sampling for fertilizer needs, applying litter and gypsum to build the soil, and essentially did everything just like they do when planting corn.
Milo was planted in a single-crop system in early May and in a double-crop system behind wheat on June 4.
Milo was planted much like they plant corn, using Gramoxone and 2,4-D as a burn-down.
One production challenge with grain sorghum is competition with grass.
“I remember growing grain sorghum as a kid, and grass was a problem then. I think, as with most no-till crops, a real key to growing milo is going to be to start with a really clean field,” he says.
There have not been any significant production problems so far in the growing season, he adds. There are problems with worms that get into the head of the milo plant, and it’s susceptible to a number of disease problems, but nothing we don’t have tools to manage, Baucom says.
He says the 4-week window of planting will likely be compressed to a two-week window of harvesting in mid-September for milo. They plan to harvest it with enough moisture left to reduce shattering and seed loss at harvesting.
Then, milo will be dried and part of it will be held in on-farm storage. Another storage bin was built on the farm this summer to help make room for the milo.
Though some growers use a dessicant to dry down sorghum and make it cleaner for harvest, Baucom says they don’t plan to do so. “There’s so much about growing milo that we don’t know, and using a harvest aid, like we do in cotton, may be one of them.
“However, we feel like it will fit in better with other things we are doing on the farm, to harvest milo a little higher in moisture, dry it down and store it,” he says.
Milo has the potential at least to help the North Carolina grower better utilize harvest equipment. He says by the time milo is ready for harvest, they should be done with corn for the year, will be starting on cotton picking and may have some early maturing beans ready.
“All in all it’s a pretty good fit at harvest time on our farm,” he concludes.