As winter passes the half way mark on its annual trek to spring and snow continues to fall across a large part of the nation, the majority of U.S. farmers are still pondering crop strategies for the new year, weighing issues like input costs, commodity prices and water availability and other issues as they consider their options for the upcoming planting season.
Will irrigated acres have enough water resources this growing season; will dryland crops receive enough rain to prosper? Will grain prices trend upward in 2018, will a new farm bill include a safety net for cotton, and will U.S. trade policies prove to be cumbersome or promising as the year progresses?
While many producers in the Heartland still have six to ten weeks or so to consider their crop options before seeding begins, producers in the South, especially in deep South Texas, are nearing a possible late Feb. planting date, especially for grain sorghum, with cotton not far behind. And as always, regardless where you farm, making the right decision of what to plant on how many acres is one part intelligence gathering, one part marketing strategy, and one part intuition and luck.
In other words, you can do all your research and homework, study current market trends, dig deep into climate prediction and prevailing weather expectations, stay on top of changing input cost projections, and pray you'll make a good decision of what to plant and when to plant, but in the end, as most of us know, even with the best research and planning, it's still a lot like a crap shoot. You roll the dice and hope for the best— the best timing, the best crop, the best weather.
A check around South Texas last week indicated more than a few farmers have not only decided what to plant on their available acres but have secured all their materials and are waiting for the soil to warm and the rains to fall before rolling into the new season. Many others, however, are holding out as long as possible to gauge both the markets and available soil moisture, but also to closely follow U.S. trade policy developments.
The South Texas region successfully grows a great deal of cotton, grain sorghum and corn along with a much smaller numbers of specialty crops like canola, sesame and sunflower. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley sugarcane and citrus are also significant crops, along with onions, melons and vegetables.
Regardless of the diversity, cotton remains king in the Valley and in the Coastal Bend region. In Nueces County for example, there are generally more acres of grain sorghum planted each year than cotton acres, but cotton produces more value, $65-$75 million in lint and cottonseed compared with grain sorghum's $45-$50 million in value each year (average over the last three years).
While deciding whether to plant grain sorghum or cotton each spring can be a stressful process for South Texas producers, many crop specialists are saying that 2018 may be a good year to consider expanding grain sorghum acres, and for more than one reason.
One major reason to favor sorghum acres over cotton this year is the latest National Weather Service-Climate Prediction Center's forecast for the spring and summer seasons. The latest long range forecast is calling for dry conditions across the Southwest, perhaps dry until late summer. Such a dire forecast has many remembering the drought days of 2011. Because grain sorghum is more drought-resistant than cotton, sorghum over cotton may offer an advantage to farmers this year.
Not far behind, however, is an ever-present concern over the future of U.S. trade deals like NAFTA and KORUS. Even a high yielding grain crop is not going to benefit if the crop is limited from accessing global markets. China and Mexico, for instance, are two large buyers of U.S. grain sorghum. If the U.S. or Mexico withdraw from NAFTA, it could change the dynamics of sorghum futures, and if President Trump pushes China into trade sanctions or imposes tariffs, the result could be devastating to U.S. grain marketing.
If China remains a trading partner in good standing (according to the Trump White House), and trade relations remain uncomplicated by tariffs or sanctions, a growing trade relationship with China for U.S. sorghum is a good possibility for a couple of reasons. The first is because of a change in crop priorities in China. While grain sorghum represented a relatively small import grain in years past, the demand in China has grown substantially in recent years, causing China to look at the global markets again to satisfy a growing domestic demand for high quality sorghum.
The rise in demand in China seems to be the result of the use of sorghum to feed ducks and livestock and because it is also heavily used in the distilling of baijiu, also known as shaojiu, a Chinese alcoholic beverage made from fermented grain sorghum. The 104º proof liquor can also be made with rice, similar to sake in the Japanese culture, and other grains. But the clear white baijiu is considered a sweeter, better balanced alcohol when made with grain sorghum, but it largely depends on the quality of the sorghum (U.S. consumers generally do not find baijiu palatable).
Demand for U.S. grain sorghum also remains high in both Japan and Mexico, largely used as livestock feed. But Mexico has been negotiating with other global traders since the U.S. threatened to withdraw from NAFTA late last year, and the future of grain marketing to Mexico largely depends on the fate of current NAFTA negotiations and trade relations.
But the National Sorghum Board and others says there are many additional reasons farmers should consider sorghum for the 2018 warm-weather farming season. For instance, recent grain sorghum prices have been out-distancing corn prices. In addition, input costs, including seed costs, are comparable or in most cases lower than for competing crops.
In addition to being drought tolerant, grain sorghum is also considered tolerant to heat, and it has the possibility to be a high profit crop for farmers. With the development of new insect-resistant varieties and the latest and growing number of pesticides being developed to fight sugarcane aphid outbreaks, crop consultants are leaning more toward grain sorghum as a primary cash crop in many areas over many other crops.
While it may or may not be a golden age of sorghum as some have hinted, there's little question in South Texas that grain sorghum remains a major contender when deciding what and how much to grow in the new year.