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Grain Sorghum Could Be a Fit for Waterlogged Farms

The summer grass has similar agronomics as corn, with fewer input costs.

With just 58% of the nation’s corn crop planted and conditions unsuitable for planting for the next several days, some farmers are looking for alternative crops to plant.

Imagine a crop that grows similar to corn, has many of the same end uses (ethanol, livestock feed) and requires fewer crop inputs than corn. 

Such a crop exists. It’s called grain sorghum. 

Grain sorghum can typically be planted later than other crops, and sorghum is a lower risk option, specifically as it relates to seed costs. For example, sorghum seed typically costs $9 to $18 per acre depending on seeding rate, while corn seed typically costs $55 to $110 an acre depending on seeding rate and traits. Harvest costs are often lower, too.

“Grain sorghum provides a number of benefits to growers as we enter a replant and late/prevent-plant time period for the 2019 growing season,” says Brent Bean, Sorghum Checkoff agronomist. “There is typically a yield benefit for soybeans, cotton, and corn when planted after sorghum. In addition, its root system is often able to penetrate compacted soils and can reduce diseases and nematodes that plague other crops.”

Finding a market may be more difficult; if you’re interested in growing grain sorghum, consult your grain buyer to see if there is a place to ship it. Columbia, Missouri, farmer Ethan Miller says some local grain elevators will accept the crop. He also has access to a local ethanol plant that alternates between corn and grain sorghum. Miller adds that there are terminals along the Mississippi River that will take grain sorghum. He prefers growing grain sorghum over corn, which he hasn’t grown in more than a decade.

“Sorghum is more economical to grow than corn,” he explains. “It also has a much bigger planting window than corn.” 

Joe Kreppner grows grain sorghum on marginal acres near Kimball, Minnesota. “I normally put a small grain on some of our moisture-challenged fields. I was searching for something more profitable than wheat, and noted that grain sorghum is grazed in South Dakota, and it also is drought-tolerant,” he explains. “I had to learn everything off the internet, and through conversations with other sorghum growers. But I enjoy working with it. It’s a new challenge.” 

Kreppner says earlier maturing hybrids do better in his climate. He prefers a 103-day hybrid, planted no later than the first week of June. 

“Seed supply isn’t a problem. But if you’re going to switch to grain sorghum from corn, it’s got to be put in by June 10,” he says. “Otherwise, there may not be enough time in the fall to make a crop.” 

Growers will have to use different plates for their planters, or plan to drill the sorghum seed, he adds. 

In Demand

Global demand for U.S. sorghum has remained strong, despite ongoing negotiations and tariff restrictions with China. Multiple vessels of the crop were shipped to China in the last month. Tim Lust, chief executive officer with the National Sorghum Producers, said this demand and market signals offer optimism for global feed grain needs like sorghum.

“Despite trade uncertainty, demand for feed grain remains strong across the globe,” Lust says. “Furthermore, anticipated feed grain shortages from areas impacted by adverse planting weather will create significant localized demand for additional starch sources like sorghum. We continue to receive feedback from ethanol plants and other end users about the need to fill gaps in supply this winter. Some have already posted sorghum bids, and others are strongly considering doing so.”

Growers should also consider that current guidance from USDA shows that in order to collect a Market Facilitation Program (MFP) payment, farmers must plant a program crop or alfalfa. Final plant dates for crop insurance vary by region, but growers can contact their local insurance agent for insurance coverage and options. Sorghum also works well as a cover behind prevented planting, and resources on this provision are available from the USDA Risk Management Agency.

There are a host of food-grade and specialty crop markets for grain sorghum. It’s non-genetically modified properties are appealing to some buyers. 

Additional agronomic and marketing resources, including information on Sorghum Management Following a Wet Winter and SpringPreemergence Weed ControlFertilizing Grain SorghumSeeding Rate, sorghum marketing connections, and Sorghum Checkoff marketing staff, are available at SorghumCheckoff.com.

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