Grain sorghum acreage is on the rise across the Upper Southeast, primarily due to the demand and good prices paid for it by Murphy-Brown, and in Virginia the combined efforts of research and industry appear to be paying off in increased interest and acreage in the crop this year.
Virginia Tech Researcher Maria Balota has been promoting the benefits of grain sorghum for the past few years.
Though many growers are interested in the crop now, in the early going, she says, many thought she was a little crazy for showing so much interest in grain sorghum.
Balota is coordinator for the Peanut Variety and Quality Evaluation program in Virginia. Her initial interest in grain sorghum grew from a desire to find more crop rotation options for the state’s peanut growers.
Balota says, “In 2009, we had a drought in the peanut producing areas of Virginia — not a terrible one as droughts go, but it was amazing to me how bad the drought affected corn production in our state. After seeing that happen, I felt we needed an alternative grass crop, other than corn, to grow in rotation with peanuts.”
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Many peanut growers in the Upper Southeast have added cotton to their peanut rotation, but long-term research indicates peanuts do better if planted behind corn.
In some areas of the V-C peanut belt dryland corn is a big risk because of the weather. This year, there was too much rain, but typically drought during the critical silking stages of corn can have a devastating effect on yield and quality.
The Virginia researcher says grain sorghum has worked well as a substitute for corn in a peanut rotation. It appears to produce some toxins that do a better job than corn of cleaning up nematodes in the soil, and in some areas that is a big plus, she says.
For Virginia growers, Balota says a major problem is getting the right variety to match soil and climatic conditions. Most of the currently available varieties were bred for arid or semi-arid conditions, and adapting these varieties to the hot and humid conditions in the Southeast is a challenge.
Demand is increasing
“Because there has not been great demand for grain sorghum in the V-C area up until recent years, there has been very little research done on the crop. Even basic best variety information is more than 15-20 years old, but we are working on that problem,” she says.
Balota notes that a cooperative research program among Clemson, North Carolina State, and Virginia Tech has already resulted in one year of variety testing information.
The 2013 crop will add another year of variety information, all of which will bode well for grain sorghum growers in the future, she adds.
One of the major movers in the growth of grain sorghum in the Upper Southeast in recent years has been Murphy-Brown. Early on the company saw that sorghum for swine diets produced about 95 percent the energy of corn when fed to animals. Based on this, they set the market price for grain sorghum as 95 percent that of corn.
In recent weeks there has been some doubt on the future of Murphy-Brown’s interest in grain sorghum because of the impending purchase of their parent company, Smithfield Foods, by a Chinese investment group.
As is the case with most rumors, reality is a whole different story.
According to Don Butler, vice-president for government relations and public affairs for Murphy-Brown, the company’s role as a grain buyer for Smithfield Foods will go on ‘business as usual.’
He adds that farmers will see an even greater commitment from Murphy-Brown to promote additional grain production, in the Southeast, including increased emphasis on grain sorghum production.
Butler says, “We expect the Shuanghui International purchase to go through sometime in the fourth quarter of this year, and from everything we’ve been told Murphy-Brown will continue with our commitment to increase grain production in the Southeast.
Local grain is best
“If anything, growers may see an increased effort to maximize Southeast grain production and minimize dependence on grain from the Midwest,” Butler says.
Murphy-Brown is owned by Smithfield Foods.
“If we can make grain work in a pig diet, we are committed to buying it. Rains and poor wheat harvest conditions produced a lot of low quality grain, and we were glad to buy it — often at times when some people didn’t think we would buy it,” Butler adds.
“In Virginia, we are committed to increasing grain sorghum production much as we have done in North Carolina,” Butler says.
He adds that grain sorghum acreage in North Carolina when Murphy-Brown first began their push in the Southeast was about 6,000 acres, and this year it is likely more than 100,000 acres have been planted.
David Hull, a grain buyer for Murphy-Brown, was instrumental in the rapid increase in grain sorghum acreage in North Carolina.
He was recently relocated from North Carolina to Williamsburg, Va., by the company.
“In terms of building sorghum acreage, there are significant differences between North Carolina and Virginia,” Hull says. “For one thing there is less sandy land that is not well suited for most crops, but on which grain sorghum does well,” he adds.
Despite the significant differences, Hull says there may well be 25,000-30,000 acres of grain sorghum in southeast Virginia in the next couple of years.
“I base that number on my conversations with a number of growers who are planting sorghum for the first time this year. One grower in particular told me he planted 1,100 acres of sorghum on land that was targeted to go into double-crop soybeans, he says.
“Statewide, I think somewhere in the 50,000-60,000 acre range is very possible, if not likely in the next couple of years.”
Acreage increase throughout area
Though North Carolina has been the leader in increased grain sorghum acreage, Virginia is growing and South Carolina is likely to have a big increase in sorghum acreage this year.
“South Carolina may be well ahead of Virginia in sorghum acreage. Last year, when I was in North Carolina, about a third of the sorghum I purchased came from South Carolina,” he adds.
Clemson University Small Grains Specialist David Gunter says the total acreage of sorghum in South Carolina is not clear and probably won’t be until FSA records are complete after harvest. However, he notes a sharp increase in interest among growers.
“For the first time in many years, we have a good market for grain sorghum,” Gunter says.
“Not only is demand there from Murphy-Brown, but also from smaller, local grain buyers who have been willing to offer similar prices for sorghum.
“As a result of demand, more growers planted sorghum this year and likely more planted it as an option to double-crop soybeans, which were delayed in some areas of the state by excessive rainfall,” Gunter says.
While the unusual rainfall pattern that has plagued many areas of the Upper Southeast this year will definitely hurt production of most crops, it may significantly increase sorghum acreage, especially in Virginia, where about half the state’s soybean crop is grown in a double-crop with wheat.
Harvest of wheat was significantly pushed back, providing many growers with a tough choice of whether to plant soybeans or go with grain sorghum.
Across the region, the interest among growers in grain sorghum is on the increase and when the final numbers come in, the crop could move up several notches in terms of acres planted.