With farmers unable to plant corn this year, NuGen Energy is eager to take grain sorghum at its ethanol plant in Marion, South Dakota for the first time since 2016.
“If they can get milo in the ground, they definitely have a market,” NuGen CEO Robert Bauerle said Friday morning, June 14, as the post cash price for milo sat at $4.23 per bushel – not far off from corn at $4.52.
Milo – an old brand name now synonymous with sorghum – provides an option for a cash crop that can be turned into ethanol, sold as grain or chopped for livestock feed. It’s typically a crop favored in dry regions. During this wet year, farmers unable to get into their fields are turning to sorghum because it can be planted later than corn.
Some early maturing varieties can be planted up to July 1, according to Brent Bean, agronomist with the United Sorghum Checkoff. Sorghum doesn’t like flooded conditions, but it benefits from rain – especially later in the season.
“It’s a drought-tolerant crop, but when you do have more water, it will respond to that water,” Bean said.
Kansas it the top state for sorghum, producing 193 million bushels a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census. Texas was No. 2 with 95 million bushels.
South Dakota farmers planted 152,525 acres to sorghum and harvested 9.28 million bushels, according to the census. Nebraska sorghum yielded slightly more – 9.5 million bushels from 116,000 acres.
The further east you go, the less popular the crop becomes. Minnesota produces less than 50,000 bushels a year, and Iowa’s yield is about half that.
That’s changing with the late planting season. Bean now takes sorghum-related calls from growers as far east as Illinois and Iowa, where it’s not widely produced.
NuGen was one of two South Dakota ethanol plants that announced bids for sorghum in mid-June, along with the newly up and running Ringneck Energy plant in Onida.
Few elevators in South Dakota buy milo, but it is routine for the Gavilon elevator in Kimball. That’s where Matt Huizenga delivers his grain sorghum.
Huizenga is farm manager for Christiansen Land and Cattle and farms from Platte to north of Kimball and as far west as Reliance. He’s gradually increased sorghum acres over the last five years to about 1,200. It diversifies their crop rotation and helps split the workload in the fall.
“People think of milo as a secondary or drought crop,” he said. “I’ve found out by treating it as a cash crop it can be just as valuable to a guy as corn or soybeans.”
Milo is typically planted at Christiansen Land and Cattle in early May and harvested in time to follow with a crop of winter wheat. With planting season running late, Huizenga planted only forage sorghum this year. The forage quality is on par with silage corn, but the seeds cost less.
“It really helps us. Our feeding costs are lower,” he said.
Gavilon’s grain sorghum is used for ethanol and the bird seed market. Some is exported, though exports have slowed due to the trade war. Domestically, grain is commonly used for ethanol production where it’s grown en masse like in Kansas and Texas. Plants must be approved to use it in ethanol production through the Renewable Identification Number program. Sorghum doesn’t give quite the oil or ethanol yield that corn does, so most plants prefer corn.
“We don’t have that luxury at this point,” Bauerle said.
This season, he’s worried about securing enough corn to meet his plant’s needs. He’s expecting they’ll need to draw from a much larger area. Bauerle hopes that by buying sorghum, they’ll meet production needs and help local farmers at the same time.
“If you want to sell us milo, give us a call. We are definitely open to take it off your hands,” he said.
At Ringneck Energy, President and CEO Walt Wendland was worried about corn supplies early in the season, but many spring wheat acres were shifted to grow corn.
“I think we planted as much corn as we could,” he said.
Still, he’s relieved to have sorghum as a backup. He expects it will be more widely grown this year after hearing from farmers that seed was hard to come by.
Planting sorghum is still a viable option – especially for livestock producers who are considering chopping it for silage. Early maturing varieties can be planted into June, but with later planting dates the threat of fall frost becomes a concern.
“An early September frost can really sneak up on people,” said Chris Graham, agronomist with South Dakota State University Extension.
Graham planted the university’s final grain sorghum trial plot June 13. Last year’s trials in Pierre and Kennebec had varied success. Yields in Kennebec were as low as 50 or 60 bushels per acre, while yields nearly hit 130 bushels just 40 miles north at the Dakota Lakes Research Station in Pierre.
“Dakota Lakes got some really timely rains,” Graham said, explaining the difference.
Increasing the planting population boosts yields, he’s found. At 30,000 plants per acre, sorghum can grow secondary tillers with more heads, like wheat does. At 80,000 per acre, plants are trained to focus more on one primary head, and produce more grain.
One of the biggest benefits of growing sorghum in place of corn is the low seed cost. Sorghum runs $10 per acre, while corn can cost upwards of $75.
Its nutrient needs are very similar to corn. Bean, the checkoff agronomist, suggests sticking with 1 to 1.1 pounds of nitrogen for every bushel of expected yield. Plant it with a starter fertilizer to get it growing well, he said, then side dress the crop with more nitrogen 20 to 28 days after planting.
Weed control is also handled like corn.
“Start clean,” Bean said. “It’s very important you use a pre-emerge herbicide.”
Many herbicides are labeled for post-emergent applications in corn, but sorghum doesn’t have as many options. Pre-emergence herbicides for sorghum include atrazine with a grass herbicide such as Degree Xtra or Bicep. If atrazine is not an option, Bean suggests Dual, Outlook or Warrant. As for pests, in South Dakota, they aren’t much of a problem, he said.
Sorghum needs a platform combine header at harvest time, similar to what’s used for wheat. Some companies make a row header that operates more closely to a soybean head, and some make kits to convert a combine’s corn head to act more like a row header.
Bean and the sorghum checkoff have resources for returning and first-time sorghum growers on the checkoff website:
https://www.sorghumcheckoff.com/news-and-media/newsroom/2019/06/11/consider-late-planted-grain-sorghum/ - Includes seed cost, rotational benefits, hybrid selection and seeding rate discussion.
https://www.sorghumcheckoff.com/news-and-media/newsroom/2019/03/11/fertilizing-grain-sorghum/ - Soil pH, N, P, K and S requirements.
https://www.sorghumcheckoff.com/news-and-media/newsroom/2019/06/13/summary-of-2017-2018-preemergence-weed-control-trials/ - Discusses the findings of pre-emergence trials conducted in 2017 and 2018.
https://www.sorghumcheckoff.com/news-and-media/newsroom/2018/04/17/effective-post-emergence-weed-control/ - A discussion and use of post-emergence weed control options in grain sorghum.
Editor's Note: This story was updated to include comments from Ringneck Energy CEO Walt Wendland.