Sorghum gets a big boost from science

Grain sorghum growing in value, relevance

As a popular mid-American feed grain with global appeal, grain sorghum has bested some natural blows in the past decade and continued a viable climb.

A drought tolerant crop used in human and animal food, also made into environmentally friendly ethanol, sorghum’s versatility has garnered attention, said Jeff Zortman, a farmer near Fowler, in Meade County, Kansas.

“It’s not just a feed,” he said. “It can be used in other applications, and that has grown tremendously in the past five years.”

Kansas is historically tagged the Wheat State where 7.3 million acres were planted in 2021, but it’s also the largest producer of grain sorghum in the nation, with 3.6 million acres planted last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Roughly 6 to 7 million acres are planted to sorghum every year in the United States, said Brent Bean, director of agronomy for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, based in Lubbock, Texas.

U.S. farmers were planting 8 million acres annually until the Plains were inundated with sugar cane aphids from 2015 to 2017, said Clayton Short, a sorghum producer near Assaria, Kansas.

“That hurt the industry,” he said. “It stopped research going into yield and redirected into tolerance and resistance for the surge. We lost some high producing areas.”

But sorghum has since been on the rebound.

“In the last two or three years, we’ve been seeing those acres come back,” Bean said. “This year and last, the price of grain sorghum has been good.”

In the High Plains, where depleting underground supplies of water have producers honed in on saving the resource, grain sorghum is an option.

“It’s trying to fill a bigger role in Kansas with the water issues,” Short said. “They’re trying to put sorghum into the area where you have limited water or have over-pumped.”

A good crop of grain sorghum is possible with less water, he said, compared to other staple crops, such as corn.

“If you have a full profile of moisture or irrigation, corn has top-end yield potential,” Short said. “But if you are limited, sorghum is a great fill.”

A five-year average of 207 million bushels of grain sorghum, also known as milo, is exported annually according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center.

Of Kansas’ five major commodities, only wheat saw a drop in acres since 2015, according to Doug Bounds, USDA Kansas state statistician. The same was true for Colorado and Nebraska.

More uses increase demand and price for milo.

“Several markets have really grown. One is food grade,” Zortman said. “The thing that makes sorghum highly desirable is it’s gluten free. It can be milled and used in different applications.”

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A non-genetically modified crop, sorghum is a popular grain for export, especially where GMO food and feed are not favored.

China and other Asian countries, where ducks and swine are huge consumers, are big export customers, Zortman said.

“Pet food is another market that’s been utilizing sorghum. There’s a lot of research happening in that area, also aquaculture,” he said.

The conversion rate for fish can potentially be a pound of meat gain for every pound of feed consumed, Zortman said.

The commodity enjoys encouragement with pricing, thanks in part to export demand and environmental advantages going into the 2022 growing season, said Jesse McCurry, executive director of Kansas Grain Sorghum, based in Colwich.

“There’s no question we’re seeing some very interesting phenomena,” he said.

Another big plus these days is input costs, said Brent Bean.

“It just costs a lot less to plant sorghum,” he said. “You may see $80 to $100 an acre in seed cost to plant corn. With sorghum it’s $10 to $20 an acre. We don’t have the GMO traits with sorghum, so it doesn’t cost as much.”

Technology has weighed in, thanks in large part to an injection of funding from the United Sorghum Checkoff.

Six-tenths of 1 percent of the grain’s market value funds the national checkoff, McCurry said, and with sorghum worth $2.72 a bushel more in the past 18 months—July 2020 to January 2022, according to Scoular Grain terminal in Salina, Kansas—more money is being pumped into research and development.

“The more sorghum’s worth, the more dollars are available,” he said. “Farmers have chosen to invest through the checkoff, and make sorghum more competitive and relevant.”

The associated research boost helped to provide a breakthrough in battling grassy weeds, with two technologies:

• Igrowth sorghum, sold and developed by Advanta Seed, that’s bred to be tolerant to Imiflex herbicide; and

• Double Team herbicide tolerant sorghum sold by S&W Seed Company, allows using First Act herbicide, strictly for grass control.

Both technologies are available this year, he said.

“You can spray over the top of sorghum for grass control,” Bean said. “The National Sorghum Growers and the Sorghum Checkoff have been working 20 years to get this technology to the farmer.”

Those tolerances are “naturally bred into the varieties,” Zortman said, as opposed to a Roundup-ready plant, which is “a genetic modification.”

The herbicide tolerant technologies are a breakthrough, he said.

“There is definitely a lot more research and industry collaboration in sorghum than there has ever been, and that’s going to result in multiple things,” Zortman said. “There are a lot more new varieties out there.”

Pigweed control is still a problem.

“They will still have to use traditional herbicides for broadleaf weed control,” Bean said. “But for those guys who have had grass problems, we finally do have an answer with these technologies.”

He estimated the new treatments add $15 to $25 an acre in added cost.

“If you have a serious grass problem, it’s gonna be worth it,” Bean said. “It is difficult to grow grain sorghum if you’ve got a lot of grass.”

Sorghum has proven to be good rotational crop with corn and soybeans.

“It breaks up disease and insect cycles,” Bean said.

Historically, sorghum grain has been used for animal feed, but this is changing, he said. “Sorghum grain is gluten free and high in antioxidants, two traits that are increasingly important in the human and pet foods industries,” Bean said.

Sorghum is also used in building materials, including insulation, he said, and packaging.

There are emerging traits that add value, Zortman said.

Among them are the “waxy” varieties of sorghum that contain almost entirely the polymer amylopectin—versus a 25% split with amylose in traditional sorghum—according to

“Waxy sorghum helps produce more ethanol yield, and is being tested and researched,” he said.

Bean added that waxy sorghum contains a “desirable trait in the Chinese baiju market (a form of alcohol).”

“High protein (sorghum) varieties are another value-added trait being tested,” Zortman said, “potentially offsetting higher priced protein sources in feed rations.”

A number of those bright spots, however small or large, add up to advantages for sorghum going forward.

“It’s not going away anytime soon,” Zortman said. “When I hear people don’t want to grow sorghum because it makes them itch, it’s not a good enough reason.”

He quips, however, that an “itch-free milo” is not a bad idea.

Tim Unruh can be reached at [email protected].