In recent years, the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources has augmented research efforts on growing grain and silage sorghum [Sorghum bicolor (L.) Moench] in California. The purpose of the Delta Sorghum Seeding Rate Trial was to better understand optimal seeding rates for grain sorghum grown in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. While such information exists for Midwest sorghum production, applied information is lacking for California, and more specifically for the Delta – a unique agricultural region known for its organic soils, shallow groundwater, and cooler climate conditions. This information is important because sorghum has similar growth habits as corn and is sometimes grown as a substitute for corn because of its tolerance of drought and low-input conditions. In the United States, sorghum is used in a wide array of feedstocks for biofuels, pet foods, dairy, cattle, pork and poultry feed, and more recently as a gluten-free cereal grain for human food systems.
The trial took place during the 2016 and 2017 growing seasons on Tyler Island in Sacramento County. The 2016 trial was planted on May 20th, and the 2017 trial was planted on May 25th using a John Deere cone planter. Seed was planted approximately 2 inches deep. We used the grower's varieties, which were Eureka Seeds 3292 in 2016 and Eureka Seeds 3325W in 2017. Both varieties were white sorghum varieties, had 16,000 seeds/lb, and 85 percent germination, according to the labels. Five seeding rate treatments (5, 6, 9, 12, and 15 lbs/acre) were tested. Each plot consisted of four rows (30-inch row spacing) that were 45 feet in length in 2016 and 50 feet in length in 2017. The fields were managed similarly in both years. Site characteristics, cultural practices, and statistical procedures are described in the full report.The plots were harvested on November 14, 2016 and October 12, 2017 using an Almaco research combine, harvesting the center two rows from the four-row plots. Trial results are presented as plant establishment characteristics (Table 1), plant maturity characteristics (tables available in the full report), and yield (Figure 1). The tables and figure present mean values for the four (2016) or five (2017) replicates. Differences among treatments are indicated by different letters following the mean.
The seeding rates are expressed as plant populations in Table 1. The number of sorghum seeds/lb is highly variable across varieties. For this reason, when determining seeding rates, growers should first determine their desired plant population. A worksheet in the full report provides equations for calculating seeding rate based on desired plant populations and percent germination for the variety. Stand counts were made as the number of plants/10-foot row length approximately two weeks and one month after planting. The counts were scaled up to plants/acre. Across both years, stands generally decreased from the first count date to the second. Stand counts were lower in 2017 compared to 2016, but this did not translate into lower yields. Weeds were also counted in the month after planting (data not shown), but overall weed pressure was very low in both years.
Table 1. Plant establishment characteristics of the 2016 and 2017 UCCE Delta sorghum seeding rate trial.
While there were no statistical differences in yield across treatments in either year, the take-home message of the trial is that there appears to be no benefit to planting the highest seeding rates. In both years, the trend was for the 15-lb seeding rate to have the lowest yield. In 2016, there was a lot of variability in the data. There was a trend for the 9-lb treatment to have higher yields; however, we suspect this was due to the experimental design. In 2016, by random chance, there were several 9-lb treatment plots next to the sub-irrigation ditches, which were exterior to the experiment on both sides. For this reason, the 9-lb treatment may have been inadvertently favored with better moisture conditions. To correct for this, the experimental design was changed in 2017 in order to better control field variability. The 2017 yields were consistent across treatments, around 7000 lbs/acre. The 2017 results best illustrate how planting the higher seeding rates provided no yield benefit, yet would incur a higher seed expense. We recognize that growers will need to consider site characteristics, like weed or wireworm pest pressure, when determining optimal seeding rates; nevertheless, this research indicates that good yields can result from seeding rates of 5 or 6 lbs/acre (estimated plant populations of 80-96,000 plants/acre), and that planting higher plant populations would not only cost growers more in seed expense but could also cost them in yield.
Figure 1. Yield at 13 percent moisture of UCCE Delta sorghum seeding rate trial. There were no significant differences among treatments in 2016 (P = 0.1278) or 2017 (P = 0.2419).
In summary, it is important to study sorghum cultural practices in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region, and in California at-large, because currently, most applied information comes from the Midwest. California growers need information on sorghum cultivation because sorghum may be grown as a lower-input substitute for corn. Sorghum seeding rates were studied to assist growers with determining optimum rates for the Delta environment. The results indicate that there is no yield benefit to planting seeding rates greater than 6 lbs/acre (estimated plant population greater than 96,000 plants/acre), and that planting higher rates is just added expense for the grower. Future research should investigate these plant populations on narrower row spacing. Special thanks go to growers, Steve and Gary Mello, and to UC Kearney Research and Extension Center Director, Jeff Dahlberg, for providing equipment and information for the success the trial.
(There was an error in the previous version of this blog post. The error has been corrected here and in the full report, available from my website.)
