North Carolina-based grain company, Murphy-Brown, is pushing grain sorghum production in the Carolinas in 2012, and they are putting money on the table to make it happen.

Though Murphy-Brown isn’t the only company pushing for more grain sorghum production in the poultry and hog rich, but grain poor Carolinas, they are making the biggest push.

David Hull, a grain buyer with Murphy-Brown, says there are many benefits to growing grain sorghum in the Southeast:

• Sorghum provides a better risk adjusted return on marginal farmland;

• Sorghum is less susceptible to deer pressure;

• Sorghum provides effective herbicide programs in fields where glyphosate resistant Palmer amaranth is a problem;

• Sorghum can be a better double-crop alternative behind wheat than alternatives such as soybeans;

• Sorghum is a ghost crop that can be grown behind failed corn without affecting insurance payouts;

• Sorghum can be a risk management tool as part of a portfolio approach to drought risk;

• Sorghum works well as a rotation crop with peanuts and soybeans;

• Sorghum can add a grass crop to diversify chemical programs and build organic matter in soil particularly on acres that have seen several years of bean-on-bean or broadleaf-on-broadleaf  rotations.

Bennettsville, S.C., grower Doug O’Tuel and his son are planning to grow grain sorghum for the first time this year. “I think grain sorghum can be a big advantage in weed control. Farmers in our area are having a big problem with Palmer amaranth that is resistant to glyphosate and grain sorghum in the rotation allows us to use atrazine and Dual,” O’Tuel says.

At one time O’Tuel, who is now semi-retired, was one of the larger cotton growers in South Carolina. Through those years, he says he struggled to find new ways to better manage the soil.

“We don’t have the luxury of having a uniform soil type across our farm. He points to a large field of recently planted corn, noting that one alone consists of four or five different soil types.

Good under dry conditions

Finding a crop that will produce in dry conditions on some of the weaker soils in his area has been a lifelong challenge, he says.

Grain sorghum is a crop his son is interested in from a soil nutrient standpoint. He’s making most of the decisions on the farm now, and I got him interested in looking at grain sorghum, the South Carolina grower says.

In a different part of South Carolina, Pamplico grower and agri-business owner Tom Kemp says he’s looking at grain sorghum for a different reason.

“We have a major problem with deer, and deer and soybeans in some of our fields just don’t work. He points to a small field bordered by heavy woods and notes, “I’ve planted beans in that field several times, and I’m yet to harvest one bean — that’s just not good for business,” he adds.

“Our thinking, he says, is that even if we can only harvest 40-50 bushels per acre of grain sorghum, that’s a better option than planting soybeans and risking getting nothing from that field.”

Kemp says he will plant the field to grain sorghum, then follow it with wheat. If that works on a small scale, we may look at planting it on more land, he says.

For a variety of reasons, interest in grain sorghum has been high among farmers in the Carolinas. Hull says growers in North Carolina (by early April) have purchased enough seed to plant 75,000-80,000 acres of grain sorghum. Realistically, he says, that will more likely equate to being 40,000 to 50,000 acres that are actually planted.

“Most of the growers I have visited are planning on planting a couple hundred acres, and only a few will plant as much as 500 acres in 2012. That’s really an ideal situation for us, because it gives growers a chance to see what the crop will do and how it will fit in under their production and marketing systems,” Hull says.

There is a lot of marginal land in the Carolinas and Virginia that is planted to corn, cotton and other crops. Increased acres of grain crops planted on marginal land, Hull says, is a primary reason average yields of grain crops in most Southeastern states aren’t comparable to yields achieved on better soils in the Midwest. Some of that marginal land would be much better suited to grow grain sorghum, he says.

“Murphy-Brown’s top goal in its effort to increase grain production in the Carolinas and Virginia is to increase the total amount of grain produced on every acre of farmland in our draw area. It’s not our goal to push acres to any specific crop,” Hull says.

Corn provides the best return for farmers on the land that consistently achieves good yields. If a grower’s land produces a profitable corn crop year after year, nothing we have found as an alternative grain crop will match the return corn provides per acre. However, the trend line for corn yield per acre in the Carolinas and Virginia has been on the decline, Hull adds.

Despite a gradual decline in corn yields across the Upper Southeast, the most consistent crop grown under irrigation is corn. Hull says a typical corn yield in the counties in south-central North Carolina and north-central-South Carolina is about 100 bushels per acre. Similar soil with irrigation consistently produces 200 bushels per acre, he adds.

The continued high price for corn is a benefit to growers trying grain sorghum for the first time.

Last year Murhphy-Brown bought grain sorghum at 88 percent of corn for program participants and 85 percent for growers who did not sign up for the company’s program.

Increased cash price

This year we will pay 95 percent of the harvest cash price of corn delivered to our elevators. “We are committed to getting grain sorghum going in the Carolinas and Virginia. Right now (mid-April) the price of grain sorghum delivered to Laurinburg, N.C., is six cents higher than December corn,” Hull says.

The variety of soil type, rotational needs, insurance and other niche reasons for planting grain sorghum adds to its growth potential, but can be a liability when it comes to buying and selling the crop.

“We understand the variety of production programs involved, such as full-season use, double-cropping, even ghost crops resulted in a wide delivery window, making forecasting when we would get sorghum and how much we would get on any particular date difficult.

This year we are spreading out our delivery points and focusing more on elevators that best handle deliveries that are spread out over a long period of time and less regular than at some buying points,” Hull says.

The spread out harvest and delivery history of grain sorghum in the Southeast also means some percentage of the crop is harvested at less than optimum moisture levels. To help growers compensate for high moisture deliveries, Murphy-Brown has reduced their moisture penalty to encourage growers to harvest their sorghum early.

Early harvest reduces the risk of aflatoxin contamination.

To help reduce the risk to farmers, Hull says his company has added drying capabilities at its buying points and offers these services to growers at a greatly reduced price, which will help compensate for any dockages from high moisture grain sorghum deliveries.

According to calculations done by Murphy-Brown Agronomist Josh Gaddy, bushels gained as a result of reduced losses by harvesting sorghum between 18-22 percent moisture will more than pay for the cost of drying under this new discount schedule.

Murphy-Brown’s interest in increasing grain sorghum sprang from a pilot study conducted by the company in 2010. 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.

The company is a major producer of hogs, via contract growers, and like most livestock companies, has struggled to find economic strategies to reduce the cost of feeding grain.

Headquartered in Warsaw, N.C., Murphy-Brown employs more than 6,000 people and produces about 17 million market hogs per year.

(For an earlier story on grain sorghum acceptance, this time in eastern North Carolina, visit http://southeastfarmpress.com/grains/grain-sorghum-gaining-favor-eastern-north-carolina).

rroberson@farmpress.com