From feed to food, grain sorghum has long history in the High Plains 

(Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

The earliest known origins of sorghum date 8,000 B.C., in northeast Africa. Sorghum came to the High Plains region of the United States much later, and eventually found its way to diets of livestock, and now in modern times, into human diets. 

According to the National Sorghum Producers, the first known record of sorghum in the United States came from Ben Franklin in 1757, who wrote about its applications in producing brooms. 

United Sorghum Checkoff Agronomist Brent Bean said sorghum became very popular in the 1960s and 70s when cattle feeding in the central United States was trying to get a foot hold.  

“It was a very important crop, in fact, that’s one reason that we have feed yards in the Texas Panhandle, High Plains area now is because of grain sorghum,” he said. “Originally those feed yards fed mostly sorghum and that’s when the irrigation came in.” 

Gradually, however, those acres eventually shifted to corn because of the new irrigation systems and thus the feedyards shifted to corn. Bean said back then sorghum was a good dryland crop and still is. 

“That’s really where it’s fit is—is on those dryland acres, or limited irrigated acres,” he said. “And that’s one reason that we don’t see as many acres of sorghum in say the Midwest because they just have so much more water. They can easily grow so they’re going to soybeans and corn.” 

The farther west you go and into drier regions, sorghum comes into play because it can withstand those periods of drought and still yield.  

Improvements

Through the years, sorghum hybrids have evolved, and improvement in sorghum can be credited in part to the U.S. Sorghum Checkoff Program. From Bean’s standpoint as an agronomist, USCP became a problem solver. For example, in 2013 when sugarcane aphids were wreaking havoc on the crop.  

“A lot of acres were affected and really hurt the crop and that actually caused us a significant drop in the acres the next year because of that,” he said. “One thing that the checkoff did is we very quickly mobilized to solve that problem. We brought together researchers and extension people from the universities, from USDA, and then also from the seed companies and the chemical companies for crop protection companies.” 

The groups came together and discussed what the best solution for sugarcane aphid control was and came up with a strategic plan. The Checkoff was able to coordinate efforts between the different organizations.  

“We were able to solve the sugarcane aphid problem really, very quickly. Probably within three years,” Bean said. “We certainly had some very good insecticides we could use to control the aphid we had. We had discovered hybrids that had tolerance to the sugarcane aphid.” 

The seed companies responded and did a great job increasing the amount of seed and developing more hybrids that were tolerant to the sugarcane aphid. 

“It’s just a great example about everybody working together could solve a problem that the checkoff was very instrumental in coordinating those results, as well as providing funding for some of that research that was done,” he said.  

Sorghum growers are also looking for ways to control grass in their fields. 

“Really for 20 years growers have been wanting options to control grass in sorghum,” he said. “We just didn’t have any post emergence then we could control grass, some pre-emergence but not post emergence.” 

In 2021 new herbicide technologies on the market allowed for better grass control, and the checkoff really stepped up to help with that, Bean said.  

“The Sorghum Checkoff certainly funded a lot of studies over the years and really pushed and to get that technology to the grower,” he said. “It took a while but we did get there and that’s been a very important trait that growers wanted and now have.” 

As for the future, sorghum will continue to be something with great potential when it comes to sustainability and carbon markets. 

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“I think sorghum is a very good fit for those markets and really to improve sustainability of overall farmland in the High Plains,” he said. “Because it is a high residue crop and something that’s very much beneficial from a sustainability standpoint—protects the soil, allows for more moisture to be stored into the soil by capturing more rainfall and snow events and we really see it as being a very good fit with other crops.” 

There are some big plusses for sorghum, and with the investment from the USCP in new things like double haploid technology, seed companies are able to get a hybrid to the market much quicker.  

“By using double haploid technology, we can really save about five years and the time it takes for making a cross between two parents and then getting that that crossed it was made and eventually getting that into a hybrid,” he said. “Then there were other technologies, like gene editing is going to play into that and using gene markers is going to go a long way in making the breeders just better at selecting which lines to cross to make a a good hybrid.” 

Advances in sorghum are going to start happening much more rapidly than in the past, according to Bean, and sorghum historically had a fit in the livestock feeding market. Now, there are even more markets where sorghum fits. 

“More and more we’re seeing sorghum use in the food industry, so as a food grain rather than a feed grain,” he said. “Pet food is a big potential market there and that’s growing. Even even more so we’re seeing more of sorghum being used as human food.” 

Sorghum is naturally gluten free and non-GMO, and those are things consumers appreciate. 

“We’re seeing that market just continue to grow, and I think we’re going to continue to see that grow,” he said. “I do see at least a new opportunity for sorghum certainly is in those markets kind of going forward.” 

A look back

A cover story of the Feb. 3, 1949 issue of High Plains Journal pictured the inner workings of the new sorghum grain processing plant in Dodge City, Kansas. The plant was “rapidly nearing completion” and in the story headlined, Unique Plant, Unusual Corporation in Native High Plains Sorghum Industry, the project was an outgrowth of the research of the agricultural experiment station of Kansas State college at Manhattan. The project was funded by the Kansas Industrial Development commission, and they spent more than $100,000 on the project. An area accountant, Ross D. Hogue began investigating the possibility of locating the plant in Dodge City. The grain sorghum plant is the first of its kind in the United States and is a direct result of experiments done by Dr. Barham at Kansas State college. Operation of the plant has been delayed from month to month by material shortages and engineering difficulties. 

“Farmers, industrialists, economists and others who are interested in Western Kansas have said that this area needs industries which will make use of its products. The dodge City Industries and its sorghum plant is the answer to that plea.” 

Congressman Clifford Hope in the article said the plant at Dodge City “was the finest agricultural industrial project to be launched in Western Kansas.” 

“The plant takes grain sorghum grown in this part of the country and breaks down the grain into industrial parts. The parts produced at the Dodge City plant are grits, germ, bran, fines and feeds. From the laboratory came many useful products made from sorghum grains such as starch, protein feed, oil, and syrup, as well as many other minor products. Laboratory tests indicate the income from these products would yield at least twice the cost of the grain.” 

A later article dated Jan. 12, 1950 announced plans for expansion to the plant. Multi-storage concrete processing plant, million-bushel terminal, storage facilities and other developments are envisioned by the group who initially financed a pilot plant in 1946 and built the plant in 1948. 

Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].