Sorghum’s success no secret to producers

Dave Bergmeier

High Plains agriculture has been a leader when it comes to finding crops to be profitable. Sorghum is no newcomer and 30 years ago milo was commonly grown in semi-arid conditions of Kansas, Colorado, Texas and South Dakota.

Farmers who were able to tap into the Ogallala Aquifer, which provides a vast underground pool of water to grow corn, benefited from crop genetics and the thirst to improve drought tolerance upped the ante on dryland corn production. The result pushed corn into unprecedented heights for production and marketing opportunities for growers who benefited from development of ethanol. Genetic opportunities opened up new markets for soybean growers.

Sorghum’s resilience provides another wing of opportunity and it has returned to the marketplace with sound profit potential behind it.

As Tim Unruh writes in this week’s cover story, grain sorghum has been building a significant niche—most notably in the traditional sorghum belt from southern Texas to South Dakota. Even in Nebraska, where corn and soybeans are the dominant crops, sorghum has found success, according to Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board Executive Director Nate Blum.

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

In Kansas, acreage for the fall wheat crop in 2021 was 7.3 million acres. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sorghum was also at 3.6 million acres in Kansas, leading the nation.

The success for any commodity is finding markets, whether in the U.S. or in the export market, and sorghum has been doing that. Meade, Kansas, producer Jeff Zortman noted food grain growth. Since sorghum is gluten free it is attractive for different applications.

A non-genetically modified crop, it has been popular where GMO food and feed are not favored. That has been true of China and other Asian countries where swine and duck feed, for example, make it a source. Also, the Chinese use sorghum for a popular distilled drink known as Baijiu.

Marketing has paid off as national and state organizations have continued to tell a positive story, with trips to the Pacific Rim and to Europe. Those initiatives are paying off. Ultimately a grower has to evaluate his own bottom line to see if sorghum is right. The variables continue to point toward more opportunities.

The National Sorghum Producers correctly notes that while sorghum is not as popular as corn in the U.S., the crop is important to resource-conscious farmers who recognize its ability to produce nutritious grain with less water and fertilizer. The crop has a bright future in the High Plains where the Ogallala Aquifer continues to decline. This year is particularly vexing as the high cost of fertilizer may entice some corn growers to look for alternatives that are less nitrogen intensive.

Another key to ensuring sorghum can continue to grow in market presence depends on research of private companies and producers’ continued investment in a checkoff. That has included finding ways to use technology to battle grassy seeds. The good news is Igrowth and Double Team will be available for farmers this year, as Unruh writes.

Investing in their own product is paying off, as Jesse McCurry, executive director of the Kansas Grain Sorghum, says six-tenths of 1% of the grain’s market value funds the national checkoff. That means when prices are good more dollars are headed into research and development.

Sorghum has come a long way and its renaissance story is no fluke. Sorghum is here to stay and grow.

Dave Bergmeier can be reached 620-227-1822 or [email protected].