Sorghum growers have a lot to smile about these days with some of the strongest export demand in years lifting both profits and expectations. Demand for sorghum is growing here at home too, as the grains natural traits make it a perfect fit with some of the leading consumer trends. Or as Nate Blum of the Nebraska Grain Sorghum Board puts it, “We have a good story to tell.”
Grain sorghum is known in many parts of the U.S. as milo, which from what I understand is the name of a specific cultivar of sorghum. It’s got dozens of names around the world but some of the more common include millet, dourah, sorgho, and broomcorn. Grain sorghum is actually a species of grass and one of the most important crops in world, especially in parts of Asia and Africa where it is a staple food source. In the U.S., the first known record of sorghum comes from Ben Franklin who wrote about its application in producing brooms in 1757.
Early sorghum farmers had success with the plant in the drier plains states like Kansas, the largest grain sorghum producing state in the U.S. The U.S. actually has a “Sorghum Belt,” which runs from South Dakota to Southern Texas, where the grain is grown primarily on dryland acres. In the 1960s, sorghum production in the U.S. was threatened by downy mildew, anthracnose, and greenbug but the development of hybrids helped save the plant.
Sorghum is among the most efficient crops in conversion of solar energy and use of water and is known as a high-energy, drought tolerant crop that is environmentally friendly. There are various types of sorghum including red, orange, bronze, tan, white, and black colored sorghum. Red, orange or bronze sorghum is traditionally grown and is used in all segments of the sorghum industry. Tan, cream and white colored sorghum varieties are typically made into flour for the food industry, while black and burgundy varieties contain beneficial antioxidant properties and are utilized in other food applications.
There is also sweet sorghum, which is harvested for the stalks rather than the grain and is crushed like sugarcane or beets to produce a syrup. Sweet sorghum was once the predominate table sweetener in the U.S. Today, it’s used as a healthy alternative sweetener and to produce whiskey and rum type products, as well as for biofuel and chemical production.
Over the years, sorghum has been either exported, used in animal feed domestically, or utilized in industrial uses. In recent years, sorghum’s use in the ethanol market has seen tremendous growth. Traditionally, nearly one-third of the U.S. sorghum crop is used for renewable fuel production. But sorghum has also been growing in popularity in the consumer food space. It is naturally non-GMO and gluten free, which despite anyone’s personal opinions are things that attract consumers. It’s also an “ancient grain,” another huge trend among the “healthy and sustainable” lifestyle crowd. And because pets are people, the pet food market is a growing one for sorghum as well.
Sorghum growers in 2020/21 are projected to plant 5.9 million acres and harvest 373 million bushels, an improvement from last year but well below levels seen back in 2015/16. Beginning in 2012/13, demand for sorghum as a feed substitute began increasing in China and by 2014/15, China had become the largest sorghum-consuming country in the world. Around 75% of sorghum in China is used for feed, though t’s also used to produce baijiu, a common Chinese alcoholic drink. China purchased around $1 billion worth of American sorghum per year until 2018 when China imposed retaliatory duties on the grain as part of the trade war between the two countries.
China is back in the sorghum market in a big way, though, after imports dropped to less than 1 million metric tons in 2018/19. U.S. sorghum export inspections for 2020/21 by the beginning of March were more than double what they were at the same point last season, with most destined for China. The country’s imports began picking up last season thanks in part due to enormous feed demand needs as China began rebuilding its hog herd after being decimated by African swine fever. That expansion is expected to remain ongoing in 2021, along with an expansion of the country’s cattle herd in response to growing domestic demand. (Sources: Sorghum Checkoff, USDA FAS, AAEA, Harvest Public Media)