Starting Sorghum, Better Late Than NeverAs I’m writing this column on June 7, ABC online news displayed the following headline: “Canadian wildfire smoke live updates: Air quality alerts issued for 13 states.” Canadian officials said firefighters were scrambling to put out the blazes in Quebec, where more than 160 forest fires are currently active. The fires were being fueled by high temperatures and dry conditions, according to officials.

Most of New England and much of the East Coast were under air quality alerts on Wednesday, with smoke from these Canadian wildfires expected to reach down to South Carolina. Toxic smoke belching from these wildfires could impact the health of millions in the U.S. According to the article, medical experts say that not only can we expect more record-setting wildfires because of climate change, but more people placed in harm’s way because of inhaling toxic smoke as well.

Failing to keep carbon in our soils has helped accelerate climate change. Climate change was a key element in last year’s Mississippi Basin mega-drought, which stymied most of the nation’s river commerce, not just agricultural. All three branches of that basin (the Mississippi River itself, the Ohio River and the Missouri River) experienced widespread shortage of precipitation. This watershed drains 41% of the continental U.S. For all three sub-basins in this region to be so short of water simultaneously is statistically unlikely. But it happened.

Was the moisture deficit that predisposed much of Quebec and other Canadian provinces to excess drought part of the same problem impacting Heartland USA? Climate experts, much smarter in the subject than this writer, are discussing that. One thing is for sure: the far-reaching corn/soy “non-rotation” keeps liberating carbon from soil into the air, as well as shunting lost soil and nutrients toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Fortunately, more and more farmers are embracing sorghum, sudangrass, their hybrids and millets as forage sources for livestock. Cheaper to grow than corn (on a pound of digestible dry matter basis), these hot climate summer annuals, with their fibrous root systems, also slow soil degradation.

This leads me to Tom Kilcer’s online June 2022 Crop Soil News titled “Why BMR Sorghum?” Since his June 2023 issue isn’t in my inbox yet, I’m comfortable using year-old information. I’ll hit the high spots of this newsletter written by Kilcer, a Certified Crop Advisor. From his opening paragraph: “With any shifting weather patterns, not putting all your eggs in one basket – or one crop – could give you a much more stable forage supply. One of those alternative crops is the often-ignored brown-mid-rib (BMR) forage sorghum or sorghum-sudan. It is planted when the soil is warmer than 60º F – preferably 65º – and the forecast is for warmer conditions. This occurs after most if not all haylage is harvested. Taking first cutting followed by sorghum is one way to increase the yield from a runout hayfield.”

Kilcer cited the benefits that sorghum offers compared to corn. He wrote, “Right out of the gate we save about $100/acre on seed costs. Replicated trials, with good management, near the Canadian border in upper New York have consistently given yields equal to or exceeding those of the corn variety trial planted next to it. Harvested properly and fed in high forage neutral detergent fiber rations, milk production from BMR sorghum is equal to corn silage, with only minor adjustments in the concentrate (slightly more cornmeal, significantly less soymeal).”

He also stated a little-known bonus point: Corn can follow sorghum with no rootworm issues, because the sorghum root prussic acid kills larvae, then the adults look elsewhere to lay the eggs for the next generation. Drilled sorghum in narrow rows protects the soil from erosion and raindrop impact a month or more earlier than corn. In moisture-short conditions sorghum will yield 50% – 100% more digestible dry matter than corn on the same water (per research from the University of Texas).

Kilcer said that deer hide in one farmer’s sorghum and come out to eat the neighbors’ corn.

Finally, the rapidly growing issue – sorghum does not get corn tar spot. It has its own tar spot different from corn’s, but sorghum agronomists have not seen it in the U.S. For those with corn fields devastated last year by tar spot – and concerned about the carryover on plant debris – sorghum can eliminate that worry.

Kilcer still recommends older-style non-BMR sorghum, considering it the premier, economical forage for raising dairy replacements and dry cows. “Corn silage is problematic in that the starch contributes to fat deposition rather than body size. The highly digestible BMR sorghum will do the same,” he said. “Non-BMR forage sorghum species will fill the animal to maximize rumen development and function without getting the animals over-conditioned. Managed correctly it will run higher than corn silage in protein and so reduce expensive soymeal additions. It is higher yielding than the BMR versions. Farmers report they are growing better, large-framed replacement animals when they switched from corn to sorghum as the preferred forage.”

Here’s my plus for Japanese millet: This crop is more forgiving than sorghum and/or sudangrass grown in less-than-ideal soil fertility. A field that tests pH of 5.7, low in phosphorus and is marginally drained will support millet much better than it will the other hot climate summer annuals. Though called Japanese, millet mostly developed in India on subsistence farms, where the main form of plant nutrition was water buffalo manure.

Now it’s noon and the overhead sun has shed its earlier smog-tainted orange glow, but most of the Canada-originating haze persists, cautioning babies and older people to stay inside. Referring back to the ABC news cited earlier, that article closes with a photo showing a magenta sky framing the rising sun, which silhouettes the Empire State Building and – ironically – two Canada geese that appear to be discussing their traumatized environment.