The purpose of this trial was to better understand optimal seeding rates for grain sorghum grown in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta – a unique agricultural region known for its fertile, organic soils, shallow groundwater, and cooler climate conditions. The trial was planted in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, on Tyler Island in Sacramento County. The soil is a Rindge mucky silt loam with approximately 20 percent organic matter in the top 15 inches of soil. The Rindge series is a mucky peat soil down to about 60 inches, and approximately 55,600 acres in the Delta are described by the Rindge classification. The plot was planted on May 20, 2016 using a John Deere cone planter. Seed was planted approximately 2 inches deep. The trial was a white sorghum variety, Eureka Seeds 3292, which was the grower's variety. The variety has 16,000 seeds/lb and 85 percent germination, according to the label. Five seeding rate treatments (5, 6, 9, 12, and 15 lbs/acre) were replicated over four blocks positioned down the rows. The seeding rates are expressed as plant populations in Table 1. (The number of sorghum seeds/lb is highly variable across varieties. For this reason, when determining seeding rates, growers should first determine their desired plant population. A worksheet for calculating seeding rate from desired plant population is available from the full report.) Each plot consisted of four rows (30-inch row spacing) that were 45 feet in length. The previous crop in the field was wheat. Subsurface irrigation by “spud ditch” sub-surface irrigation was employed twice. The field was fertilized at planting with 35 gallons/acre of 8-24-0 with ½ percent of zinc. The field was cultivated one time, and Maestro 4EC (8 oz/acre), AAtrex 4L (0.75 pint/acre), and Crosshair (4 oz/acre) were applied for post-emergence weed control in mid-June. The plot was harvested on November 14, 2016 using an Almaco research combine, harvesting the center two rows from the four-row plots.
Trial results are presented as plant establishment characteristics (Table 1), plant maturity characteristics (Table 2), and yield (Figure 1). The tables and figure present mean values for the four replicates. Tukey's range test was the statistical method used to compare the means. Varieties were considered statistically different if their P value was less than 0.05, or 5 percent. Differences between treatments are indicated by different letters following the mean.
The estimated plant populations for the treatment seeding rates were calculated using the number of seeds/lb and percent germination for this variety. Stand counts were made as the number of plants/10-foot row length on June 1st and June 16th, and these counts were scaled up to plants/acre. Stand counts were as expected - higher counts for the higher seeding rates. Stand counts for all treatments decreased from June 1st to June 16th, but stand counts remained on target with the estimated plant population for the 5 and 6-lb seeding rates. Weeds were also counted in the month after planting and in the month before harvest (data not shown), but overall weed pressure was very low at this location.
There were no differences in the number days to flowering among treatments; however, there were differences among treatments in the other maturity characteristics. The higher seeding rate plots had taller plants with longer panicle exsertion (the length of the stem from the top leaf to the bottom of the panicle), which may suggest that at these higher densities, plants were competing with each other and growing taller. Panicles were longest in the 5 lb seeding rate and statistically longer than the panicles in the 12-lb and 15-lb rates. There were no statistical differences in grain moisture at harvest.
The treatment yields do not provide a clear take-home message of the results, except perhaps to show that the highest seeding rate (15 lbs/acre) is not an optimum seeding rate. However, if the 9-lb treatment was ignored, there would be a trend for yield to decrease as the seeding rate increased. A possible explanation for the high yield of the 9-lb treatment is that there were three of these plots proximal to the sub-irrigation ditches, which were exterior to the experiment on both sides. The 9-lb treatment may have been inadvertently favored with better moisture conditions as a result of the experimental design. In hindsight, the experiment should have been blocked across the rows instead of down the rows to account for these field conditions which may have introduced variability in soil moisture. Blocking down the rows accounted for very little unexplained variability, and in future years, the experiment will be designed to account for the variability across the rows.
In summary, it is important to study sorghum cultural practices in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region because crop acreage appears to be increasing, and the Delta is a unique growing region of California. Sorghum seeding rates as a function of plant population were studied to assist growers with determining optimum rates for the Delta environment. While results are somewhat inconclusive, there appears to be a trend for the lower seeding rates to yield the highest. If this trend is shown in future years, then Delta growers could have higher productivity with lower seed costs.
On May 20th, we planted a grain sorghum seeding rate trial in the Delta to determine an optimum seeding rate for the unique Delta growing environment. Sorghum is a relatively new crop in the northern San Joaquin Valley and Delta region. The most recent crop reports available from the San Joaquin and Sacramento County Agricultural Commissioners' offices (2014) do not specifically name sorghum in their lists of field crops, indicating that it has not been widely planted. Anecdotally, however, I have heard that acreage is up this year as growers diversify their crop portfolios during this time of low commodity prices.
UC research on sorghum has increased over the last few years, primarily in the southern San Joaquin Valley, under the direction of Jeff Dahlberg, Director of the Kearney Research and Extension Center, and Bob Hutmacher, Director of the West Side Research and Extension Center. They have been investigating grain and silage sorghum for its adaptability under drought and low-input conditions.
Sorghum grows well in environments where corn is grown, and it has similar growth habits as corn. A grower would prepare seedbeds similarly for both crops; the vegetative appearance is similar, as is fertility management. There are, however, some differences in growth and environmental requirements between the two crops. Sorghum should not be planted in cold soils, and typically growers should wait to plant sorghum until the soil temperature is at least 60⁰F. Anecdotally, growers in this area are finishing up corn planting and then moving on to planting sorghum to allow the soils to warm. Unlike corn, sorghum tillers, and the head is a panicle of grain that is self-pollinated. The panicles develop over a period of several days, and thus, short periods of hot weather are less likely to damage sorghum pollination as it may with corn.
In our trial, we planted Eureka Seeds variety 3292, which is a white sorghum variety being grown for grain. We planted on 30-inch row spacing and about 2 inches deep. The variety label specifies 16,000 seeds per pound with 85 percent germination. The grower's practice will be to plant 12 pounds of seed per acre, based on seed representative and neighboring grower recommendations. Our trial is a randomized complete blocks design with four replicated blocks of five treatments: 5, 6, 9, 12, and 15 pounds per acre. These treatments correspond to approximate plant populations of 68,000, 81,600, 122,400, 163,200, and 204,000 plants per acre, respectively. (This takes into account the 85 percent germination.) Over the course of the season, we will evaluate the trial for stand establishment, weed pressure, and yield in an effort to determine optimum seeding rate.