This yearlong endeavor looks at how four farmers are evaluating technology and agronomic information that can boost the productivity of their operations.
Heath Whitmore's tentative winter plans called for adding rice to his corn/soybean operation this season. But when his planter hit the field, he planted grain sorghum instead.
"There's an extremely strong demand for grain sorghum, which wasn't even an option during our winter planning when we were considering adding rice," says Whitmore, who farms near St. Charles, Ark. "But price opportunity occurred with grain sorghum, and we backed completely off rice."
Whitmore says when he booked grain sorghum, the basis was well over the December corn board. "There's a local elevator here in St. Charles that was 50 to 60 cents over the market," he notes. "We can haul milo at harvest to a local elevator—it's almost like having our own bins. We started booking grain sorghum at $4.50 per bushel."
Whitmore planted 330 acres of grain sorghum, 450 acres of corn and 420 acres of soybeans. Grain sorghum is a good rotational crop and takes some of his ground out of glyphosate, enabling him to use other classes of herbicide chemistry and manage weed resistance.
"Some of the preplant herbicides that we used on grain sorghum fit in well with our rotation because we can spray Verdict and Dual, or Verdict alone, and hold grass pressure off for a while," he says. "Then we come back with atrazine."
Sugarcane aphid was a scourge on Mid–South grain sorghum in 2014, but that did not deter Whitmore. His BASF innovation specialist, Brad Koen, advised planting between April 1 and May 1 in an attempt to outrun the pest.
Whitmore started planting corn April 1 but fought sporadic rains. Half of his grain sorghum was planted by the first week of April, and the second half finished the first week of May.
"We should be in good shape with our early planting dates as far as insects," Koen says. "However, we're preparing for a midge problem and a sugarcane aphid problem. They're easy to control if you stay on top of them."
Koen admits he is facing some unknowns. Grain sorghum hasn't been grown in a high–yield program in this region, so yields are a question. Along with that, while growers can't fully anticipate the cost of growing the crop, University of Arkansas Extension provides a guideline. It estimates 2015 expenses for furrow–irrigated grain sorghum will be $364.61 per acre.
"If soybeans and corn are indicators, we can come out with some impressive yields with grain sorghum. If that takes place, and prices hold, grain sorghum will become a strong player for us," Koen says.
When Whitmore started farming corn, he hoped to make 175 to 180 bushels per acre. He farmed it on rough ground and made 185 to 190 bushels, thinking he was hitting a home run. When the commodity price rose, he planted corn on his good ground and realized 220– to 230–bushel–per–acre yields.
"For milo, we're budgeting in 130 bushels, hoping for 140," he says. "If we cut 170 or 180, now we're talking about a viable option for our operation. In addition to yield and commodity prices, you have to consider input costs. A field of corn runs $150 per acre to plant in just seed cost. Grain sorghum seed costs only $20 because there are no technology traits."
Koen likes the potential water and diesel savings. "We also have to water grain sorghum only half as much of what we water soybeans," he notes.
During the winter, Whitmore tried 50 acres of a cover crop, a preblend mix of tillage radish, clover, cereal rye, oats and triticale. "It worked great," he says. "One field has a pretty bad hillside, but the cover crop held the dirt well. The beds looked exactly the same way they did when we pulled out of the field last fall."
Extremely cold weather thinned the radishes in January. Whitmore then used a Sharpen and Roundup burndown in late February. "When we planted that field to corn the first week in April, you almost could not see any cover crop at all," he says. Rains delayed his planting by about 10 days, but no–till and minimum tillage helped make up for lost time. "When we finished planting grain sorghum, all we did was swap the seed cups out and start planting soybeans," he says. Everyone else unhooked the planter and "hooked to a disk or a cultivator and a float to smooth down the ground."