Price, ethanol plant, improved soil fertility steering Arizona grain sorghum plantings

An old friend has returned to Arizona farming. Grain sorghum is among a long list of crops offering good returns these days, and Marana, Ariz. farmer Tom Clark of Clark Farms is welcoming back the old-timer.

“The main reason I'm growing grain sorghum is the price,” said Clark who also grows cotton, wheat, and barley on his 1,600 leased acres located north of Tucson. Like many of his peers, Clark is an old hand at grain sorghum. He grew grain sorghum about 20 years ago. It disappeared from his farm, replaced by crops with better income potential.

Clark signed a one-year contract to grow 150 acres of grain sorghum for $9 per hundredweight for Arizona Grain, Casa Grande, Ariz. He planted a Pioneer variety in early July after wheat. Some sorghum was minimum tilled into the wheat stubble. Yields averaged about 2.25 tons per acre.

Insects never pestered the crop and a single, hooded-sprayer application of the herbicide Clarity handled a few broadleaf issues. Water usage was 2.5 to 3 acre-feet, a bit lower than expected due to rains in September and October.

At harvest in late December, Clark learned that that his crop would help fuel Arizona's first ethanol production facility, Pinal Energy LLC, located near Maricopa, Ariz., south of Phoenix. The ethanol plant, owned by Arizona Grain, went into production in July 2007.

Clark is one of an increasing number of growers in Arizona getting onto the grain sorghum bandwagon or considering such a move. Clark is so enthralled with the prospects of grain sorghum this year that he signed another contract with Arizona Grain for 100 acres for $11.30 per hundredweight. He'll plant the Golden Acres Genetics 737 variety in July.

The economic return for grain sorghum gives Clark another rotation crop. That's been a challenge since Clark Farms is located at about 2,000 feet above sea level.

“With the elevation in Marana it's hard to double crop anything,” Clark said. “If you can get the grain planted early, cut early enough, and plant grain sorghum by July 15, you can still make a decent crop.”

This January Clark planted Solar, a low input Arizona barley variety, for planting seed for Barkley Seed Inc. in Yuma, Ariz., on the acreage he plans to plant in grain sorghum this summer. The January-planted barley headed out in early April with minimum irrigation. Following harvest, Clark will minimum till the sorghum into the ground using Yetter row openers to open up the barley stubble for drilling in the sorghum.

Another reason Clark opted for grain sorghum is improvements in soil. “The combine cuts underneath the head so the stalk is left for turning over into the ground to create humus and improve soil fertility,” Clark said.

Clark's optimism for double cropping sorghum is tempered by his concerns to harvest in a timely manner.

“The issue that concerns farmers in Marana is we seem to be the stepchild in getting grain harvested in a timely manner because we plant later than farmers in Maricopa, Pinal, and Yuma counties,” Clark said. “Sometimes the harvesters don't get down to Marana in time even though our grain is ready. Also in the past there have been bottlenecks at the scales at the granary so we're afraid that may happen again this year.”

Statewide, the USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service-Arizona office predicts that Arizona's 2008 grain sorghum acreage would likely mirror last year's acreage of about 45,000 acres. However, there are signs it may be more.

The Pinal Energy ethanol plant requires about 18 million bushels of grain annually to achieve its annual 50-million-gallon production output. Last year 95 percent of the plant's grain requirements were filled by corn railed in from the Midwest into Arizona. The other 5 percent was locally grown grain. Arizona Grain President Eric Wilkey hopes to triple that amount to 15 percent this year.

“Our goal is to support local grain production because we're a local company,” said Wilkey. “We'd rather rely on a local supplier than a Midwestern producer, railroad, and all the other things that stand in between us and the grain supply. Can we get 100 percent of our grain needs grown locally? No, we have to rely on both.”

Price is the bottom line for Wilkey and he'll buy whatever is the least costly.

“If we can buy grain locally at the same price as rail grain, I'd prefer local grain because I don't run the risk of the train derailing and the corn not arriving,” Wilkey said.

Every kernel of grain sorghum purchased by Arizona Grain is used in the ethanol plant.

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