Grain Sorghum – Economics, Marketing, Production, & Management


Grain Sorghum Economics & Marketing

I have received several questions this winter and spring from farmers and crop scouts on growing grain sorghum.  We have seen an increase in acres the past two years as famers look for a rotation with soybeans to help in the control of glyphosate resistant pigweeds.  For 2015, there is even more interest in grain sorghum due to the positive 70 cents or greater fall cash basis.  The reason for the very strong basis can be summed up in one word, China. 


USDA projects United States grain sorghum exports for the 2014-15 marketing year at 300 million bushels.  This is up from 212 million in 2013 and from a meager 76 million bushels in 2012.  For 2014-15, China’s grain sorghum imports are projected at 276 million bushels up from 164 in 2013 and 25 million in 2012.  China’s 276 million bushel imports equals 92% of the total U.S. exports and 64% of our total production.  As of March 26, 73% of the projected U.S. grain sorghum exports have already been inspected for export with 5 months still left in the marketing year.    


China’s primary interest in grain sorghum is for feed.  Chinese importers are looking for a cheaper non-GMO feed source.  In addition, grain sorghum imports do not have the tariff restrictions as associated with corn.  China would rather import cheaper grain sorghum than buy domestic corn at $9- $10 per bushel.  It is also reported the Chinese are using grain sorghum to produce an alcoholic beverage call Biajiu. 


The strong basis makes it economical to grow grain sorghum this year in certain crop rotations.  Using my Southeast Missouri crop budgets, the variable costs for dryland grain sorghum is $317/acre compared to dryland corn at $463 and soybeans at $270/acre.  Comparing net returns over variable costs, grain sorghum at 125 bushels/acre and a harvest price of $4.68 has a $131/acre greater net return compared to dry land corn at 155 bushels/acre at $3.95/bushel.  However, if the grain sorghum yield is 110 bushels/acre the net return advantage falls to $60/acre.  For soybeans at $9.43/bushel and 45 bushel yield, the net return to grain sorghum is $126/acre.  At 110 bushels/acre the net return per acre advantage falls to $54/acre.  Also, if the premium is cut 30 cents/bushel the net return per acre falls by $33 to $41 per acre. 


The key to profitably in grain sorghum is capturing the basis premium.  The basis can fluctuate widely depending upon the demand from China and our production this year.  In the March 31 USDA prospective plantings report, grain sorghum acres were projected at 7.9 million acres, up 762,000 from last year but 250,000 acres less than the trade estimate.  Missouri acres are projected to be up a whopping 235% from 85,000 acres in 2014 to 200,000 acres this year.  This is the largest percentage increase in the Country.  Because of the risk of the uncertainty with China and their buying habits and production in the U.S., it would be prudent to lock in at least one-half of the fall basis at this time.


Grain Sorghum Production


I have listed the production and management guidelines that need to be followed for a successful crop.  For more details, go to the web links listed below.


University of Missouri does not endorse any one product.  Product trade names are used for ease of reference. 


Varieties Refer to Variety Performance Trials at the University of Arkansas and Missouri.


Seed Treatments - Concept treated seed is a must.  It allows s-metolachlor (Dual) to be applied with minimal risk of injury.  Consider insecticide and fungicide seed treatments, especially in no-till.


Planting Date Grain sorghum is not nearly as cold tolerant as corn.  Soil temperatures must be 65oF or greater to maximize germination and emergence uniformity. The ideal planting window is April 20th – May 15th.  Planting between these dates will retain >95% of the yield potential and help in reducing impacts of insects later in the season, including midge, head worms, and sugarcane aphids.    Yield potential drops below 80% after June 1st. 


Planting Rate For non-irrigated fields, a final stand of 60,000 plants/acre or planting rate of 75,000 seeds at 80% germination.   Depending upon seed size 5 pounds of seed/acre.  Irrigated final stand of 75,000 plants/acre or a planting rate of 90,000 seeds or 6 – 7 pounds of seed per acre.


Planting Depth – Seed placement should be ¾ inch to 1.5 inches deep with 1 inch as the goal. 


Row Spacing Grain sorghum can be successfully grown on 7.5, 15 and 30 inch row widths.  Consider twin row when on 38” beds.   What is important is the correct planting rate and planting depth.


