McPHERSON – Last spring, Adam Baldwin's milo seed sales more than doubled thanks to plentiful rain and a decent price for this redheaded crop.
Three months later, the McPherson County farmer and seed dealer stood in a field of tall, thick stalks and bushy heads. It could use another inch of rain, he said, but then added with anticipation, this harvest could be one to remember.
"As a whole farm, it could certainly be our best milo crop ever," he said.
At the same time, however, he turned over a green leaf on a plant and pointed to the yellow clusters sticking to the bottom.
Tiny, hungry pests called sugarcane aphids had begun to infest the promising crop.
It hasn't been devastating yet, but, if left untreated, it could be, he said.
"Worst case, it could hurt 80 percent," he said of yields.
Sugarcane aphids have blown in from the south, causing concern for growers as they prepare to harvest one of the state's largest sorghum crops in recent years.
The aphids were first found in Kansas – the nation's largest producer of sorghum – last year. This year's infestation is heavier, but, experts say, if treated, farmers could still reap those bumper yields.
An increase in milo acreage, also called grain sorghum, plus plentiful rains that have bolstered yields for both corn and milo, have elevators bracing for the onslaught of commodities this fall harvest. Even western Kansas, where farmers have suffered a string of droughts, has been blessed with rainfall.
“The elevators will have an issue where to put all the grain,” said Wichita County farmer Greg Graff last month, adding that the last decent dryland milo and corn crop he had was after a snowstorm in late 2006 left nearly 3 feet of snow.
The nation's production of grain sorghum, which saw the biggest percentage acreage increase of any crop this year, is expected to reach 573 million bushels, a 32 percent increase from 2014.
If realized, that is the highest U.S. production since 1999.
In Kansas, production is expected to reach 229 million bushels, up 15 percent for 2014, according to the August report from the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.
That's also a 170 percent increase from 2012, when drought shrunk bushels to 88 million, the lowest since 1956.
Rain has helped augment yield potential, but farmers also planted more acreage this spring due to economic reasons as prices for milo rose. At planting time, milo prices were higher than corn.
Now experts suspect that all of Kansas' sorghum-producing counties have been hit by the sugarcane aphid. That means sorghum's break will be tight for producers already affected by lower commodity prices this fall.
With a good crop in the field, Baldwin and his family have treated some of their milo acreage for aphids.
"You can manage it, but it is an unexpected expense," Baldwin said.
Brent Bean, director of agronomy with the Sorghum Checkoff, said he stopped at several fields last week as he ventured from Amarillo through Kansas to a conference in Manhattan.
Every field he stopped at had a light infestation of sugarcane aphids, he said.
Heavy infestations of aphids can hurt yields by reducing grain size and quality. Bean said the aphid typically hurts sorghum plants by sucking their juices. It then excretes a sticky waste called honeydew, which can create harvest difficulty.
The fields Bean scouted didn't have a high enough infestation to spray, he said, but added that can change quickly.
"It is amazing how fast (aphids) can reproduce," he said, adding farmers with low infestations in a field at present should monitor levels for that reason.
"I don’t want to be too negative. The sorghum crop looks great in Kansas – just excellent," Bean said. "Unfortunately, we may have to make a spray application to control the aphid. There is a lot of potential for this crop, despite the aphid. You may have to spray to protect a very good crop."
Potential for big fall harvest
For many Kansas farmers, fall is the busiest season.
Dryland corn harvest already has begun. There is also irrigated corn, as well as soybeans, sunflowers, cotton and milo, to harvest. Farmers also will be planting the winter wheat crop.
Meanwhile, grain elevators, coming off of a fair wheat harvest in some areas, are trying to prepare for the truckloads of commodities that will rumble in and out of their locations in September and October.
"It will be a challenge," Joe Schauf, general manager of the Sterling-based Central Prairie Co-op, said of space.
He added later for the 2015 harvest, "It isn't in the bin yet, but with all the rains we had in July, August, it sure looks good."
Jerald Kemmerer, general manager for Dodge City-based Pride Ag Resources, said milo acres are up about 10 percent in his area, but he expected, with summer moisture, to see a significant boost in bushels binned.
Corn acres are down a little, but yields are going to be better, he said.
"Overall, corn is going to be OK," he said. "But the milo is phenomenal. It really looks good."
"We have made enough room so we haven't had to go on the ground," Kemmerer said, then added, "but I think we will, and that is a good problem to have after five years of drought, if we have to go to the ground with milo."