PHOTO: Wichita County farmer Greg Graff (left) serves as district representative for the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission and board president of the Western Kansas Groundwater Management District 1. He and Ramasamy Perumal, sorghum breeder at the Agricultural Research Center– Hays, examine a K-State sorghum test plot after an early freeze.
The extreme heat and drought of 2011 and 2012 took a heavy toll on summer crops in most of Kansas. Just ask western Kansas producer Greg Graff from Wichita County.
The dryland crops produced nothing. Only irrigated sorghum came close to a normal yield.
“Nothing really worked on dryland acres around here in 2012, not even grain sorghum — which can usually withstand dry weather pretty well,” Graff said in early fall. “On irrigated ground, the grain sorghum looks relatively good, at least compared to corn.”
This is not surprising, Graff said. Compared to corn or soybeans, the other major summer row crops in the region, grain sorghum requires less water to produce a decent yield and handles stress better. No other crop makes such efficient use of available water and consistently generates income as a cash crop under such a wide range of soils and weather conditions, he said.
So why has grain sorghum acreage lagged behind corn and soybean acreage under full and limited irrigation in Kansas? Three big reasons, according to Graff: limited top-end yield potential, limited options for controlling summer annual grasses, and a price spread that favors corn over grain sorghum.
A strong K-State Research and Extension program in grain sorghum is vital, Graff said.
“Farmers in Kansas are relying on our K-State sorghum breeders, Ramasamy Perumal in Hays and Tesfaye Tesso in Manhattan, to continue emphasizing higher yields,” Graff said. “Right now, we can get maximum sorghum yields of about 170 to 180 bushels per acre on 12 to 14 inches of water. If we could get 220 bushels per acre on that same amount of water, that would make sorghum roughly as profitable as growing corn on 18 to 24 inches of water.”
After that, sorghum yields need to increase by 2 to 3 percent a year to keep pace with increases in corn yields, he added.
The goal is not to entirely replace irrigated corn with grain sorghum, but to make grain sorghum more of an equal partner with corn under irrigation.
“As a western Kansas farmer, I’d like to have a cropping system choice of corn, sorghum, and wheat under irrigation instead of just corn and wheat, but wheat and sorghum currently are not as profitable as corn,” he explained. “That would allow us to extend the available water in the aquifer, make better use of planting and harvesting equipment through the season, and allow us to reduce our risk of crop failure because of weather extremes and stress.”
In addition to efforts to increase yields through plant breeding trials, K-State researchers have made other important contributions recently to grain sorghum profitability, Graff added:
• Herbicide-resistant sorghum technology will help with in-season grass control in sorghum.
• Nitrogen fertilizer management research allows producers to reduce nitrogen use while maintaining yields.
• Improved stalk quality will support the weight of higher yields.
• Greater cold tolerance would allow sorghum producers to plant earlier and use longer season hybrids than they currently grow and increase yields.
Research efforts through K-State’s Great Plains Sorghum Improvement and Utilization Center help increase sorghum acreage in Kansas so producers can make better use of water and other valuable resources now and in the future.
For more information:
Tesfaye Tesso, 785-532-7238, firstname.lastname@example.org; Ramasamy Perumal, 785-625-3425, email@example.com
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