In Nebraska, sorghum’s popularity rises again

Mike Baker has always liked the underdog.

Around 2000, the farmer from Trenton, Nebraska, planted his first grain sorghum crop. For the past 17 years, he’s been touting the crop’s benefits to fellow Southwestern Nebraska farmers.

“I call it my insurance policy,” said Baker, who also is president of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board. “I’m not a big believer in insurance. I don’t carry much of an insurance package on my crops. And, year in, year out, I’ll grow grain sorghum. Even in the good years, too, it produces just as well as corn and other competitive crops.”

Nebraska’s annual Sorghum Symposium, Jan. 18, in Curtis, allowed other producers to learn more about what farmers like Baker see in the crop.

Among the topics at the event, sponsored by the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Producers Association, Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board and Nebraska Extension, were the crop’s low water usage, the benefits of forage sorghum and upcoming new hybrids and trends in the industry.

Baker said he sees more interest in sorghum, which is a change from when he was appointed on the sorghum board five or six years ago.

“I want to say we were down to 120,000 acres in the state of Nebraska,” he said, then paused. “I think we were less than that.

“I thought maybe I was hopping on a dying ship to tell you the truth, by the time I got on the board,” he said. “I thought I won’t be around here very long.”

Acres continue to stay strong

Now, more acres of sorghum are being harvested in Nebraska since the 1980s.

Sorghum acres in Nebraska surged in 2014 and 2015—largely driven by demand from China. Sorghum for grain production dropped off to 12 million bushels in 2017—down 33 percent from the previous year, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

But according to Baker and others at the symposium the outlook is bright for sorghum exports, plus its use in the growing domestic food market.

“I’d like to see it keep steadily increasing,” Baker said. “We aren’t going to overtake corn, and not that we want to. But there is a niche market for sorghum and the producers who can grow it in this semi-arid part of the state. People just need to realize how viable it can be.”

Gaining ground

Competing with other row crops has its challenges, said Jim Erickson, who farms near Sterling, Nebraska.

Over the years, sorghum hasn’t kept up with crops like corn in terms of research and development, he said.

“There has been more research done by chemical companies for corn and soybeans, because that’s where they make their money,” he said.

Challenges facing sorghum growers include achieving higher yields and controlling weeds, said Cody Creech, an assistant agronomy professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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But the industry jumped those hurdles. In Nebraska, sorghum yields have increased since the 1950s—from just 30 bushels an acre on dryland to more than 90 in 2017.

More companies are investing in sorghum, including Texas-based Chromatin. Chromatin develops and sells high-quality hybrid sorghum seed through its brand Sorghum Partners, said Scott Staggenborg, vice president of research and development for Chromatin.

“We’re a sorghum-only company,” he said.

Chromatin researchers have been doing a variety of work to increase sorghum’s yields and high-quality traits.

For instance, with forage sorghums, Chromatin has developed brown midrib hybrids. These hybrids with the brown midrib trait have lower lignin content, which improves digestibility and palatability in livestock.

In fact, said Staggenborg, the company has six new forage hybrids it will release soon.

Chromatin researchers are also studying sugarcane aphids on grain sorghum hybrids using their own tiny yellow bugs. Other research includes the use of sorghum seed treatments and a secret study on herbicide-tolerant sorghum that is expected to be released in coming months.

“Yes, we’re a little cagey with this one,” Staggenborg said.

“It’s going to be an over the top,” he said of application. “Right now, we have an elite germplasm. We have a cross of elite parents. We are about to finish the first generation of that in the greenhouse.”

Staggenborg expects to have hybrids that can be tested in the field by 2019 and, maybe, some hybrids that can be put in trials with universities by 2020 or 2021.

“We actually have plants in the greenhouse that we sprayed numerous times and they are still surviving,” he said.

One producer asked if it was for broadleaf weeds or grasses. But Staggenborg wouldn’t budge.

“That would give it away,” he said. “Hopefully in another month we can announce what the mode of action is for this.”

What about the itch?

While the industry has promise, there is still a lot of work to be done, Erickson said.

Among the issues is delivery. Erickson said his board continues to work to make sure there are plenty of local elevators that will take the grain.

That includes his own cooperative.

“Our local cooperative, they have 30 or 40 branches,” he said. “I bet there are only five of those branches that will take milo. Company-wide, they take some, but you have to know where you are going to go with it.”

Baker said he started planting sorghum 17 years ago because he saw a few of his neighbors having success with it.

“It has worked out well for me, he said. “It has been very profitable. My input costs are lower. It is a competitive crop to grow.”

It uses less water, he said, which is beneficial in areas with declining irrigation wells.

But Baker knows sorghum still has a long way to go before it becomes a prevalent alternative to corn.

When Staggenborg asked why some might shy away from sorghum, one farmer said standability. Another said it could be herbicide resistance issues.

And another complained about the crop’s itch.

Staggenborg said he didn’t know if he could fix that, but then backtracked. He has a scientist on staff who likes a good challenge.

“I’m going to go back and tell him, you got to get the itch out of sorghum,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll see what he says.”

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