Sorghum Crop Needs Warm, Dry Conditions

By Bonnie Coblentz/MSU Ag Communications

STARKVILLE, Miss. — Grain sorghum acreage seemed likely to decrease dramatically in Mississippi in 2015 when sugarcane aphids damaged the state’s 2014 crop, but excellent prices kept acreage strong.

Erick Larson, grain crops agronomist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said Mississippi growers are expecting to plant about 90,000 acres of grain sorghum, or milo, this year. This is slightly lower than the number of acres planted in 2014.

“After the experience last summer with this new pest, growers intended to have significantly less grain sorghum acreage, and at the time, we didn’t think there would be much planted at all,” Larson said. “What changed was the price.”

Brian Williams, Extension agricultural economist, said grain sorghum is trading for about $4.64 per bushel in Mississippi. Late last October, the price was less than $4 a bushel. One thing driving the good prices is an excellent basis, which is the price added to grain sorghum when compared to current corn futures prices.

“A year ago sorghum was 5 cents a bushel cheaper than corn, but now it is $1 a bushel more expensive,” Williams said. “It is relatively rare for sorghum to be priced higher than corn. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that marketing-year sorghum prices have been higher than corn only four times since 1950.”

Sorghum prices were helped by tight stocks because of reduced acreage over the last few years and increased demand. Sorghum exports are expected to reach record levels this year, with much of it going to China.

“Some of the supply concerns should be eased later this year with an 11 percent increase in U.S. acres from last year,” Williams said.

Much of grain sorghum’s popularity in the state is because of its relatively low cost of production compared to other row crops. MSU planning budgets show per-acre production costs for sorghum are $309 compared to $320 for wheat, $459 for dryland corn, $805 for cotton and $314 for dryland soybeans.

Last year’s infestation of sugarcane aphids, a new pest in milo, threatened to increase these costs, but growers managed it well.

“We were fairly successful with minimizing yield losses last year, and we didn’t suffer a lot of harvest difficulties from the pest,” Larson said. “These aphids produce a lot of honeydew, a thick, sappy secretion they leave on the sorghum plant. That honeydew can clog up combines and do serious damage to the equipment at harvest.”

Tommy Swindoll, owner and manager of Big 6 Farms #2 in Tunica County, planted 600 acres of grain sorghum this year, about double what he usually grows. Price prompted the increase.

“We got a way better basis, which makes the price better,” Swindoll said. “It’s a little more profitable than corn, and it builds your ground up. It’s a good rotation with soybeans and wheat.”

Swindoll said he sprayed twice for sugarcane aphids in his milo last year and budgeted for two sprayings this year. Other tactics he is using to battle this pest are earlier planting, narrow rows, border spraying at field edges and an insecticide seed treatment.

USDA reported 42 percent of the state’s grain sorghum had been planted by May 3, putting it right on track with the five-year average. Larson said cool, wet weather has kept the crop in below-average condition.

“Sorghum is a crop that likes weather conditions that are warmer and drier, and much of the crop was planted in early April when conditions were cool and wet,” he said. “The warmer, dry weather we’ve had recently should allow the crop to improve rapidly.”

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