It is no secret that Kansas, especially western Kansas, is a water-challenged environment.
That is an advantage for grain sorghum, according to Justin Weinheimer, crop improvement program director with the sorghum checkoff, which has made a concerted effort to rekindle interest in sorghum among growers.
Speaking to farmers gathered for an informational seminar on sorghum Friday morning (July 12) at the 3iShow in Dodge City, Weinheimer said water-friendly sorghum will produce profitably on about 7.7 inches of irrigation water during a growing season. Comparable corn production requires closer to 18 inches of water.
"As the water table of the Ogalalla falls, there will be fewer and fewer wells that can support corn irrigation," he said. "Those same wells can support sorghum with no problem."
He said the 7.7-inch requirement has been validated not just in test or demonstration plots, but on more than 5,000 acres of farmland over a six-year period by Texas growers. Yields on those acres was about 6,500 pound per acre – about 125 to 130 bushels.
"Timing is critical," he said. "You need water in early development when the plant potential is being determined. You need it again at about boot stage to insure that you get good grain heads. Other than those two critical times, it is extremely drought tolerant."
The sorghum industry is working at the national level to try to resolve the issues with crop insurance that discourage growers from switching from corn to sorghum, he said.
Weinheimer was joined for a panel question and answer session by K-State agronomist John Holman, K-State plant pathologist Phil Stallman and Conestoga Energy/Diamond Ethanol representative Matt Durler.
Durler said that the ethanol plant at Liberal buys grain sorghum directly from farmers for about 10 cents a bushel over the posted board rate. He said the plants also work with co-ops to make sure that they have adequate supplies for year-round production.
"Between our three plants, we grind 60 million bushels of grain a year and about half of that is grain sorghum," he said. "We love to buy what we can direct from farmers but we only have about 2 million bushels of storage at each plant, so obviously we have to buy stored grain throughout the year."
Stallman addressed the question of shattercane control in grain sorghum fields, saying that unfortunately there is no post-emergence herbicide that works to control the weed.
"The problem you face is a grassy weed in a grassy commodity crop," he said. "The best control is crop rotation to control the shattercane in other crops and starting with a good, clean field."
Some work is being done in an effort to develop herbicide tolerant grain sorghum but it has been hindered by concerns about the close relationship between grain sorghum and shattercane and goat grass, Stallman said, and the likelihood of outcrossing between the crop and the weeds that would create herbicide tolerant weeds.
Holman said the University of Nebraska has a joint project with DuPont, working on introducing desirable GMO traits in sorghum but the first releases are probably still a couple of years away.
Durler said the approval of grain sorghum as a potential advanced biofuel feedstock has caused a flurry of renewed interest among plant breeders and seed companies to produce sorghum with better yields, higher rates of starch to ethanol conversion and other agronomic qualities.
He said he forsees a day when sorghum will be able to compete bushel for bushel with corn in ethanol production.
Holman said that sorghum has lagged far behind other grains in research dollars he expects to see the increased interest in the crop to generate more acres of sorghum being grown,
"In any water challenged environment, sorghum offers an alternative," he said.