Fall-crop preferences shifting away from traditional milo



Jeff Stenzel and father Don Stenzel of Marion (Top photo) takek a
break in between cutting milo fields late last week. Don Stenzel has
been farming since the mid 1950s; Jeff works for the county but still
helps his father with the 1,000 acres of farmland they have.

Farmers are using newer flexibility to change crops grown in Marion County.

Market forces and genetic change appear to be accelerating a trend toward more corn and soybeans grown for fall harvest rather than the traditional, reliable favorite of recent decades, milo, the drought resistant sorghum grain.

A year ago, articles in the Free Press quoted experts as saying any changes away from milo would be because of conditions of the moment rather than permanent departures.

Marion County agricultural agent Rickey Roberts said the biggest thing a crop like corn gives producers here is flexibility because Marion County is on the western edge of corn country, where drier climate can bring on a drought to reduce yields below profitability.

Roberts said soybeans might prove to be the best alternative crop on some thinner upland soils, although corn and beans both prefer deeper soils.

Now it appears the moment for that flexible choice away from milo has happened for many producers.

As one Hillsboro farmer said, ?It?s hard to look at $3 milo and the expenses we have, and not just go to soybeans or corn. With bean prices up there (in the $9 a bushel range), and the fact that they make their own nitrogen, I don?t need a lot of chemical so expenses can be kept lower. It?s tempting just to put everything in beans.?

The only reason he wouldn?t do that, he added, is to stay diversified.

At Marion, Mike Thomas, elevator manager for Cooperative Grain & Supply, said there is no question that a change has occurred, and it mostly has gone to corn.

Thomas said the first force to make it that way is just as the Hillsboro farmer pointed out. Corn and soybeans have been genetically engineered to be Roundup-ready: one application of Roundup kills weeds without hurting the crop. But with milo, more expensive applications of conventional herbicides may be needed.

Thomas doesn?t see the change going in favor of beans in the Marion area so much as he sees it going in favor of corn. A second genetic factor in favor of corn, he said, is that new varieties coming out all of the time are more and more drought resistant.

?It used to be you didn?t see much (non-irrigated) corn grown west of (U.S.) Highway 77,? Thomas said. ?The highway marked the western edge of corn country. Now you see it clear through the county.

?We don?t see near the milo coming in here that we did five years ago, even two years ago.?

Thomas said the new massive tank silo addition to the Marion elevator mostly has gone to corn storage.

He predicted that milo is staying more popular on the thinner, dryer soils of the northern part of the county, but on the bottom lands in the river and creek valleys around Marion, corn has become the dominant crop.

The price of that bottom land, starting perhaps at $1,500 an acre, is another driving force for planting more corn, Thomas said. A farmer may have higher inputs to grow corn, but with current higher prices, he may also have a better chance to return the price of the land.

Although the ethanol production plants continue to buy both milo and corn, Thomas said they show a definite preference to corn.

Research on the impact of ethanol on grain production by Daniel O?Brien, extension agricultural economist at Kansas State University, seems to be confirming this trend. A trend toward more feed grains, milo and corn, grown on Kansas acreage at the expense of other crops this decade has continued, O?Brien said.

The share of corn in that feed grain acreage has tended to be stable or slowly growing, he said, moving from a share of 47 percent in 2000-2001 to 58 percent in 2007-08.

The 2008 Kansas feed grain crop of 731.6 million bushels included 522.6 million bushels of corn and 209 million bushels of milo, O?Brien said.

His research has projected future feed grain deficits in Nebraska and Iowa because of in-state ethanol development.

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