Under a gray sky, the milo field is shoulder-high, lush, and grain-head-heavy. Charles Neal, pushes through the crop he has nurtured and expects to see yield well — so well, in fact, that he's considering entering it in a yield contest.

Why try grain sorghum for the first time?

“Water issues,” says the young, Dewitt, Ark., farmer. “We were growing a lot of rice and the cost of fuel is prohibitive. The cost of putting diesel fuel in power units has become ridiculous.”

Also, the former rice ground had a bad red rice problem that needed to be cleaned up. The switch to milo should help alleviate that.

But the main reason, one common to this part of east Arkansas, is water. “Growing sorghum will free up water earlier for our soybeans. Doing this should give our beans a better shot at high yields. Why milo? Fuel costs, red rice and freeing up water — those are the top three reasons.”

The grain sorghum has performed incredibly well on Neal's acreage, says William Johnson, Pioneer agronomist. “This is actually a short-stature hybrid, 84G62. I've never seen it this tall.”

This bountiful milo field is 42 acres. Neal — who farms with his father — has 130 milo acres total.

“This is the first time milo has been grown on our land in years and years. My dad used to grow it, but this is the first time we've really gotten into it.”

Other things have changed, as well. “Used to be we had to levee-water the milo. Now, we're row-watering it. This 42 acres is on twin-row 30s.”

The milo crop was planted April 25. Unlike many Arkansas growers, the Neals weren't late getting into fields. “We didn't have many problems working fields this spring. The soils here dry out in a hurry.”

Milo isn't the only new crop for the Neals. For the first time, they also planted 320 acres of corn last spring.

“We've got around 3,000 acres of row crops. Last year, we had 1,100 acres of rice. We split that up into 130 acres of milo, 320 acres of corn, 2,000 acres of soybeans and the balance in rice.”

Normally, 84G62 is about belt-high. The Neals' irrigated milo is at least 2 feet taller. “This field has phenomenal head exertion — huge heads,” says Johnson. “With the twin-row planting, there are 105,000 to 110,000 plants per acre.

“I think this field needs to be in the grain sorghum yield contest. If nothing happens to it, this field can average 8,000 to 10,000 pounds. A month ago, we walked out in this and it was green and gorgeous, just headed. Now, look at it.”

The Neals' prairie soil is “always good” for grass crops, says Johnson. Grasses do well on prairies.

“Well, corn, milo and wheat are grass crops. So is rice. That's why those type crops do well in this area. I'm telling you, the corn and milo around DeWitt looks great. Anywhere 80-bushel to 100-bushel wheat can be grown, you should be able to grow 200-plus bushel corn and 8,000-pound to 10,000-pound milo.”

As for managing the crop, “we sprayed MustangMax at flowering to take out midge,” says Neal. “We were early enough that the earworm complex never bothered us.”

When farmers get into a mid-May planting, that typically means an insecticide to control midge followed by another application for worm control. Sometimes, though, the pyrethroids will provide a residual that lasts long enough to cover both, says Johnson.

“There wasn't anything special, otherwise,” says Neal. “We planted this conventionally and were almost a bit too late on herbicide. We put out Dual/atrazine and 500 pounds of triple-19, preplant. Then, we went back with 200 pounds of urea when it was boot-top tall. We dressed it and put the water to it. We … treated it just like a cornfield.”

Neal watered his milo twice and corn nine times. For the milo, “we went across the crop once with a ground rig to spray it, had an airplane fertilize it once and we were finished. We had to go across the corn for various things two or three times. One thing's for sure: milo and corn are both a lot easier to grow than rice.”

Overall, the Arkansas milo crop “looks good,” says Johnson. “We've caught some timely rains.”

Johnson grabs a grain head and says it “starts pollinating at the center of the head and goes both directions. The last ones to fill and have milk in them are on the bottom.”

He pinches one of the soft, reddish grains. “That's ‘soft dough.’ In three days, (Charles) can apply a quart of glyphosate. All these leaves will die.

“Then, seven to 10 days later, it'll be time to harvest.”

If milo is harvested when leaves are green, Johnson warns, the grain will “walk out” the back end of the combine. A quart of glyphosate takes care of the extra greenery. Then, the residue will disintegrate.

“A couple of weeks after harvest, a disk and rain will melt it down.

“With the milo plant killed, you don't have to wallow it around for three diskings trying to kill it.”

Glyphosate is a great desiccant for milo. “South Texas uses it in that way a lot. I was down there recently and have never seen anything like the sorghum they grow. It looked like the equivalent of the whole Arkansas Grand Prairie planted in sorghum — milo as far as the eye can see. They only get 2 to 6 inches of rain and that's why this crop has always been considered drought-tolerant.”