Water, or lack of it, tops the list of concerns voiced by Southwest grain farmers at the recent Commodity Classic in San Antonio.
“Long-term, we will have to regulate water use,” said Steve Albracht, Hart, Texas, grain and cotton farmer and the 2013 National Corn Growers Association yield contest winner for irrigated production. His 418.34 bushel per acre yield earned him top honors and from an area that continues to suffer from a drought that’s into a fourth year.
Average rainfall for his area, up in the Texas Panhandle, is 16 or 17 inches. He’s had nowhere near that much in the last three seasons—11.3 inches last year, 5.6 inches in 2012 and only 2.6 inches in 2011, the worst year he’s ever seen.
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“If I knew going into planting season that I would get only 2.6 inches of rain I wouldn’t even plant,” Albracht said. The long-term drought and increasing demand are reasons he believes conservation will be critical.
“If we don’t (regulate) we will not have enough,” Albracht said.
Martin Kerschen, a Garden Plains, Kansas, farmer and a board member for the Sorghum Checkoff , agrees that moisture stress will be an issue. “Water is our biggest challenge,” he said. “That’s one reason we’re promoting sorghum as we look for ways to grow crops with less water.”
He’s grown sorghum for 25 years and also grows wheat.
He said as a board member he’s trying to spread the word about the value of sorghum in a sound rotation program. “We also want to spend our checkoff money wisely,” he said. Key goals for checkoff funds include research efforts to increase sorghum yields. “We also need varieties with stronger stalks. Stewardship is a big issue.
“We also need to maintain the renewable fuels standard and increase exports,” he said.
Kerschen said his wheat crop looks okay for now. “It’s not too bad. We have just the right amount of growth on it for this time of year.”
Little winter rain
J.B. Stewart, new chairman of the board of directors for the National Sorghum Producers, said his farm near Keyes, Oklahoma, up in the Panhandle, “has been dry. Some wheat simply didn’t come up,” he said. “We had no real planting moisture and soils are dry to 8 inches down. We have some moisture below that.” With those dry conditions, he thinks Oklahoma farmers may plant more grain sorghum this year to take advantage of a more drought tolerant plant.
He’s also seen growers follow a successful rotation program with sorghum, canola and wheat. “Rotation helps clean up weeds in wheat,” he said. He makes two crops every three years, and leaves wheat fields fallow after harvest. He plants sorghum in the fallowed wheat fields the following spring and then follows sorghum with wheat the next fall.
Albracht may increase grain sorghum acreage this year as well as he looks for ways to get by on less water. He hopes to increase grain sorghum yields and thinks he can push production to near 260 bushels per acre. “I can’t just do what everyone else does,” he said. “I’ll look hard at fertility and maybe apply some fungicide. It’s all about plant health, just like with corn.”
Variety selection will be a factor as well. “Varieties are coming that will stand better,” he said. He may tweak seeding rate a bit, too. “In the past I’ve tended to plant thick and I may need to back off a bit. We have to get and keep a good stand.”
He’s not resting on his laurels with his corn yield either. His annual goal is to average about 300 bushels per acre across the board. He’s done that. But he thinks with more intense management he can push a little higher. “I think I can get another 20 bushels per acre,” he said. “But Mother Nature has to cooperate.
“I’ll do some testing, looking at the root system and look early and late at leaves. I still have things to change.”
He’s already adjusted the way he irrigates during severe drought conditions. He plants corn in circular rows. “I re-nozzle the irrigation system to put water on the outside of the plant rows.”
He’s also looked at drought tolerant corn hybrids. “I tried some on fields that are producing only 200 gallons of water,” he said. “Yields are not up to what I get with my usual hybrids but this is a tool I have to look into to stretch water.”
And he’s convinced that will be necessary. “In 1993, some wells were producing 800 to 900 gallons. Today, some of those are producing 200 gallons and are dropping. We have to adjust.”