In southwest Kansas, where rain comes sparingly and the water table continues to disappear, Steve Sterling will tell you sorghum is the perfect crop for tough times and tough places.
“Mother Nature had sorghum on her mind when she produced southwest Kansas,” said Sterling, who farms with his son, Les, near Garden City.
Yet, the water-efficient crop has had a hard time gaining ground on the High Plains. There hasn’t been much head-turning innovation or money sunk into sorghum hybrids for several decades—putting it light years behind corn and soybeans in research and development. And, for farmers like Sterling, the inability to control weeds like Johnsongrass during the growing season has been a continuous thorn in their sides. On a good year, Sterling said he could lose 30% of his crop to Johnsongrass.
Fighting a losing battle, Sterling instead turned to water-intense dryland corn for some of his acres, knowing it wasn’t the best option in his conditions.
That is, until now. In his fields in northern Finney County, Sterling is anxiously monitoring test plots planted with new igrowth technology—the first commercially available herbicide-tolerant genetics in sorghum. The non-genetically modified trait introduced by Alta Seeds provides tolerance to the imidazolinone herbicide family, allowing producers to apply a companion herbicides to control grassy weeds without damaging their sorghum crop.
“It is going to let us stop the competition with our sorghum,” Sterling said, who is also an Alta Seeds distributor for the western two-thirds of Kansas.
A cleaner field also means a more profitable harvest, he added. “It will let us plant sorghum where we haven’t been able to.”
The igrowth production system includes a companion herbicide, IMIFLEX, pending Environmental Protection Agency approval that could happen as soon as December 2020, Sterling said.
Research trials show both pre- and post-emergent applications of IMIFLEX provide effective residual control of grasses like Johnsongrass, grassy sandbur and windmill grass—plus broadleaf weeds, including palmer amaranth, he said.
“The problem we had in our area was that much of our land was irrigated and when that went away, Johnsongrass came to haunt us,” Sterling said. “I believe this is a gamechanger. We’ve been wanting over-the-top herbicide control for years.”
Some of his weediest fields are ones he irrigated up until about 10 years ago. Even though Johnsongrass wasn’t a threat with corn production, “it came up fighting with sorghum.”
Sterling currently controls weeds in sorghum using pre-emergent herbicide applications, plus regimented crop rotation, but even that isn’t a perfect solution.
“That’s the problem with sorghum,” he said. “You can buy the best thing out there but if you don’t get a rain to incorporate it, it is gone.”
IMIFLEX, Sterling said, “will give us an option to go in during the growing season and if you don’t get that rain, you can go back in and control some grasses and maybe even halt the pigweeds and keep them from coming up.
“It will give us an option with milo to hinder the Johnsongrass takeover of our fields, which is robbing us of nutrients and moisture.”
A gamechanger for western Kansas
Sterling said he has seen what IMIFLEX will do to Johnsongrass, which has had him eager to implement the system on his farm since he first learned about the Alta Seeds research.
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Considering the potential economic impact, Sterling thinks of his son and future generations. With their irrigation wells diminished by 70 percent, the new technology could change the landscape of semi-arid western Kansas where corn has been king.
The Alta Seeds’ igrowth system is an “economic savior,” he said.
“I think we are going to see an increase in sorghum acreage,” Sterling said. “It is going to add rotations to this part of the world, and I’m just really excited about that.”
This year will be a good test on the technology, he said. His fields have received just 9 inches of rain since May 2019—even worse than the typical western Kansas climate. So far, his test plots are holding on.
Those plots will be the last he harvests for the season.
“I want to see how it stands,” he said. “It has been a tough year. But, if it goes well, the technology has proved itself.
“That’s why I’m so excited about all of this,” he added. “I think sorghum is getting more of a stronghold in this part of the country, in our part of the world, anyway. I see it being one of the forefront crops in the future. We have lost a lot of water, and we will continue to lose a lot of water. This gives us an option.”