Like wheat and corn, sorghum is poised to produce excellent results this year across eastern Colorado.

Like wheat and corn, sorghum is poised to produce excellent results this year across eastern Colorado.

“I think it will be a very solid crop,” said Jerry Johnson, who oversees crop variety trials for the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at Colorado State University.

“If the plants get stressed during this period it doesn’t matter how good they look, but I’m not seeing any drought stress symptoms, and it appears we are going into the key grain-fill period with adequate soil moisture,” he added.

East central Colorado in particular is seeing exceptional production by historical standards. The sorghum variety trial at Brandon set records last year, while overall the state’s 14 million bushels was the largest sorghum harvest in at least a decade.

Earlier this summer, wheat variety trials near Sheridan Lake topped all other locations statewide, posting a yield average of 115 bushels per acre across all varieties.

“It was so thick you could not walk through it,” Johnson said.

Yields at Sheridan Lake were even better than the irrigated test plot at the Arkansas Valley Research Station near Rocky Ford, where research associate Kevin Tanabe said yields ranged from 84 to 120 bushels per acre for an average of 97 bushels per acre across all varieties.

Plots north of Burlington and near Orchard also hit 100 bushels to the acre or better for dryland wheat.

“The white wheat varieties did exceptionally well,” added Ron Meyer, area agronomist for CSU’s Golden Plains extension district.

Kevin Larson, superintendent and research scientist at the Plainsman Research Center at Walsh, agreed it has been a great year for both summer and fall crops.

“Everything looks good right now,” he said.

Diseases and pests have caused some problems but nothing significant enough to derail the historically high production.

The sugar cane aphid, a relatively new sorghum pest, caused big headaches for farmers in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas last year, prompting some farmers to grow fewer acres as a result, Larson noted.

Southeastern Colorado, while still in good shape, hasn’t totally dodged the bullet.

At the station’s fall field day, which was held in early September, sugar cane aphids were discovered there for the first time, Larson said.

It didn’t come as a total surprise, since the pest had already been found in neighboring Kansas counties to the east.

Though nowhere near threshold levels that would trigger treatment, the finding means farmers in southeastern Colorado need to stay alert, Larson observed.

“In just three days, the population can change radically,” he noted.

Even so, with aphid pressures minimal in Colorado so far and corn input costs stubbornly high, Larson says sorghum is enjoying strong popularity across the state.

Other agronomists echoed that view.

Tim Stahlecker, who farms north of Bethune and is also a full-time agronomist with the Stratton Equity Co-op, said he has gradually replaced proso millet with sorghum in his three-crops-in-four-years rotation, which also includes corn and wheat.

“It’s performing better. It seems to have just a little more yield potential,” he said.

Sorghum’s drought tolerance and low production costs make it comparable to millet in those respects, he added, and preferable to corn.

“Nitrogen and phosphorous prices are coming down, but corn seed prices have stayed pretty flat,” he said.

The price paid for sorghum, which spiked on Chinese demand two years ago, has since drifted back down to historic norms, noted Meyer, but the grain remains popular in the domestic market as a feed for hogs, cattle and poultry.

Johnson said any farmer who produces corn yielding less than 105 bushels to the acre is better off growing sorghum due to the production cost differential.

Most of the state’s sorghum is produced on dryland acreage, but it’s becoming more popular under wells with diminished water pumping capacity as aquifers decline, Meyer said.

“I think we might see more sorghum under irrigation in the future as a result,” he added.

Interestingly, while CSU’s sorghum trials have attracted more varieties in recent years, the corn hybrid trials are declining in size. That’s according to Sally Jones, Johnson’s assistant in the agronomy department. Originally from a farm near Flagler, she joined the department six years ago after completing her graduate work.

“Our sorghum trials have expanded a lot since I joined CSU, but the corn trials have shrunk,” she said.

Tanabe also made note of that phenomenon during the Arkansas Valley Research Center biennial field day a couple of weeks ago.

“Our corn hybrid entries from CSU have really gone down. The varieties just aren’t there anymore,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alta Seeds is introducing a sorghum variety tolerant to DuPont’s ALS herbicides, the first of several in the pipeline, which is sparking interest. The new sorghum is not technically a GMO, or genetically modified organism, because it is being developed using advancements in conventional crop breeding techniques.

Farmers examining this year’s variety trials to make seeding decisions need to study the results carefully, recognizing that optimal growing conditions aren’t the norm, Johnson said.

“It can throw you off,” he explained. “You have to really think about drought tolerance, because that’s the most common condition we see.”

While various varieties offer different levels of pest or disease resistance, as well as yield potential, performance under dry conditions should always be a top concern, he added.

“I always remind people that you can’t spray for drought,” Johnson said.

For research agronomists and seed developers, however, the past year has allowed them the rare opportunity to observe how varieties perform under ideal growing conditions out in the field.

“It gives us a chance to look at what the top end potential is when all of the stars align to make that possible,” Meyer said.