Wheat and More….or less
OK, tell me again why we’re supposed to plant corn over
If you look at what’s going on out in the country in recent
years, farmers are looking more and more seriously at corn over grain sorghum.
That’s also been the case for the past 40 years. US grain sorghum acreage peaked in
the early ‘70s at 20 to 22 million acres. In recent years, the acreage has
slowly eroded to only about 7 million acres nationwide. Of course, most of this
is grown in the central and southern Plains with Kansas
being the big producers.
There are some reasons for our infatuation with corn. For
what it’s worth, it is a sexier crop. Beyond that, some farmers like planting a
mix of both corn and sorghum because it allows them to get expensive planting
and harvesting equipment over more acres on a timely basis. That does make
sense. In addition, as you go north and west, corn may have an advantage in
getting to maturity on time.
Too, with Roundup Ready corn hybrids, there are some
advantages with weed control options and costs. However, this advantage is
losing some steam because a growing number of weeds are developing resistance
to the popular herbicide. And while corn herbicide programs may have some cost
advantage, a lot of that is eaten up by higher priced seed.
But in talking recently with Kansas
researcher Alan Schlegel at the Tribune Experiment Station, he expressed some
confusion as to why farmers in Greeley
County, Kan., for
instance, are planting so much corn. Out there, half of their summer row crops
is going to corn while the other half is going to milo.
Take a look at this data and you’ll understand his
confusion. For the past 4 years, he’s been running a study which, among things,
compares yields of no-till corn to no-till grain sorghum. Guess what? Milo kicks butt. Over the course of the study, sorghum
literally clobbers corn with a 17-bushel per acre yield advantage. With a
sorghum price of just $3/bu., that’s a $50/acre advantage. If you’re planting
1000 acres of sorghum, you’ll gross an additional $50,000!
And at a more current price of $5 to $6/bu., sorghum’s advantage is $85 to $100/acre. On
that same 1000 acres, you’re now grossing an additional $85,000 to $100,000.
Some farmers say they plant corn because in the really good
year, it’ll have a higher yield peak. Sorry. The data say something else. In
the super optimum years, sorghum and corn do equally as well.
One thing I have noticed, though, is with certain farmers,
corn is the crop of choice in the really bad years—because it dies so well.
They don’t like grain sorghum because it really does have much better drought
tolerance. It’ll hang on and hang on and hang on while corn just gives up.
These farmers openly promote corn for dire conditions
because it makes their crop insurance plans and returns work so much better.
But honestly, guys, I don’t think this is how we want to present our industry
to the public. Planned failure really does not look good—especially to a
skeptical public who has always struggled to understand farm subsidies and crop
And while we keep hearing about drought tolerant corn, my
recent reading on that says to expect something only on the order of an initial
5% yield increase. With an 80-bushel crop, that’s just a 4-bushel per acre
yield increase—which falls well short of the l7-bushel yield advantage sorghum
has over corn.
Another thing of great interest to me is the price of corn
and sorghum seed. Earlier this winter a seed company came by inquiring about us
selling their row crop seed. I asked how much a farmer-seed dealer would make
selling corn and milo. With milo, the dealer would make $5 or $7/bag, but with
corn it was more like $20/bag….up to $50/bag depending on the hybrid. Wow! Talk
However, this could present an interesting ethical dilemma.
Do we sell lower yielding corn to farmers and make more money for ourselves, or
cut our seed profits by selling more sorghum seed?
Another thing about grain sorghum is the crop is so
forgiving. You can get very respectable yields with even a wide range in
seeding rate, for instance, because the crop will do such a good job of
compensating by putting out more tillers if needed. Corn, on the other hand, is
very sensitive to seeding rate. If the stand isn’t there, you will pay.
Putting all these things together, what are you going to do?
I hate to sound mercenary, but here on our farm, we really are interested in
making money. And that’s why we’re planting grain sorghum.
Vance Ehmke and his wife, Louise, farm in Lane County. The operation includes raising certified seed wheat.