Sorghum’s value touted at informational meeting

There was a time when Earl Roemer never gave a second thought about sorghum.

Most considered it a second-class commodity compared to corn and wheat—staple crops on the High Plains where he farms, the fourth-generation farmer said.

“All we did in the 1970s was feed grain sorghum to hogs,” Roemer said.

But, fast-forward 40 years, and Roemer sees a golden age for sorghum. As a growing number of consumers change their dietary habits, Roemer has capitalized on the crop’s gluten-free and non-GMO properties—starting a business venture he calls Nu Life Market. From an unassuming complex on the outskirts of Scott City, Kansas, Roemer is operating the nation’s largest grain sorghum flour mill, selling product to big food companies like General Mills and Kellogg.

“Who knew?” said Roemer with optimism during a farmer panel discussion at Sorghum U Jan. 9 in Salina. “Now (sorghum) is one of the highest products and the most demanded specialty product in the United States. Our company was a big part of that.”

Adding value to sorghum was the focus of this year’s Sorghum U, which is sponsored by High Plains Journal. Topics included on-farm storage, maximizing economic yield through fertility and managing weeds and insects. Speakers also discussed the crop’s water-sipping properties, as well as value-added marketing, which for Roemer, includes the growing food industry.

A similar symposium will take place Jan. 11 in Dodge City. For more information,

Here are a few key points from Tuesday’s Sorghum U.

Treat sorghum like you would corn

A reoccurring theme echoed by speakers was don’t give up on sorghum.

“The main thing is, don’t treat sorghum like everyone thinks it is—the redheaded stepchild,” said Zack Rendel, a farmer from Miami, Oklahoma. “If you are going to grow sorghum, treat it how you would grow corn.”

He realized this several years ago. Rendel, a six-generation farmer from an area that averages around 40 inches of rain a year, noticed his sorghum yields were staying a steady 85 to 100 bushels an acre year after year. Then, one year, he planted sorghum on a field following a poor wheat crop.

“So, we had a lot of extra fertilizer on the ground,” he said.

Sorghum yields increased to 110 to 120 bushels an acre, which made Rendel realize if he wanted to reap higher bushels with sorghum, he had to invest in it.

“Instead of treating grain sorghum like grain sorghum, I started treating grain sorghum like corn,” he said.

Changes included making sure he uses enough nitrogen. Each fall, Rendel spreads about 2 tons of poultry litter an acre on his fields. He runs soil tests on his fields every three years.

He’s spending about the same amount of money on sorghum fertility has he is corn, which is about $80 an acre. “But the returns, because seed costs are so low on sorghum versus corn, I make all the money back.”

His yields now average around 120 bushels an acre, and he is still trying to push yields by applying more fertilizer on a few test fields.

Sign up for HPJ Insights

Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

“It’s not economical to do it, but I just want to see myself based on testing what that sorghum crop has in it—how far I can push it,” he said, noting he elevated one field to 162 bushels an acre.

“I think we can get it higher than that, I really do, and make it economical.”

Water-sipping sorghum

Tom Willis tells it like it is—a man who came to Kansas 14 years ago and didn’t know much about sorghum.

But it didn’t take Willis long to learn of sorghum water-sipping properties—as a businessman who needs grain for his ethanol plants and from the standpoint of a father who wants his son to have a future on his southern Finney County, Kansas, farm.

 The Ogallala Aquifer is the lifeblood of semiarid landscape. The economy around it—one centered on crops, cattle, packing plants and fuel—couldn’t be sustained without water.

The aquifer is dropping at a horrific rate, said Willis, CEO of Conestoga Energy Partners and the keynote speaker at Tuesday’s event. Wells on his farm declined from 600 gallons a minute when he bought the land a half dozen years ago to 300 gallons per minute.

“I don’t know if everyone understands the impact that aquifer has, but anything that can be done to reduce the trauma on it has to be done, because once it is dead, once it is empty, it’s too late,” he said.

That’s why Willis turned to sorghum—a key to both extending the life of the Ogallala and to the economic success of his ethanol plants. The two plants in Liberal and Garden City use 75 million bushels of grain annually of which 40 million bushels is sorghum.

Sorghum helps Willis supply his plants with Kansas grain, which helps him keep his competitive advantage.

Meanwhile, Willis implemented a Water Technology Farm on his land two years ago. A collaboration between the state of Kansas and public and private enterprise, the farm is a model for water savings-showcasing technology like mobile drip irrigation systems and moisture sensors.

Willis set his farm’s water reduction goal at 30 percent. In the first two years of the program, he exceeded the target, hitting 40 percent.

“When I equalize everything out, when I take into account inputs, outputs and yields, we see no difference to what would be our bottom line,” Willis said.

Adding value through on-farm storage

When J.B. Stewart returned to the farm in 1970, he realized he needed to implement three ideas if he wanted to be as successful as some of his neighbors. 

One of the items on the list was adding on-farm storage. He built his first bin through a Farm Service Agency loan in 1978.

Today, he has 800,000 bushels of grain in storage on his farm near Keyes, Oklahoma, he said. Stewart estimated farmers pay about 5 cents a bushel a month to store grain at the local elevator. He figures his own storage costs at about 3 ½ to 4 cents a bushel.

“Farm storage, it adds value to your grain every year as long as you raise it,” he said.

It’s also made him a better farmer—from working to increase fertility to having quality and clean samples. He also can gain value to his sorghum crop by marketing it directly to end users.

“Even when grain prices are in the tank…we are gaining 15 percent going to the end user,” Stewart said.

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or [email protected].