As Bill Kubecka got ready to plant grain sorghum following a February rain, he took a hard look at some of his production costs and a profit margin that continues to shrink even as grain prices improve.
“Input prices are up, to about $350 per acre versus $200 an acre last year. That's an increased exposure to risk,” Kubecka says.
Wholesale input cuts makes little sense, however, despite the rising costs of nutrients, says Kubecka, who farms in South Texas near Palacios.
Grain sorghum responds to fertility, he says. “If we don't make production, risks go up even more. We face big margin calls and contracts we are not able to fill.”
He says reduced production also adds to per unit costs. “As yields drop, per pound production costs rise.”
A 10-bushel per acre yield reduction means he'll need a higher market price to make a profit. He says at 70 bushels per acre, growers need close to $5 a bushel to break even.
Grain sorghum offers advantages in his area. “With corn, we have a maximum amount of fertilizer we can apply and still see an economic yield increase. Corn has other limiting factors in this area, too. High nighttime temperatures along the Gulf Coast will limit yield potential.”
High temperatures may have an effect on grain sorghum, too, but not as drastic, he says.
“A stretch of eight to ten days with above average temperatures at night will affect grain sorghum. We may not make the top yield, but we can still make an average crop or just a little below. Grain sorghum does better with other limiting factors as well.”
Milo yields are more consistent in his area, he says.
“I've had neighbors who made 150 to 160 bushels of corn per acre on specific fields,” he says. “But over a 10 to 15 year span, average yield will be 100 to 110 bushels per acre. Last year, with wet conditions, some farmers were able to bring yields up to 139 bushels per acre.”
That was an unusual year, Kubecka says. “Averages pay the bills.” He says sorghum will respond to 150 to 160 units of nitrogen per acre. “We'll see yields increase.”
Water is the number one limiting factor for grain sorghum or corn in his area. “Fertility will be second,” he says. “I'll add more fertilizer to milo this year.”
Kubecka will plant some corn. “I've tried corn twice and both times it was not an economical crop. But I'm looking at it again. If it yields I'll add it to the rotation.”
He'd like to cut back on tillage but a wet harvest season makes that difficult this year. “We harvested in the mud and left ruts,” he says. “We had to make three or four extra trips just to get the ruts out. Overall, we're trying to cut down on tillage. It's mandatory to reduce costs where we can. The margin is simply not there so we have to look at every angle to minimize costs.”
Ken Rose, Keyes, Oklahoma, says he's cut out about as many trips across fields as he can. “We're moving to no-till as fast as possible,” he says.
“Weather is our big concern,” Rose says. “We've had a severe drought in the High Plains. Wheat has suffered. We've had no significant rainfall (through late February), nothing with more than three-tenths of an inch at one time, since July. That's got to change if we're to have a wheat crop. A lot of fields never emerged.”
He says irrigation adds to production costs. “Fuel for irrigation is much higher.”
Rose says if his area, in the Oklahoma Panhandle, gets rain, growers will plant milo. “Grain sorghum has an advantage here over other summer crops.”
He plants milo and wheat. “I like the rotation. We break up weed cycles and can use different chemistry in each crop.”
“Rotation is an advantage everywhere,” Kubecka says.
Across the grain sorghum production area, farmers likely will increase acreage, says Tim Lust, executive director, National Sorghum Producers, Lubbock, Texas. “We're projecting a 1 percent to 2 percent increase. Some of that will be double-cropped behind wheat, if farmers get wheat out in time.”
Lust says some of the drought-plagued wheat may be abandoned if growers do not get adequate rain in time to help the crop. Some of those acres could be planted back to grain sorghum. “That possibility is not figured in the national planting estimate,” he says.
Cotton farmers in the Texas Plains may also add sorghum to their enterprise mix. “Some farmers are looking at quarter or half circles with part of the field in grain sorghum and part in cotton. “Milo hits peak water demand 35 to 40 days after planting, so if they plant sorghum early they can provide water and then switch to cotton later in the summer. That may be one production strategy to maximize profitability.”
Lust says a good many farmers will plant grain sorghum in early April.