Farm Progress

With better plant genetics and projections for a dry spell in Nebraska, Panhandle farmers have more reason than ever to try sorghum.

Tyler Harris, Editor

January 26, 2018

3 Min Read
MEETING THE CHALLENGE: The Panhandle’s high elevation and short growing season have been deterrents to growing sorghum.

While Nebraska's grain sorghum acres have waxed and waned throughout the years, the period from the 1970s through the 1980s was definitely a boom for sorghum acres in the state — with over 2 million acres harvested by the mid-1980s.

Most of the sorghum acres have been along the southern tier of counties, from southwest to the southeast. However, sorghum, a crop noted for its drought hardiness, has never enjoyed a surge in acres in Nebraska's driest region — the Panhandle — which typically receives 14 to 16 inches of annual rainfall. The highest amount of acres reported was in Keith County in the 1980s at about 600.

At the recent 2018 Sorghum Symposium in Curtis, Nebraska Extension dryland cropping systems specialist Cody Creech noted genetics may have been the biggest hang-up for growers. However, with improvements in genetics and with projections calling for a looming dry spell in Nebraska, growers might consider the water-efficient crop. For the last several years, Creech has grown grain sorghum on plots at the High Plains Ag Lab near Sidney.

"I believe if we can demonstrate a few successful years of growing sorghum, growers will be more inclined to adopt it," he says. "If you look at the current predication models for weather, we're entering a dry spell the next five to seven years. Sorghum is going to be a good option for us."

Creech notes there are a few things to consider when growing sorghum in the Panhandle:

• Plant-available water. "Typically a grower would be deciding between planting corn and sorghum in the spring," Creech says. "You need to really look at what your starting soil moisture is. If you're coming out of a dry winter and expecting a dry summer, dryland sorghum might be a better bet."

However, the amount of plant-available water also affects sorghum yield, and Creech adds that knowing how much water is available at planting helps understand how much fertilizer will be needed to reach a certain yield.

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For example, water use and yield curves from USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Akron, Colo. — a similar growing environment to the High Plains Ag Lab — show with about 7.9 to 8 inches of plant-available water at planting (a fairly common scenario in the region), the likelihood of reaching 60-bushel sorghum is about 60%.

• The right hybrid. In the Panhandle of Nebraska, where elevations typically reach over 4,000 feet, the right hybrid makes a difference. "As we get higher in elevation, our growing season gets shorter," Creech says. Moving into the Panhandle, the number of cumulative growing degree days from 1960 to 1991 drops to 2,401 to 2,800 and in more western regions, below 2,400 cumulative GDD. This is compared to 3,201 to 3,600 GDDs from 1960 to 1991 in south-central, southeast and east-central Nebraska.

In high-elevation environments, a short-season hybrid is key, Creech says. In trials at the High Plains Ag Lab over the last three years, short-season grain sorghum hybrids have averaged 65.9 bushels per acre — although some early-maturing hybrids reached as high as 76.7 bushels per acre. "The name of the game for us is early maturity," he says.

• Planting date. With such a tight planting window at higher elevations, Creech says it's critical to plant sorghum as soon as possible once soil temperatures reach 60 degrees F. "If you're delayed a couple of weeks, that could be the difference between a good crop and losing the crop," he says.

Most often, this means planting before June 1 usually gives Panhandle growers ample time to reach maturity and harvest before a frost, but avoids freezing temperatures early in the season.

"If we would have consistent water and higher rainfall in the Panhandle, I don't think maturity would be as much of an issue," Creech says. "When we have dry weather, it delays the maturity of sorghum. It really extends the time needed for grain sorghum to mature. Once the rain comes, however, it will keep growing."

About the Author(s)

Tyler Harris

Editor, Wallaces Farmer

Tyler Harris is the editor for Wallaces Farmer. He started at Farm Progress as a field editor, covering Missouri, Kansas and Iowa. Before joining Farm Progress, Tyler got his feet wet covering agriculture and rural issues while attending the University of Iowa, taking any chance he could to get outside the city limits and get on to the farm. This included working for Kalona News, south of Iowa City in the town of Kalona, followed by an internship at Wallaces Farmer in Des Moines after graduation.

Coming from a farm family in southwest Iowa, Tyler is largely interested in how issues impact people at the producer level. True to the reason he started reporting, he loves getting out of town and meeting with producers on the farm, which also gives him a firsthand look at how agriculture and urban interact.

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