For too long grain sorghum has been the red-headed stepchild of the grain industry. It does well enough in a pinch, if corn is not available or is priced higher than feedlots want to pay.
But it's time grain buyers take the crop more seriously, says Tim Snyder, director of marketing for the National Grain Sorghum Producers Association in Lubbock.
“We've been considered a cheap substitute for corn,” Snyder says. “But we have a lot more to offer.”
Snyder says markets “are coming alive again for grain sorghum.” He sees new markets fueled by increased interest in the non-GMO status of grain sorghum, new food products, dairy use and what he terms a potential energy crisis, “that should not exist.
“We're also segmenting the market to identify new channels to deliver grain sorghum,” Snyder says. “We want to develop and deliver products that are specific to end-user needs.”
One of those unique sales opportunities is a natural poultry production facility in Gonzalez, Texas.
“Buddy's Natural Chickens wants white grain sorghum,” Snyder says. “They use no antibiotics or steroids in their operation and they use identity-preserved white grain sorghum. The non-GMO status is a big benefit to them.”
Snyder says the dairy industry also has discovered value in white grain sorghum for rations. He says a by-product of the Portales, N.M, ethanol plant, dry distillers gain, provides a high protein feed for dairy cattle.
“The dairy industry gobbles it up,” he says. “The by-product improves profitability of the ethanol operation and provides a new market for grain sorghum.”
The ethanol market also offers promise. “Ethanol production has tripled in the past three years,” he says. “With the current concerns about energy supply and price, it's a good time to remind politicians about the values of ethanol
“There is no reason that we should be in this situation. We have a viable renewable resource for energy.”
Snyder says oil companies are beginning to see the potential for ethanol as an adjunct to their business. “We need the oil companies, and they will need us,” he says. “We're beginning to see some support.”
Snyder says in locations where ethanol plants operate, local grain producers see an increase in commodity prices. He also notes that legislation would permit ethanol replace oxygenates in gasoline in California would also boost use.
“We feel strongly about the ethanol issue and will watch it closely,” he says.
Snyder is most excited about potential new human food uses for grain sorghum.
“We have a lot of things going on,” he says. “A flour manufactured in Nebraska and Oregon from grain sorghum shows promise for the baking industry. Also, research in Iowa may soon have a flour for sweet cookies from sorghum flour in the mainstream market.”
He says snack foods, such as sorghum flour power bars and snack chips also show promise. He says Japan has expressed interest in grain sorghum for a variety of snack food items.
He also demonstrated a corn flake that is enhanced with grain sorghum. ‘Grain sorghum has a bland flavor that will enhance the flavor of other grains,” he says. “In corn flakes, it improves flavor and also, because of its tightly bound protein, does not wilt in milk.”
Snyder says many flavor possibilities are possible for grain sorghum flours.
He says 90 percent of the grain sorghum produced in the United States goes into the animal feed market.
“In other countries, 50 percent of the grain sorghum goes into human consumption. We have a steep curve to increase food use here, but we also have tremendous opportunity. I think we're at the beginning of tremendous change.”
Snyder says a huge challenge will be to develop products and adequate supply simultaneously. “We have to increase volume. As we build new products, we also have to build markets. As those merge, we will see an increase demand from producers. It takes time and planning. To achieve those goals.”
Snyder says researchers also hope to develop a sorghum variety high in anti-oxidants, a benefit to prevent both heart disease and some cancers. “Early research indicate potential to develop a variety as high in anti-oxidants as blueberries, which is the gold standard.”
Snyder says some of these developments will require considerable time before they make an impact on demand and producer prices. “Dairy and poultry usage, however, have a more immediate effect. New dairies in the eastern edge of New Mexico and the Texas High Plains should increase demand for grain sorghum” he says.
Snyder also hopes to see a higher loan deficiency payment (LDP) for grain sorghum. “We're working to get the LDP raised,” he says. “It's been around $1.71 per bushel, and that's not high enough. In some areas, grain sorghum prices has been higher than corn, but the LDP is considerably lower. We need government support to raise the loan rate.”
He hopes that any new farm legislation enacted in the next Congress will include a loan rate hike for grain sorghum.
“We feel positive about grain sorghum” he says, “and believe even small changes will make an impact on our producers. Grain sorghum has a positive story.”