Fertility Before you apply any fertilizer or lime take a soil test first!  It will tell you if lime is needed and the buildup recommendations for phosphorous and potassium in the soil.  

Nitrogen Split application is ideal: 33% to 50% preplant or at planting; 50% to 67% sidedress at V5

Nitrogen recommendations are similar to corn at 1.1 to 1.2 pounds of nitrogen times the yield goal.

Phosphorus (P) – removal rate of 0.4 lb P2O5/bushel

Potassium (K) – removal rate of 0.25 lb K2O/bushel


Water Usage - Peak usage is from boot to bloom at 0.35 inches of water per day. 


Pest Management – Weeds

Refer to Missouri Manual 171 “Pest Management Guide” for specific product recommendations.

Read and follow all label directions.


Herbicide CarryoverHerbicides containing fomesafen (flexstar, reflex, etc) have a 10 month plant back interval for grain sorghum.
Consult the Missouri Manual 171 “Pest Management Guide”, Crop replant and rotation guide for herbicides beginning on page 92 for more information. 


Problem Weeds – johnsongrass and Texas panicum (AVOID PLANTING IN THESE FIELDS)



PRE: metolachlor or alachlor; atrazine can be applied PRE, however, POST is optimum.

POST: Atrazine + COC by 12 inch height cutoff

This is the foundation program; additional products labeled can be used PRE and/or POST

**Check label for additional surfactant needs specific to products used.


Pest Management – Insects

Refer to Missouri Manual 171 “Pest Management Guide” for specific product recommendations.

Read and follow all label directions.


Problem Insects – midge, corn earworm, and white sugarcane aphid is a new pest that producers need to monitor



Midge – scout at flowering:  Milo flowers from top to bottom over 4 to 9 day period.  Read MU Guide 7140 for specific midge scouting techniques. Threshold: 1 adult midge/head average


Corn Earworm (sorghum headworm) – scout at soft dough to hard dough:  Read MU Guide 7110 for specific corn earworm scouting techniques. Threshold: 2 larva/head average

White Sugarcane Aphid – (new pest) scout at boot to heading:  IDEALLY - AVOID SPRAYING PYRETHROID IF IDENTIFIED IN FIELD.


Midge - labeled pyrethroids

Sorghum Headworm – pyrethroids offer some level of control; may need Lepidoptera products such as Belt and Tracer 

White Sugarcane Aphid – Transform insecticide received section 18 approval for 2014 and waiting for approval for 2015. If approved for 2015 do not mix with pyrethroid. 

**Check label for specific instructions.


Pest Management - Disease

Seedling blights most common – plant in soil suitable for rapid germination and seed treatments

Foliar and head molds – tolerant varieties; fungicides very limited and generally not warranted

Stalk rot – most damaging is Charcoal Rot during drought conditions

**Check label for specific instructions.


Harvest - Desiccants are generally recommended but not necessary.

Glyphosate and Sodium Chlorate after physiological maturity when moisture reaches 25% and a minimum of 7 days prior to harvest


Harvest Losses 20 kernels/square foot = 1 bushel per acre

Measure in front, behind header and behind separator to get an estimate of where losses are occurring and combine for total harvest loss.  Count kernels (including those still attached to intact heads) in 10 sq. ft area behind combine and divide by 200.  Harvest losses of 5% or less are ideal.


 Grain Sorghum Web Sites


Missouri Grain Sorghum Management Quick Reference (PDF)


Arkansas Grain Sorghum Management Quick Reference (PDF)


Arkansas Grain Sorghum Handbook


Missouri Grain Sorghum Variety Trials


Arkansas Grain Sorghum Variety Trials


Mississippi State Grain Sorghum Variety Trials


Missouri Grain Sorghum Disease Management 2012 (PDF)


Missouri Pest Management Guide – M171      (PDF)


Grain Sorghum Midge in Missouri – G7140       (PDF)


Corn Earworm in Missouri – G7110          (PDF)


Missouri Grain Sorghum Extensions Publications


Southeast Missouri Crop Budgets


Grain Sorghum Check Off  (Good Source of Management & Production topics)


Tennessee – Grain Sorghum as Alternative 2015


Tennessee – Burndown Options Close to Planting


Tennessee – Fomesafen Carryover into Grain Sorghum


Kansas State – How a Sorghum Plant Develops (PDF)


David Reinbott
Agriculture Business Specialist
University of Missouri Extension