Sorghum yields were all over the board this past year, and due to the wet fall, some of it is still in the field, making it difficult for growers to finish applying for federal trade relief.
Applications for the market facilitation program were originally due January 15 but the deadline was extended due to the partial government shutdown. After government operations resume, the application window will remain open for a period of time equal to the number of business days the Farm Service Agency was closed. (Farmers who already applied and certified their 2018 production will continue to receive payments during the shutdown.)
Many farmers in the region need the extra time just to get their crop harvested and find out what their production will be, according to Jordan Shearer, who serves as executive director for sorghum grower groups in Colorado, Oklahoma and New Mexico.
Shearer also farms on the eastern edge of the Oklahoma panhandle.
Sorghum production was a mixed bag in 2018, hurt by hail in Colorado and extreme mid-summer heat in Oklahoma, but some farmers still saw excellent yields, he said.
What really took a toll, however, was last year's trade war with China, a key market for the crop. Roughly two-thirds of all U.S. production had been going to China in recent years, Shearer said recently at a producer meeting in Oklahoma.
China's tariff level on U.S. sorghum is currently 25 percent. Due to last year's trade disruption, sorghum growers are eligible to receive the highest amount of trade relief in proportion to the price. The market assistance payout for sorghum was set at 86 cents a bushel, representing an estimated outlay of $308 million nationwide.
In recent weeks, China pledged to resume purchases of U.S. agricultural products, but as of early this week no new sorghum sales had been reported.
Sorghum leaders and agronomists have also made progress fighting another foe that has deterred some farmers from growing sorghum in recent years: the sugarcane aphid, which is becoming more manageable as new research becomes available.
Josh Lofton, a cropping specialist with Oklahoma State University, can still recall driving down to Corpus Christi, Texas, to identify the sorghum pest for the first time in 2013. He was worried then because he knew the industry had no obvious remedy to combat it.
The aphids, which feed on the sap and reproduce rapidly, soon migrated northward across the sorghum belt, creating headaches for farmers used to growing what had been a dependable, low input, highly resilient crop. Some were stuck spraying multiple times during the season to control the sticky pest.
Since then, the United Sorghum Producers have funded extensive research to come up with management guidelines and identify tolerant varieties.
Fewer acres overall were affected by the problem last year, with high populations arriving only late in the season. Still, some areas, such as the Oklahoma panhandle, ended up with pest pressure at least as bad as the previous year, according to Lofton.
In another curious twist, some of the worst infestations occurred in forage sorghum.
"It was bad enough that it would actually kill part of the field," said Tom Royer, an entomologist at OSU.
Growers should consider getting their crop in as early as possible, to try to get out ahead of it, Lofton said.
Sugarcane aphid populations have a tendency to build up and then crash throughout the season, so the sorghum industry is also working on better sampling and forecasting tools that will help growers decide whether a pesticide application is actually needed, he added.
He advised sorghum growers to factor in at least one $15 to $20 per acre pesticide application when budgeting what it will cost to grow the crop.
"It is something you have to prepare for every year," he said.
Wet conditions this fall and winter, which are making it hard to get sorghum harvested and prevented wheat planting for many, could help boost sorghum acreage next year. Winter wheat is now projected to be at the lowest plantings in a century, leaving many acres open for a summer crop.
Depending on how the trade picture plays out, prices for sorghum could see a boost in 2019. Japan, Sudan, the European Union, Somalia and South Korea all increased U.S. sorghum purchases last year, according to the U.S. Grains Council.
Expanded use in biofuels is also enhancing sorghums future prospects.