New Day for Sorghum

Old, Drought-Tough Crop Finds New Markets

John Fleming turned to an ancient crop, sorghum, to help manage his bottom line through drought. Durham, North Carolina, brewer Fullsteam blends North Carolina-grown sorghum into its Sorghum Foxfire IPA. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Will and Deni McIntyre)

Peter Fleming looks for crops that can maximize profits even in drought. That's one reason the North Carolina grower turned to sorghum, a crop University of Tennessee crop marketing specialist Aaron Smith calls "this ancient grain."

Fleming grew up farming with his father in Yadkin County. In the 2016 growing season, he planted 90% of his 400 acres in sorghum and 10% in beans. In 2017, he divided his ground 50/50 between the two crops.

"The thought is always in the back of your head, 'When is the drought coming?'" Fleming said.

He joined the National Sorghum Producers, met members of its legislative committee and began learning about the different directions in which he could market the crop -- including as a food-grade grain. "There weren't too many people in the area growing it at the time," Fleming said. "We wanted to get into food-grade sorghum. A lot of people are calling and wanting it."

NEW MARKET, OLD GRAIN

Sorghum has come to the attention of consumers in recent years. They are looking for gluten-free, grain-based foods. Not only is sorghum gluten-free, but it's also a non-GMO crop, an attribute increasingly important to consumers.

"We have a long history of growing it in the U.S.," Tennessee's Smith said. Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are the biggest U.S. producers of sorghum, but most of the crop produced isn't for human consumption. "It's for animal feed and ethanol production."

More than 50% of sorghum grown in the U.S. is exported. China is the grain's largest importer of U.S. sorghum and uses it as an animal feed and to produce alcohol. In Africa, sorghum is used for human consumption, animal feed and to make alcohol. "It's a well-established global grain," Smith pointed out.

High-quality sorghum is necessary for food-grade markets -- a market where producers stand to make the most money. Fleming indicates he can harvest 100 to 125 bushels per acre of dry upland corn but can garner 125 to 180 bushels of sorghum on the same land. Input costs are also half that of corn. "That's a no-brainer to me," he remarked.

High-quality sorghum refers mainly to the cleanliness of the seed, although Fleming works to grow food-grade sorghum. He buys that seed from two suppliers: Sorghum Partners, of New Deal, Texas, and Richardson Seeds, of Lubbock, Texas.

Fleming plans for 50 to 60% of his sorghum crop to be food grade in the 2018 growing season. If used for pet food, Fleming can get a $2-per-bushel premium over the market. At present, he sells non-food-grade sorghum through feed manufacturer Smithfield Grain for cattle and hog feed.

Fleming said the market for feed for poultry is growing. "North Carolina is a crop-deficient state to start with," he remarked. "We can't grow enough corn, beans or oats to even feed the hog industry."

CLEAN GRAIN

Fleming recently purchased a cleaner to produce the high-quality sorghum demanded by the pet-food and food-grade markets. "Those markets are really large," he said.

However, in many regions, there are only a handful of places where you can easily deliver sorghum to the market. If you're outside Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas, you'll have to go direct to consumer in most instances to sell food-grade sorghum, Smith noted. That might include selling to breweries. "Similar to malting barley, most sorghum farmers are looking for a food-quality price premium to avoid having to sell into animal-feed markets," he added.

In Tennessee, most of the sorghum is priced for export based on the prevailing corn rate, Smith explained. "A lot of elevators won't accept sorghum year-round due to limited bin space. There are small pockets of food-grade sorghum scattered around the state but are more for local, niche markets."

"There are markets on the East Coast for food grade, but it's hard to get in the door," Fleming explained, "especially if you don't have a cleaner." A cleaner can be an investment of $1.5 million. Currently, there is a market for non-GMO, gluten-free snack food, particularly in Massachusetts, New York and Great Britain. "The market is wide open for the baking side of it," he added.

CARING FOR YOUR CROP

Fleming was the National Non-Irrigated Food-Grade winner in the National Sorghum Producers' 2016 Yield Contest. That year, he averaged 191 bushels per acre on his test plot and has been working with Monsanto testing seed varieties.

"My opinion is for anyone with 1,000 acres or less, if you're average on soybeans is 35 to 40 bushels, [and] if you can do 100-plus on sorghum, you'll get a return on your money," Fleming said.

While Tennessee's Smith acknowledges sorghum is a more drought-tolerant crop, like any crop, it's vulnerable to its own set of pests and diseases. "You can take steps to more intensively manage it," he said. "Take care of insect or disease problems quickly, or use seed treatment to protect against both of those."

Headworms and sorghum midge are two of the pests. For more on pest management in sorghum, visit https://bit.ly/….

Like any crop, sorghum isn't a sure home run. "Quite often, as you move through the production year, you may be targeting food grade, but, sometimes, you get the wrong rain or an insect infestation, and can't sell it food grade," Smith cautioned.

Fleming said sorghum needs to be treated like a corn crop. "People think it will grow anywhere, and you don't have to pay attention to it," he said. "But, that's not true. It's got its needs." For example, the grain needs to be stored at 11% moisture in a cool, dry bin.

Sorghum will stand the drought 60 days better than corn, but you won't get a high yield on marginal soil with little fertilizer. "To get the return on investment, you need to take care of it," he said.

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(Sidebar)

A Word of Caution

By Deborah R. Huso

Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor

Don't be fooled into thinking sorghum is an easy crop just because it's drought tolerant. University of Tennessee crop marketing specialist Aaron Smith offers advice on getting the best returns:

-- Corn can beat sorghum in yield. The benefit of sorghum, however, is it typically has lower input costs than corn, reducing your investment per acre. "You have to be cognizant that if you have sorghum, and it doesn't go food-grade, you're in competition with corn for animal feed," Smith said.

-- Make sure there is demand for your product in your area. Do your homework. Take advantage of the knowledge and expertise of checkoff organizations such as the National Sorghum Producers, as well as local university Extension offices.

-- Get a production contract that shares risk the way grain producers do with malting barley contracts, so you have some protection from natural disasters.

-- Make sure you have alternate markets in the event you can't get the quality you need for food-grade sorghum. "Be certain sorghum makes financial sense under a variety of alternatives," Smith cautioned.

-- Study the production process. Don't assume you can grow sorghum successfully just because it's similar to corn. "It has real management issues," Smith explained. "It can be difficult to scout -- it's not pleasant to walk through the field."

-- Know that the signals for nutrient deficiency or disease issues are different for sorghum than for corn. "Each crop presents its own challenges and signals," Smith noted.

-- Learn from someone else in the area who is growing sorghum before you start doing it yourself.

(ES/AG)