Sorghum taking a leading role with pet food makers

Watch any vintage black and white television episode of Lassie and it’s obvious that dog is a member of the family. Heck, if Lassie had not been around, Timmy would still be in that well and the show would not have had a very happy ending.

Dogs have always been man’s best friend, but it seems canines have only become more significant members of the family unit each day, and just as consumers have become more and more interested in where their food comes from, they are also more invested than ever in their pet’s diets. Recent shifts in pet food ingredients have opened up new markets for sorghum growers, which has put them in a position to cash in on the canine industry.

According to Zach Simon, director of ingredient utilization and pet food at the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, sorghum has been used in pet food in smaller portions for quite a while now, but recently it has been used more as a main ingredient.

“One reason why that’s happening is because of studies linking heart disease in dogs back to grain-free diets,” Simon said. “Prior to those studies coming out, about 50% of the dog food marketed was grain-free and the other half had grain in it—whether it was corn, rice, wheat or sorghum. What we’re seeing since that study came out is kind of a shift back to more grains, but it’s a compromise from some of those “pet parents” to an ancient grain formulation.”

Although the definition of ancient grains is somewhat murky, the Whole Grains Council describes ancient grains as grains that are mostly unchanged over the last several hundred years. Some examples include spelt, sorghum, teff, millet, quinoa and amaranth.

“Ancient grains are considered more natural and they are kind of whittling away at some of that grain-free market space in the pet food world,” Simon added. “Sorghum, being an ancient grain that is non-GMO, gluten-free and with other health benefits, fills that role.”

Feeding Fido a nutritious helping of sorghum

It seems every other commercial these days relates to pets, specifically pet food and nutrition, so how does sorghum stack up to other traditional ingredients? Greg Aldrich, research associate professor and pet food program coordinator at Kansas State University, said sorghum offers up valuable levels of antioxidants and fiber for animals.

“The biggest addition to the nutrition front for sorghum is the rich bran layer, which is high in fiber and also has a host of antioxidant phenolic compounds,” Aldrich said. “Our research suggests that these coat compounds are able to be digested and appear in the circulation of dogs and provide a greater circulating level of antioxidants to the animal.”

Aldrich considers pet food ingredients to be tools in a toolbox that provide for nutritional balance, so he does not see one ingredient as superior to another. However, he did indicate sorghum is comparable to other cereals as it relates to processing functionality and has a similar digestibility in the foods.

“Sorghum contributes to the antioxidant and fiber story for long term health of our dogs and cats,” he said. “Sorghum has been noted by livestock nutritionists to be lower in digestibility than grains like corn, however, in our studies sorghum is utilized in a similar manner. This is likely due to our evaluation in an extruded form that opens the nutrients to better digestion than if offered raw.”

Sorghum was in high demand over the past year with large exports to China, in particular, raising its commodity price compared to other ingredients, like corn, However pet food makers have continued to purchase sorghum for their formulations even with higher costs.

“They definitely value sorghum as an ingredient, but if you compare sorghum to other ancient grains in cost per pound or bushel, sorghum is very competitive compared to quinoa or spelt,” Simon said. “In the ancient grain formulation space, sorghum is currently the best bang for the buck.”

A growing opportunity

The pet food industry is an expanding market and data only suggests it will flourish in the future. According to statistics from the American Pet Producers Association, in 2018, U.S. pet industry expenditures totaled $90.5 billion. In 2020, even in the midst of a pandemic and economic downturn, the expenditures rose to $103.6 billion. Of that 2020 total, $42 billion was spent on pet food and treats. Furthermore, the APPA is predicting 2021’s total pet expenditures to be $109.6 billion with $44.1 billion spent on pet food and treats. Incredibly, in 2022 Americans have spent $123.6 $billion on their animals friends.

Simon believes part of the reason consumers spent more on their companion animals in 2020 was because of an increase in pet adoptions due to lockdowns and people having more time to spend at home.

“As pets become equivalent to children in households in America and elsewhere, people want the best for their children and even their pets, so they are willing to pay these high-dollar prices for a quality product,” Simon said. “That survey showed that owners spent 11% more on pet food in 2020 than in previous years. This market is continuing to grow domestically, but it is also growing internationally as classes change and people have more money to spend on a companion animal.”

Additionally, Simon said the High Plains ranks high in pet food production, with Missouri being the No. 1 pet food producing state in the U.S. and Kansas being No. 3.

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“As these shifts occur with ancient grains, farmers could have even more opportunities in their own backyards,” Simon said. “Farmers should seek out opportunities to capture that extra value. Have they made that phone call to their local pet food company to see if they’ve got a sorghum bid or would be interested purchasing sorghum. A lot of times that’s how these things start.”

Right now sorghum growers have an opportunity to fill a niche market and rewrite the script for sorghum’s future.

“We’ve got to think about what tools we have as farmers, and we need to leverage those in our business model,” Simon said. “If you’re growing sorghum, what do you have? You have a non-GMO, American-grown ancient grain that is gluten-free and extremely sustainable as far as water usage. You’ve got to sell it for all its attributes to get the most value.”

Lacey Newlin can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].