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Sorghum yield contest winner shares insights

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SUCCESS OF 2020: Chad Dane has been pleasantly surprised at the profitability of sorghum.
A Nebraska farmer describes his successes and challenges in raising a high-yielding crop.

Chad Dane has experienced a nice run of national rankings in the National Sorghum Producers annual yield contest.

Dane, who farms 3,600 acres in Clay County, placed second nationally and first in Nebraska in the Irrigated-West category of the 2020 national contest with a yield of 208.47 bushels. So far, Dane has placed second nationally twice, third once and fourth once in the contest.

“We typically grow our sorghum around our seed corn production fields,” Dane says. “What was once just a few pivot corners has grown for us over the last few years.”

Isolation requirements for seed corn production have increased from 10 rods previously to 20 rods now. “That gives us 20 full acres on a side of a field next to a neighbor’s field of corn,” Dane explains. “If three neighbors have field corn next to us, then we will have almost 60 acres planted to sorghum and 100 acres of seed corn on each quarter section.”

This placement puts much of Dane’s sorghum under irrigation. “Our first year of growing sorghum, we were not in the national contest, and we were amazed at how much our sorghum yielded,” he notes. “Some of the sorghum is getting more water than it would require. However, we have grown some on gravity-irrigated pivot corners too.”

Normally, they water two to three times and still get the same yields as under the pivot.

Dane says they used to plant soybeans around their seed corn production fields as a buffer crop, but when they rotated the rest of the field back to soybeans the next year, the isolation areas were soybeans-on-soybeans. “Soon the yields began to plummet,” he says. “Sorghum has allowed us to grow something different, and we were pleasantly surprised at the profitability.”

Growing profitability

In 2021, Dane is growing a full pivot-irrigated farm of sorghum. “The demand from China has boosted the new-crop basis, and currently nets $100 per acre over irrigated corn,” he says. “We are hesitant yet to grow thousands of acres of sorghum because of harvest timing, and standability of high-yielding 200-bushels-per-acre sorghum is unknown.”

Success with sorghum starts with choosing the right varieties to plant. Dane’s winning yield field was planted to Pioneer 84P72. “We’ve found that you have to go with long-season sorghums,” he says. “If you want to push 200-bushel yields, the mid- and short-season varieties won’t do it. We’re growing 118- and 120-day milo.”

Dane waits for the first good freeze in the fall before harvest, and five days later, the crop has dried down and is ready to be harvested. “Trying to move 200-bushel wet milo through a combine is very difficult,” he says. “It takes much more power than picking wet corn.”

 Nebraska and national sorghum yield contest winners for 2020.

In an area with silty clay loam and heavy clay soils, sorghum does extremely well in low-lying heavy clay soils that are flat and poorly drained, compared to any other commodity crop.

Dane matches his sorghum fertility program to the seed corn production fields. “If we are applying 100 pounds of NH3 for seed, we simply do the same for the sorghum,” he says. “We’ve had some amazing yields off of just 100 pounds of nitrogen. This season, on the full-pivot quarter, we will also apply some nitrogen through the pivot, pre-boot stage, and see if we can top some of our current yields.”

Blackbird challenge

Blackbirds offer one of the biggest challenges in growing sorghum. Dane believes that if more people grew sorghum, it would spread out the bird population and feeding pressure.

“We’ve seen isolation pivot corners with yield reductions of 40% from bird issues,” he says. “Also, your herbicide options are more limited with sorghum. Starting clean and activating a preemerge herbicide are keys to getting good yields.”

Dane isn’t ready to plant the whole farm to sorghum, but he is certainly a believer. “Profitability of sorghum is really good,” he says. “Typically, we can grow a good crop on $80 to $100 per acre, all in.”

Having placed nationally, Dane has his eye on the national championship in sorghum. “We’d like to really try for first place this year,” he adds. “We will be able to fertigate our sorghum this year, since it will be in a field all on its own. It’s going to take 225-bushels-per-acre sorghum to win the contest.”

Other Nebraska sorghum yield winners include Brad Robinson from Harlan County in the Dryland-No-Till West category, with 182.35 bushels; and Matthew Bloss, Pawnee County, who raised 136.03 bushels per acre in the Dryland-Tillage West category. See all the Nebraska winners in the table above.

Learn more about the 2021 National Sorghum Producers Yield Contest at sorghumgrowers.com/yield-contest.

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