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Growing Grain Sorghum? 3 Things to Think About

Grain sorghum production has been getting a lot of attention lately, from last week's article in the Wall Street Journal about the crop's growing clout in the international market, to its growing influence here at home for its gluten-free and GMO-free properties. 

For 2015, farmers in the High Plains can capitalize on the growing momentum of grain sorghum (commonly called milo) by doing all they can to boost yields. Managed correctly, grain sorghum yields can exceed 130 bushels per acre. 

Scott Staggenborg, director of research at Chromatin, Inc., the parent company of the seed firm Sorghum Partners, gave plenty of ideas at the annual SorghumU meetings in Salina, Kansas; Enid, Oklahoma and Perryton, Texas.

Hybrid Selection

Of all the decisions farmers make to maximize yield, hybrid selection is perhaps the most important. Staggenborg says many farmers choose to err on the side of caution and plant hybrids that can yield okay, in a number of different environmental scenarios. Take Oklahoma, for example. Farmers there have had several years of drought, and grain sorghum yields have suffered as a result. "Farmers have been conditioned to get into a defensive mode after a few years of poor growing conditions. That's fine, if conditions warrant," he says. "But they may be leaving top-end yield on the table." 

Some of these drought-stricken areas of the High Plains have had soil moisture profiles replenished. In that case, farmers could opt for longer growing season hybrids and try to push yield. 

"Think a little more aggressively so that when it rains, there is a chance to get big yields. Choose a hybrid that can capture the full yield potential of your environment," Staggenborg says. 

Planting Dates Vary

Grain sorghum has a wide planting window, especially when combined with the varying hybrid maturities. "In the grain sorghum belt, you don't know when it will rain, or won't rain. Don't plant all the same maturity and don't plant at the same time."

It is safe to plant grain sorghum when soil temperature reaches 55 degrees for five days. Planting date varies depending upon geography. Generally speaking, the ideal planting dates are: 

  • Central Kansas to central Nebraska: May 15 to June 2. 
  • Southern Kansas to northern Oklahoma: late April to May 10. A second planting window occurs in June. 
  • Texas: late February to early March. 

Most years, early planting is better than late planting. Research at Kansas State University shows that 8 years out of 10, planting grain sorghum on the earlier side of normal will result in higher yields than those planted later. That assumes normal rainfall and temperatures. When summer temperatures are higher than normal, or precipitation is lower than normal, later-planted sorghum may yield better. However, later-planted sorghum runs the risk of getting top yields reduced by an early frost. 

Planting Population

Not long ago, farmers planted grain sorghum by pounds per acre. That was fine when grain sorghum seed sizes were fairly consistent even among different brands and hybrids. That's not the case anymore - grain sorghum seed sizes vary widely from hybrid to hybrid. Thus, growers need to pay more attention to planting population. Set the planter or grain drill to plant seeds per acre, rather than pounds.  

The United Sorghum Checkoff Program has a suite of handbooks for sorghum production, online at: http://sorghumcheckoff.com/for-farmer/production-tools/ 

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