In its first year The United Sorghum Checkoff has sponsored as much as $1.5 million in research and $800,000 in market development efforts, as well as launched an information effort that is helping promote the value of sorghum.
The program runs out of the National Sorghum Producers headquarters in Lubbock, Texas.
“We started from scratch about 18 months ago,” said Bill Grieving, Sorghum Checkoff president and a Kansas farmer. “We got a board seated and developed three important committees—research, marketing and information. We had a successful first year, thanks to a cooperative board and a professional and competent staff. They make my job easier.
“We have developed by-laws, policies and a strategic plan to guide the board (13 members from across the grain sorghum production belt).”
He said checkoff funds resulted in 27 projects initiated in the first year.
“We have a lot on the table now,” said Texas board member Billy Bob Brown, a Panhandle producer. “We hope to make sorghum a more profitable option.”
Brown, Grieving and Arkansas board member Stewart Weaver say research efforts will go a long way toward achieving that goal. They cite drought tolerance, cold tolerance and herbicide tolerance as key research initiatives.
“Research efforts for sorghum have lagged behind other crops,” Weaver said. “Little private industry money was available for sorghum, but with the checkoff funds we’ve been able to attract some private companies back to sorghum. Seed companies are looking to improve varieties.”
He said a lot of excellent researchers are working with sorghum now. “We’re getting a lot of good ideas.”
Research goes beyond the field, too. Brown said work into human food uses promises to be an exciting opportunity for sorghum. “Sorghum flour is already used in a lot of food products, but its gluten free properties make it even more attractive.”
He also mentioned early studies that show sorghum in the human diet might help prevent cancer. “This will be long-term research but it is an exciting prospect,” he said.
Grieving said drought and cold tolerant research offers opportunity for improving sorghum yield and profit for producers. “Sorghum is already drought tolerant,” he said, “but improvement is possible. We’re also interested in an over-the-top herbicide for sorghum.”
Weaver said efforts to satisfy grain and cellulose demand from the ethanol industry also gets high billing for future efforts. “We’ve hardly scratched the surface with sweet sorghums and forage sorghums,” he said.
Ethanol will play a key role in the Sorghum Checkoff marketing effort. “Some ethanol plants (Levelland, Texas, for instance) are currently using only grain sorghum,” Weaver said.
“Grain sorghum will produce as much fuel as corn.” He said the feed value of the distillers’ grain from grain sorghum is as good as the corn by-product.
He said a biofuel plant in Memphis, Tenn., is using sweet sorghum to produce ethanol and that industry observers contend the company is ahead of a lot of other biofuel companies.
Brown said the sorghum industry is working with the Department of Energy on biofuel initiatives.
They also are working to help ethanol producers determine the value of the grain. The Sorghum Ethanol Inclusion Calculator is a tool developed by the Sorghum Checkoff to help ethanol producers calculate their returns by including sorghum as a feedstock for their ethanol.
“We’re working with feedlots to explain ration mixes,” Weaver said. “They know the value of grain sorghum in cattle rations but some have veered away from sorghum and we ask if it’s cheaper, why not use grain sorghum.”
Marketing efforts have spread much farther than U.S. feedlots and ethanol plants, however. “We’re working with the U.S. Grains Council,” Grieving said. “We’ve recently brought in teams to work with the Mexican market.”
He said that market had declined over the past two years but a renewed marketing push is bringing it back.
“Efforts with the U.S. Grains council have been very beneficial,” Weaver said. “That relationship recently helped us move quite a bit of grain, including two big sales to Morocco.”
He said the Grains Council serves as a middleman between various entities to smooth out the marketing process.
“We’ve also brought in teams from other countries to learn about ration mixes and have sponsored teams to visit countries to teach livestock feeders about grain sorghum. We have to make a home for the sorghum we produce.”
Weaver said sorghum may have opportunities in niche markets. “I think it’s worth the time to investigate.”
Brown said checkoff funds allowed the Grains Council to hire a fulltime employee to work with sorghum markets.
Grieving said even with a successful first year behind them, the Checkoff Program board and staff face significant challenges.
“We have a referendum next February,” he said. “We need to be ready for that. Producers will decide if they want to continue and we hope we accomplish enough to show them that we’re using their check-off dollars efficiently to improve their bottom lines.”
“We have to get the word out about the checkoff,” Weaver said. “Surveys show that we’re going above 6 percent per month (achieving) overall awareness of the checkoff program. It’s best to educate folks and show them what we’re doing. That usually improves support. If we don’t do that, the first reaction is a knee jerk and may be negative.”
He said communicating the health benefits of sorghum offers another opportunity. “We want to distinguish sorghum from other grains,” he said.
Grieving said declining acreage has been a significant concern but that early surveys indicate sorghum acreage may be up this year.
“We’ve found that grain sorghum can be a profitable crop in Arkansas if we treat it like a crop and not a step-child for cotton,” Weaver said. “Rotating with cotton helps us make decent yields.”
The Sorghum Checkoff will soon offer production handbooks as pocket guides to growing better sorghum. Growers can expect to see these available for different regions of the United States this spring. The Sorghum Checkoff has also made a lot of information available to producers at sorghumcheckoff.com. This Website is updated constantly to ensure that producers always have access to new research results and resources to expand their marketing options.
“We have a two-fold challenge,” Brown said. “We have to perfect the product and the market and then we have to produce the sorghum.”