A dry winter, low prices and a dampened mood following catastrophic spring wildfires has put many farmers on the defensive and looking for crops that minimize risk, a niche where sorghum traditionally excels.

“I think everybody’s goal this year is to try to break even. That’s what we’re all striving for,” said Jordan Shearer, a farmer from near the small town of Slapout at the eastern gateway to the Oklahoma panhandle.

“With wheat, it doesn’t look like there’s any way to make any income there, so sorghum is still the best game in town,” he said. “A farmer may be limited as far as how many acres he can put in due to his operating capital, and you’re still going to need an above average crop to break even, but at least it can work, if Mother Nature is kind to us.”

So far Mother Nature has been anything but kind.

Shearer’s house is just five miles south of where a huge wildfire broke out in early March before racing northward into southwest Kansas.

“In my area, we’ve made national news twice this year, first for the ice storm,” he said, referring to a January system that brought much-needed moisture but landed like a fist in a velvet glove.

“What a lot of people might not understand is the ice storm weakened the power grid and that’s where a lot of these fires started was from highline wires breaking where they had been spliced back together,” he said. “Not only that, but we also had telephone poles in the bar ditches that were catching fire everywhere.”

Shearer has been working for the sorghum industry since last fall, when he was hired as the joint executive director to head the sorghum associations in Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma.

On his farm, Shearer raises dryland crops and typically runs stocker calves on winter wheat pasture. Last fall’s drought, however, forced him to dry-lot calves all winter after the wheat crop failed to emerge.

Poor wheat stands are a common problem from Shearer’s place all the way up into southeastern Colorado.

Leon Richards, another avid sorghum grower from near Hardesty in the Oklahoma panhandle, noted that while there’s plenty of moisture stored deep in the soil profile, the problem this winter was getting plants established in the dry upper crust.

“In terms of subsoil moisture we’re in fairly strong shape compared to normal but our topsoil has been very dry,” he said.

The January soaker that brought ice as well as rain finally coaxed the wheat out of the ground. But if farmers had known how late it would be, they would have planted at heavier seeding rates, Richards said.

Quenching rains across the region earlier this week brightened spring planting prospects, and there’s a chance some failed wheat will now go into sorghum instead.

“The wheat’s hanging on if it was planted in a timely fashion,” said Kenneth Rose, a former national grain sorghum president who farms near Keyes in the far westernmost county in Oklahoma. “But the wheat that went in late is in trouble, no matter what happens now.”

Still, it’s not the agronomics but the economics that have farmers most distressed, he said.

“At least we had excellent wheat and milo yields last year so that gave us some cash flow. Right now the price is the worst thing,” he said. “The market just pulled the rug out from under everyone last summer. It makes you just want to crawl under a table and hide.”

The cattle situation hasn’t been much better. Shearer noted that taking wheat pasture cattle in on the gain, a common practice on the Southern Plains, paid only about half of what it normally does this winter.

The extent of the spring wildfires prompts the question of whether forage demand and prices will improve faster than grain prices.

“Could there be some increased local demand for hay? Possibly,” Shearer said. Growing crops for forage instead of grain is an option many farmers were looking at even before the fires.

“Raising forage sorghum on cropland is something we’re going to do on a lot of our acres,” Shearer said. “That will keep our input costs low, and we’ll either put it up for hay or graze it.”

The strategy eliminates or reduces harvesting cost, crop insurance premiums and herbicide expense and carries less risk than chasing grain yields, he said.

“On the flip side, you don’t have as much upside potential if you do have a good year,” he noted.

Sorghum grain demand as indicated by the basis in the market has shown signs of life in recent weeks, according to Tim Lust, NGSP’s executive director, based at Lubbock, Texas.

“We continue to have strong old crop sales,” Lust said. “In fact, we’re seeing sorghum inverted to corn in some spots on the Mississippi, and that’s a signal there is demand. So sales are strong and new crop sorghum could be even better.”

Sorghum is unique in that higher production can actually lead to a stronger basis, according to John Miller, the owner of Southwest Agribusiness Consulting in Caldwell, Texas.

“If there’s more of it around it becomes more valuable to the exporters,” he said.

Even so, although wheat acres are down dramatically, Miller doesn’t expect sorghum acreage to get the same boost as cotton and soybeans. Nationally, harvested acreage of grain sorghum peaked in the mid-1990s and now hovers at around 6 million acres.

“We’d like to see milo acreage stay stable, but I think we might lose a little bit this year,” he said. “For some pockets that are on the bubble about what to plant, the sugarcane aphid (a sticky pest that began showing up in sorghum two years ago) could be the decision maker.”

A key federal planting intentions report is set to reveal the latest acreage expectations in a release scheduled for Friday, March 31.

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