ORIGINALLY WRITTEN JERRY ENGLER
With a record soybean crop expected this fall, and corn yields worth bragging about in a good moisture year, perhaps it’s easy to forget the fall-harvested grain that became a saving grace for many Kansas farms in the 1950s.
That crop is hybrid grain sorghum, most of the time referred to as milo. It’s still the No. 2 grain crop after wheat planted in Marion County and in most of Kansas. It’s No. 1 when it comes to fall harvest.
According to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2001 Marion County harvested 114,900 acres of wheat at a yield of 44 bushels per acre.
That same year, grain sorghum was harvested on 67,500 acres with a yield of 62 bushels. The same figures for other fall crops were 11,400 acres of corn at 69 bushels, and 34,300 acres of soybeans at 24 bushels.
This year, rumors circulate of milo yields that came tantalizingly close to 200 bushels an acre.
Clifford and Willard Hett, brothers who farm near Marion, said yields in the 80 to 100-plus ranges are more likely. One report came from a friend of a field that hit 180 bushels an acre.
“And that’s one guy you can count on to tell the truth,” Willard added.
A good history
Historically, it’s difficult to sort out how important sorghum of some type was in Kansas.
Pioneers of the 1800s make references to growing kaffir corn, broom corn-which actually was bound together to make brooms-milo and molasses cane, all of which are forms of the sorghum plant.
With Kansas capable of being a hot, windy, drought-prone place at times, it’s no wonder there has always been interest in the Africa- native grain that also comes from hot places.
In Kansas and the United States, milo is grown primarily for animal food while in Africa it is widely used for human consumption.
A report from South Africa gave a recipe for Boer egg pie using mashed boiled eggs inside a baked kaffir corn shell.
A specialty foods report for people with disabilities said that milo has a sweeter taste than wheat.
For human consumption, the grain was listed at 1,500 calories a pound, 70.3 percent carbohydrates, 11 percent protein, 3.3 percent fat, 1.7 percent fiber 11 percent water and 1.7 percent minerals.
It said milo “makes a good pasta.”
Animal feed studies say milo is comparable to corn for feeding-as long as it is ground, or put through some process at a feedlot, such as rolling and steaming.
In pet-food studies, grain sorghum was combined with beef liver for dog food as an energy source “that slowed the rate of digestion” for release over time.
Sudan grass is the chief modern sorghum forage crop, while Johnsongrass is the chief modern sorghum weed in fields with its cousin, black shatter cane, ranking not far behind.
Ironically, Johnsongrass also is a major hay crop in parts of Texas. Sorghums have naturalized, become American.
In engineering studies, the grain is listed as a source for powder and bulk materials. The accompanying story describes what is becoming a major use of milo: making ethanol for fuel.
Today, agricultural scientists still make reference to kaffir corn and milo strains used in development of hybrid grain sorghum.
References from universities across the United States-from Kansas State University and the University of Missouri to the University of Wisconsin-still list hybrid grain sorghum as the choice of grains to plant in hot, droughty soils.
When other grains fail in dry heat, they say, milo likely will still produce. It has an ability “to wait for the rain.”
Early efforts in Kansas
Old newspaper accounts reported a man named George Eckert planting kaffir corn in Kansas in 1887. There were reports of sorghum cane grown for molasses and animal forage in 1887. An 1899 report said 39 acres of milo had yielded an average three tons of forage per acre.
The census said that by 1899, 40,073 acres of black hull and red kaffir corn were planted in Kansas. The yields must not have been impressive compared to today because a writer of the 1880s reported a pioneer woman who “starved two horses” on 10 acres of kaffir.
In 1897, a loss of cows was reported at Leon when the animals died after eating “second growth kaffir corn,” something that can still be a concern if cattle bloat or get prussic acid poison from eating modern milo.
The book, “A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans,” reported Jacob Ramer Blackshere, first owner of the Clover Cliff Ranch southwest of Elmdale, as the first person “to grow kaffir corn and sorghum as forage” in Chase County. He was also credited as the first man to grow alfalfa in Kansas, introducing the seed to Chase County in 1875.
Ironically, Blackshere was born in Marion County in Virginia in 1834. It eventually became part of West Virginia as a result of the Civil War.
Blackshere came to Kansas in 1860.
A Kansas City Chamber of Commerce report bragged in 1919 that the city was the nation’s “largest recovery and distributing point for kaffir corn and milo maize.”
Marion County’s past
Before the first widespread use of hybrid grain sorghum, with some use in the 1940s but spreading to become common in the 1950s, the Hett brothers remember the most common sorghum used was a variety called Kansas Orange.
Willard said Kansas Orange grew 10 to 12 feet tall, and was used mostly as a silage feed.
“It had problems falling over-sometimes it was a mess,” he said.
Clifford remembered a time when the grain from Kansas Orange shot up to $6 a bushel. His aunt asked his uncle what he was staring at out the window, and his uncle replied, “I’m looking at a new car,” foreshadowing what he would do with the money from the sorghum field he actually was looking at.
Clifford said the harvesting of that sorghum was an awkward operation compared to today’s harvest with a combine. He said his uncle put a binder for the sorghum on a rack to run it with a long power take-off. The heads were cut off to run through a thrashing machine.
Willard said the sorghum usually was shocked, with the heads then cut off for feed. Most farmers also grew corn for feed continually struggling with dry weather for yields.
The big hybrid grain sorghum revolution really swept the area in the 1950s. Willard recalled that two of the early varieties that made a difference were Plainsman and Martin.
In 1956-57, he became an on-the-farm Dekalb Seed Co. dealer, selling the hybrid seed himself.
“The first hybrid milo seed sold for $10 a 50-pound sack,” he said. “They told us to plant two to three pounds an acre. That looked awfully thin, but it made the milo.”
Willard said when farmers would grind the first milo up, “it made awfully good feed.”
Sheep were the only animals that could eat the grain whole without “it just passing through,” he said.
The milo enabled some farmers to feed more animals, and added income from grain.
Clifford credited seed companies such as Dekalb and Pioneer with picking up the pace for improving milo varieties from the late 1950s into the 1960s. Farmers began to hit up to 100 bushels an acre yields.
“In 1966 we plowed up some sod, and raised some real milo,” he said. “Dekalb’s F-61, now that was some real good milo.
“We started drilling milo at planting. K-State thought we’d gone whacky. Later, we started drilling soybeans, too. Now lots of people are doing it.”
Willard said the improving varieties of corn are beginning to make inroads on the milo acreage. Especially the new short-season corn varieties are giving drought-resistance on land once reserved for milo as feed grain.
But still, you can only wonder at what new grain variety could ever change Kansas history more than the duo of hybrid grain sorghum and red winter wheat did.