Finding the right production strategy continues to evolve for panelists

Sorghum and wheat producers share commonalities in growing market share in crops that are starting to find their way into the limelight.

Three High Plains growers, Charlie Haas, Larned, Kansas; Eric Purvis, Weskan, Kansas; and Kent Martin, Carmen, Oklahoma, agreed that the crops are good fits for their dryland operation and say that producers have many factors to consider when making a final crop decision. They served on a growers’ panel on both days for the recent Sorghum U/Wheat U event sponsored by High Plains Journal. Associate Editor Jennifer M. Latzke served as moderator.

The challenges—insect, weed and a persistently low price—are in common with other major commodities. As an example, sorghum growers, in particular, are seeing pigweed, Haas said. The sorghum grower also raises dryland corn and wheat and sorghum. Almost all of his crops are dryland.

Martin said focusing on agronomics is the key for sorghum and wheat crops and he believes strongly in field trials. Martin is a no-till dryland operator who is involved with wheat, sorghum and sesame production. He also has a cow-calf herd.  One of the promised products, herbicide-tolerant sorghum provides a buzz the industry has long anticipated.

“Grass control is a major hurdle at times,” Martin said. “The lack of grass weed control has driven people away from grain sorghum.”

The growers all agreed that herbicide resistant sorghum is an exciting moment for producers who have watched other crops boost their production through technology. Martin believes 10 years from now growers will be look back and say this was a major difference maker for sorghum.

Haas said access to trait technology is crucial to reducing weed pressure.

Purvis said the possibilities of biotech wheat have also been anticipated by wheat growers and have promise to boost the number of acres grown in the United States. Herbicide tolerance in wheat is promising as growers face ryegrass and other weed pressures. The good news is wheat breeders are also recognizing the yield potential can increase.

Value to end-users

Purvis said the key is delivering the value to bakers and other end-users, whether domestically or around the globe, to get the product to consumers to enjoy. Besides wheat he also grows sorghum, corn, pinto beans.

He applies fertilizer at the time he plants his winter wheat in the fall. He also has developed a strategy to apply fertilizer that is tied to spring growth and potential because he wants quality, too.

Haas said in recent years ample rainfall in central Kansas has changed some of his dynamics and they can change without a moment’s notice. “We are dealing with conditions with no-till we have never seen before.”

Fertilizer strategy

Martin said with sorghum he tries to get the stand off to a good start but he also has a fertilizer strategy that is based on a realistic approach to the market. He uses a multi-level budgeting strategy. He said it makes little sense to invest in some fertilizer applications that only yield minimal return. Understanding inputs in tougher economic times has helped him to be a better producer when better times return.

“Understanding all those inputs creates dollars that can be put into our pockets because that’s our end game,” Martin said.

The three growers also are not afraid to use specialty crops. Purvis has pinto beans in his portfolio in his irrigation strategy because it can be rotated with corn and wheat crops and can help manage a long-term water strategy.

Pinto beans provide help to the soil when it comes time for him to plant certified seed wheat and then in turn the wheat stubble helps the corn.

Martin, who also has grown sesame, said in a perfect world most growers would like to have two fall planted crops and two spring planted crops with an integrated rotation system. That is one way to help manage insect pressure. He said when grows sesame he knows he has to prepare for additional for herbicide application if sesame acres precede wheat or sorghum crops.

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Selling your crop

The growers agreed that the term marketing plan has to be defined by the individual grower. Availability of on-farm storage, transportation costs to get to outlets where premiums are paid and developing long-term relationships with buyers are all important to success.

Martin also said growers need to develop and execute their strategy because opportunities occur. Sometimes the market tells a producer to store and wait and sometimes it tells him to sell now, and that can change in a short period of time. Right now, the sorghum market is saying to sell grain because China is has returned to buying large volumes.

Haas said a grower pointedly once told him, “You have to understand what you have in your crop” and the Larned producer took that to heart. “Since then I have spent a lot of time working on budgeting.”

He has avoided the temptation to be greedy and focuses on having a profitable position. A producer needs to understand his costs and try to market a profit. The producer also needs to be willing to spend money to improve his crop.

Purvis said a grower has to develop his budget based on realistic yields and definitely understand his break-even point. He has on-farm storage to allow him to take advantage of wheat markets in which millers will pay a premium for protein.

Martin said he starts on his budgets well ahead of time and plans on planting quality seeds and using quality fertilizers. He also has contingency plans to that can address weed pressure or if he needs to add fertilizer to boost the yield. Seed population also has to be taken into account. His contingency plan has a line item for spraying for sugar-cane aphids, and even though he has not encountered the pest in four years he understands one outbreak can ruin a promising crop. If he does not need the application he pockets the savings.

“I like to be frugal in my budget,” he said

Haas said taking a return on investment approach has served him well. He also believes that working with a crop consultant can be some of the best money spent. While Mother Nature has been kind with rainfall the spigot can be quickly turned off and for a prolonged period of time.

Purvis has integrated variable rate technology that first started on irrigation acres and moved to dryland acres too. Efficiency is tied to maximizing resources and that in turn pays off with maximum.

“It is tough out there and lot of things are hitting us hard economically,” Purvis said.

Soil fertility

All three growers believe in soil fertility tests. Purvis uses Farmers Edge, conducts zone samplings and writes scripts based on samplings. He also compares harvest yields. The information has helped him in the application of sulfur and zinc. In irrigated corn he has been able to spread out the nitrogen application during the growing season so if he faces a storm loss he can trim expenses. If the yield potential looks strong he can add nitrogen.

Haas said part of his farm’s acreage is close to a river with a low pH that has to be addressed. He also believes in the use of dry fertilizer.

Martin said his ground varies from traditional red Oklahoma clay to coarse sand. Soil, grid and zone sampling are all strategies he uses.

The growers also discussed insect pressure. More information is available at

Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or [email protected].