Saturday, September 27, 2014

Harvesting Milo (or Grain Sorghum Depending On Where You're From)

I just finished up harvesting my little field of milo (grain sorghum) yesterday, and I'm beginning to have a much more pronounced love/hate relationship with growing milo.  
Some of the best-looking milo a couple of weeks ago (ignore that crabgrass)
Harvesting some of that better-looking milo a few days ago

As an aside, I'm starting to prefer calling it milo instead of grain sorghum, mainly because the elevator it's being hauled to calls it milo, and "milo" seems to roll off the tongue a little easier than "grain sorghum".  Next week, I might go back to calling it grain sorghum due to some other goofy reason. The fact that milo/grain sorghum has two different names might explain why it can sometimes be a battle to get a decent crop and why more of it isn't grown.  I wonder how much corn would be grown if it was called both "corn" and "yeller grain"?

When I planted this field back in May, milo was selling for around $4.50/bu, and now at harvest it's going for a little under $3.00/bu.  Due to that drop in price and different weed pressures that seem to be impossible to control (which dropped the yield significantly in parts of the field),  that field managed to make just a little bit over the break-even point (when you just consider the money aspects). I made a little money, but I didn't make very much.

It might just be me, but combining milo has always been a miserable job, the chaff is extra itchy (it gave me a horrendous nose-bleed the first time I ever combined some milo) and some of the grain always seems to shatter into a fine, corn-starch-like powder that feels like it gets all over me when I'm combining it (I'll probably need to get a haircut to get it all out of my hair).   Those are just a few of the reasons (there are a few more reasons on top of those) that I hate growing milo.

But growing milo isn't all poverty and misery. I probably saw a couple dozen rabbits in that field from the combine (of course, it also could have been just one rabbit that was chasing the combine all over the field), I jumped a big covey of quail, saw a handful of dove flying around, heard some pheasant roosters cackling early in the morning over in a neighbor's milo field (not in this field yet), and the ducks usually show up in the winter.

During the summer I'd see various hawks hunting those rabbits and rats, and my nephew almost stepped on a huge rattlesnake when he was dove hunting (apex predators are usually signs of a healthy ecosystem, they're scary but good signs).

If the feral hogs ever show up, there's plenty of grain on the ground from dropped heads and spilled grain to feed a bunch of them, which could be both good and bad. There would be plenty of hunting opportunities, lots of experimenting with barbequing and smoked meats, but lots of crop damage.

So overall, growing milo is great for the wildlife if that's what you want (which I do).

On paper, the crop residue from growing wheat is supposed to be more than the residue from a comparable milo crop, but it always seems to me like there is a lot more organic material in a field of milo after harvest.   But even if there is less residue, it seems like it's a different sort of residue (I could easily winter dry cows on a field of milo stubble, while wheat stubble wouldn't feed that many cows in the summer).

So, growing milo is more like growing a combination of a cover crop, a cash crop, and a potential forage crop.  Wheat is more like a cash crop and a forage/grazing crop.

After saying all that, I still both love and hate growing milo, after every harvest I swear I'm never going to try growing the stuff again, then I eventually decide to try to grow it one more time to see if I've finally figured out how to grow a bumper crop of it.

Since I'm sort of using this blog as a way to keep track of some of my ideas, I'll bore everyone that happens to read it by writing down what I think I need to do differently next year (if anyone that's ever grown milo has any ideas, I'd be tickled to death if you'd leave a comment).

The first thing I think I'd change is my planting rate, it needs to be much higher.  All the planting guides for this area claim you only need about 2-3 lbs. of seed (30,000-45,000 seeds), but I think it would do much better if I planted at least twice that amount.

I think I planted it just a little bit too early in the year, mainly because of weed issues. Planting a little bit later might make it easier to control some of the weeds I have in my fields (I'm still thinking about that)

Double-cropping it after wheat harvest might have worked just as good as planting it as a full-season crop earlier in the year  (although harvesting a double-cropped field of milo soon enough to follow it with wheat might be a problem). 

Harvesting milo with a straight cut header can be a royal pain because of all the dropped heads and the heads that the reel slingshots everywhere.  Because of that, if I ever manage to get my milo yields higher, I'm probably going to need to find a row-crop header, and if I ever buy a row-crop header I'd grow corn instead of milo.

Maybe it would be easier to just figure out how to grow mediocre-yielding corn instead of high-yielding milo? I wonder if my head would explode if I tried to harvest corn with a straight-cut header instead of a corn header?


  1. Up here, I occasionally see a field of sorghum (I think) but I have never seen one harvested for grain. It is all chopped up green for silage. Is there a difference between grain sorghum and sorghum you feed to livestock? I usually see it while going down the highway and I realize after I pass that the field of corn looked odd and I realized it must have been sorghum. I need to stop sometime, go back and take a good look at it so I can identify it better.

    1. That's probably forage sorghum, it grows much taller, has more leaves, has a smaller grain head, and is later maturing than grain sorghum.

      Forage sorghum is usually cut for silage and is supposed to be more water-efficient than corn (it will grow as much with less water or will produce more with the same amount of water). From what I know, it also tolerates heat and drought stress better than corn does. I'm not sure, but it also might grow a little faster and can be planted a little bit later in the year than corn typically can be planted.

      I'd also guess that seed costs are much lower for forage sorghum compared to corn seed costs.

      Grain sorghum has been bred for grain so it's much shorter (36-40" tall), is earlier maturing, and has a bigger head of grain.

      Sorghum-sudangrass is a hybrid of sudangrass and forage sorghum and grows about as tall as forage sorghum but is usually either grazed or cut for hay.

      A field of forage sorghum would probably look an awful lot like some of the pictures of sorghum-sudangrass I've posted, except the stalks would be much thicker (almost like corn).

      Sorghums are an interesting plant, I just wish I could figure out how to grow some of the high yields I've read about. A field of 80-120 bu. milo seems unbelievable or impossible at this point.

  2. I"m so unfamiliar with this crop, I actually had to look it up.

    1. Up until about 10 years ago, it was unusual to see any milo or corn being grown around here. Now, you're more likely to see some of both being grown here and there. As the price for corn went up (and milo, since it's been selling for the same amount), more and more was grown, but now that the price is coming down I'm not sure what will happen.

      Grain sorghum can be a versatile crop, I've double-cropped it after wheat harvest (late-June), harvested the grain, then put the cows on the stubble in the winter. After the grain is harvested, the sorghum plant will keep growing until the first frost. I don't have a problem with feeding some grain to my cattle, so the cows will go around and clean up all the dropped heads in the field and graze the stubble for a couple of months or so (depending on how thick the sorghum was). If I was able to grow something like 80 bu. sorghum, I'd estimate that I might be able to winter a cow (3 months) on an acre of stubble (I'd need to put up some electric fence to "ration" it out).

      I've also salvaged a failed field of sorghum during a drought by baling it. That hay ended up being worth more than the grain would have been, because I didn't have to sell any cows due to the drought or buy any expensive hay.

      It can be a frustrating crop to grow, but when I look at the versatility it gives me, I still like to grow it (although it would be nice to get a bin-busting harvest just one time).