Alabama farmers are planting more grain sorghum in response to a global demand for U.S. sorghum for animal feed, and learning how to deal with a new pest even as acreage grows. Grain sorghum is commonly called “milo,” and is specific to East Africa. Today’s U.S. grain sorghum varieties originated mainly with types from East and South Africa.
Other kinds of sorghum can be grown as forages for hay and pasture. “Sweet” sorghums have juicier stalks and can be used to make syrup, and similar to some grain sorghums, sweet sorghums are also now used for ethanol production.
Sorghum is known for drought-tolerance and the ability to produce a crop under challenging field conditions. Dry years usually result in more sorghum planted in the state.
“It’s a crop where we see acreage move up and down over the years,” says Carla Hornady, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation Wheat and Feed Grains Division.
Before 2015, Alabama grain sorghum acreage peaked during World War II, when more than 56,000 acres were planted. While Alabama sorghum plantings approached 50,000 acres in the early 1980s, total acreage usually remained below 30,000 through the 1990s.
Sorghum acreage declined in the 2000s. Fewer than 10,000 acres were planted in Alabama in 2012, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture. This is because record corn prices allowed producers to reap corn profits from less-fertile soils.
High corn prices also pushed the world’s livestock producers – especially pork and poultry producers in China – to seek out more economical feeds. Grain sorghum was a big winner, as China imported record amounts of U.S.-grown sorghum. Grain exporters offered premium prices, especially at the beginning of the 2015 season, and producers near river grain terminals especially benefited. Some U.S. poultry producers took another look at sorghum for chicken feeds, too.
That helped push Alabama sorghum plantings to a record 60,000 acres in 2015, according to Auburn University estimates. It’s a small fraction of Alabama’s 1.2 million acres of row crops. However, higher-yielding sorghum varieties and lower corn prices are pushing some farms to keep sorghum in the mix beyond 2015.
To be sure, sorghum is not a silver-lined crop. The seeds are much smaller than corn and soybeans, which may require farms to modify grain harvesting and handling equipment.
Sorghum profitability depends greatly on sorghum yields. That means producers must manage soil fertility and pests properly – and that can mean a learning curve for those who may not have grown sorghum in many years.
An unexpected challenge farmers are dealing with is the sugarcane aphid, which is an insect that did not feed on grain sorghum plants until 2013. Scientists are in the process of discovering why the aphids adopted sorghum as a host plant.
There are synthetic controls for aphids available, but spraying too much for sorghum pests can eat away at profitability margins. Sugarcane aphids feed on the underside of the sorghum plant leaf, meaning it takes careful inspection to determine whether a field is infested.
Alabama growers rely on crop scouting, or inspecting fields, to determine when the time is best for insect control. But Alabama farmers have encountered pesky bugs before, and producing for a global economy should mean grain sorghum acreage will stay near the record levels of 2015.