Mounting weed pressure and continued low yields in their soybeans led Mullins, S.C., growers David, Robert and Charles Drew to look at grain sorghum, and so far, so good, David says.
Drew farms nearly 3,000 acres of row crops and hay and raises cattle in partnership with his father Charles and his brother Robert. They grow cotton, corn, wheat, hay, peanuts and now grain sorghum.
David Drew says soybeans just weren’t working out on their family farm. Peanuts are the primary crop they grow and peanuts and soybeans just don’t mix too well. The primary problem with the two crops is proliferation of soybean cyst nematodes, which can be a yield buster in peanuts.
“I grew up raising tobacco. It was always a big part of our family farming operation, but when the tobacco buyout came along in 2005, we took that opportunity to get out of the tobacco business,” Drew recalls.
In 2006, they grew their first crop of peanuts and subsequently the crop has taken on the role of tobacco in terms of importance in their farming operation.
Despite the current high prices of soybeans, Drew says they couldn’t really justify keeping the crop in their rotation, primarily because of the low yields it produced.
“We struggled to make 25 bushels per acre the last couple of years, and it was time to look for another crop to replace beans,” Drew explains.
Along with the low yields, the South Carolina grower says they were beginning to see an increase in weed pressure in fields planted behind soybeans, especially glyphosate resistant pigweed.
“We knew from working with tobacco that having herbicides like atrazine and Lasso in a weed management system would keep weed pressure down and provide us with some different chemistry to try and hold back further development of glyphosate resistant pigweed,” he says.
“Then, Southeastern Grains, with an office and buying point in nearby Nichols, S.C., provided a good local market for grain sorghum. They are partnering with Warsaw, N.C.,-based Murphy Brown to buy more grain in the Southeast, and it seems like they are in the sorghum business to stay,” Drew adds.
Mixed, but promising results
Last year they planted 550 acres of grain sorghum, with mixed, but promising results. “Most of the low yields and low test weights we got in some fields were due to our mistakes, not from a weakness of the varieties we grew or with overall process of growing grain sorghum,” he says.
For example, they had an outbreak of anthracnose in their sorghum. “We thought we knew what to do, but we ended up spraying the wrong material on a variety that was susceptible to the disease. It wasn’t a shortcoming of the variety, and if we would have sprayed the right fungicide, we wouldn’t have had a problem,” he adds.
“We could see some differences in the color of the heads on the most and least susceptible varieties because of the color difference. The sorghum from the variety that responded well to the fungicide we sprayed was an orange color and the other was a dusty brown,” he says.
Only after they harvested the sorghum did they find out what the different coloration meant in terms of yield and quality. In the orange colored heads the test weights of the seeds ranged from 55-60 pounds per bushel. On the more susceptible variety, test weights were in the 30s and 40s.
The diversity of crops the Drew’s farm often creates some timing issues, and he says last year they definitely planted grain sorghum too early. “We planted it in mid-April last year. At harvest time we had weather related delays in harvesting cotton and peanuts, and found out real quick that grain sorghum won’t wait in the field — when it’s time to harvest, you have to harvest,” he says. “That was one advantage of growing soybeans, they would wait in the field until we got finished harvesting other crops.”.
The early planting also likely added to some grass problems he had with sorghum and the crop began to head out at a time when corn earworms were at their peak.
“Our scouts told us one day they found some worms in our sorghum field. Within a few days the population exploded, and we had to stop digging peanuts and spray all the sorghum to prevent it from being destroyed by corn earworms,” he says.
“Last year we strip-tilled some of our sorghum and will do so again this year. However, last year we were too pushed for time and ran the strip-till rig and applied our burndown herbicides too close to planting.
“This year we can take our time and get everything done a couple of weeks prior to planting. I think that will help some with weed and grass control and it will be a big help at harvest time.”
Max out labor supply
Both peanut and cotton harvest require 3-4 people to get the crop out of the field and delivered to buying points. Those crops max out his labor supply, so planting and harvesting the grain sorghum later should help smooth out the labor needs on their large farming operation.
Last year they planted part of their sorghum crop with a conventional planter and part with a John Deere grain drill. On the drill, they closed off some of the cups and using a 38-inch overall row spacing were able to plant the crop in twin rows.
The remainder of the sorghum was planted with a conventional planter behind a strip tillage rig.
“We had excellent moisture last year, and we saw absolutely no difference in yield or quality of the grain sorghum. This year, if we get dry weather, I expect to get better results with the strip-tillage system,” Drew says.
Overall, last year the South Carolina grower says there were few problems with grain sorghum. “We didn’t get any really great overall yields, but we saw yields in some fields top 90 bushels per acre, so we know we have the potential to grow good yields of sorghum,” he adds.
As more and more growers grow grain sorghum and as research programs at Clemson University and North Carolina State University gear up for increased production, more and more information will be generated, making growing the crop less of a learning experience.
Clemson University Feed Grain Specialist David Gunter says he expects South Carolina growers will plant something close to 30,000 acres of grain sorghum this year, but it could be more if things work out.
“The poultry industry is buying grain sorghum in South Carolina as well, with Prestige Farms as well as talk of Amick Farms on the Ridge in Central S.C. I really like grain sorghum for our state, particularly as an option to dryland corn, which is so risky to most farms in this state,” Gunter says.
He says research on the crop is ongoing at four locations around the state, with an emphasis on variety trials, but also includes nematode, weed, fungicide and fertility trials.
For growers interested in growing grain sorghum this year, Gunter says they can get production information from Mid Atlantic Grower’s Guide or contact their nearest Extension agent.
From the marketing perspective, Danny Lane, who runs Southeastern Grain Company’s Nichols, S.C., facility, says their company has invested heavily in facilities to improve handling of grain sorghum.
The company can now buy grain from a grower, pick it up at their farm and truck it directly to feed mills in North Carolina.
“We are trying to make selling grain sorghum as simple as we can and to help in any way we can make growing it easier, too,” Lane says.
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