Last year at this time if I had asked if you were going to plant dryland soybeans or dryland grain sorghum, many of you would have said soybeans. Last year soybean producers were looking at top prices for August delivery soybeans and there was a lot of excitement — even for dryland soybeans.

Many producers felt that even a marginal soybean crop could make money with the high grain prices. 2004 was indeed a year of good soybean yields and some farmers took advantage of August delivery premiums.

This year is a whole new ballgame. With new crop soybean prices around $5.50 per bushel, many producers are not excited about planting dryland soybeans this year. Soybean rust has reared its ugly head and fungicide applications may be needed on many soybean fields if the disease becomes the problem some expect.

So I am getting a lot of calls about planting grain sorghum this year to reduce risks on dryland fields. We have more dryland acres that can be planted since we were not able to plant much wheat last fall. Many dryland fields normally planted to wheat are fallow right now.

To help decide, compare the economics of dryland soybeans and dryland grain sorghum. I'll be using today's grain prices (Feb. 18) from Memphis for soybeans ($5.65) and grain sorghum ($3.88 per hundredweight or $2.17 per bushel). The University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service provides estimates of crop expenses in online crop budgets available at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service Web site at http://www.uaex.edu.

For dryland Roundup Ready soybeans, it is estimated that a producer will spend $115 per acre in out-of-pocket expenses (direct costs) — seed, herbicide, insecticides, fertilizer, etc. An average 10-year dryland soybean yield of 23.4 bushels per acre in Arkansas (yes, the last couple years have been good to us) at $5.65 per bushel equals $132 gross per acre. Subtract expenses and you're left with $17 per acre. No fungicide application is included in these calculations, but only a single fungicide application would be $17 to $18 in many cases.

For dryland grain sorghum, estimated expenses are $143 per acre with the greatest input being fertilizer. The 10-year average grain sorghum yield is 75 bushels per acre (dryland and irrigated). At $2.17per bushel, you are looking at $163 gross per acre. Subtract out-of-pocket expenses and you're left with $20 per acre. These expenses do take into account that you will be using a seed insecticide for soil and early-season insect control.

In the long-term, grain sorghum rotations help the land, especially in controlling nematodes — a hidden and often underestimated problem of soybeans. Many producers are already growing grain sorghum as a rotational crop to reduce root-knot nematode levels in cotton and soybeans.

Soybean rust or not, grain sorghum has potential in the Mid-South. It will perform well under dryland conditions, improves yields of other crops in the rotation, and is capable of profitable production in 2005 even with low grain prices. All in all, grain sorghum deserves a look in 2005.


Jason Kelley is the Arkansas Extension agronomist for wheat and feed grains.