A national sorghum checkoff program could provide states much needed money for production research and market development and encourage private investment in the crop.

A checkoff proposal has been submitted to USDA, comment period has expired, and the process of preparing for a referendum could begin by summer, say Southwest grain sorghum growers and National Sorghum Producers Board members.

“I'm excited about the possibilities,” says Ken Rose, Keyes, Okla. He says increased funding could help sorghum breeders develop grass herbicide tolerant varieties as well as improve other production systems. “I see checkoff funds as providing real help for the future.”

With more base funds to work with, the national checkoff can attract more funding from seed and chemical companies.

Bill Kubecka, Palacios, Texas, says relying solely on state checkoff funding leaves too little money for actual research projects and market development programs. “With state organizations, overhead costs are too high to provide adequate funds for research and development,” he says.

Consolidation helps. “It's like a farm operation. A 160-acre farm can increase to 1600 acres and become more efficient. We can become more efficient by consolidating resources. Individually, we're more likely to fail. Together we can succeed.”

Rose says overhead costs on a national level will be significantly less than for state funding. “With a national checkoff, overhead costs will be limited to 10 percent of the money we take in. We've put that in as a safeguard. States can then put money where they want in production research and market development.”

Market development will be a crucial issue and will include incentives for ethanol production, especially with sweet sorghums. “These sweet sorghum varieties will offer several advantages,” Rose says. “Sugars go into ethanol production for a quick conversion. Cellulosic material is left for livestock food or cellulosic ethanol. It's a multi-faceted system and we'll need both production and market development funding.”

Kubecka says corn remains a big player in the U.S. livestock feed industry. “That gives sorghum a niche, especially with forage sorghum varieties.”

Rose says those new varieties appear to be adaptable across the country. “They do well in the High Plains with irrigation and adapt to the Southeast. They require less water than corn silage. Water efficiency is a big benefit for the Southwest.”

“Water is always our limiting factor,” Kubecka says. “Sorghum is more water efficient.”

Traditional markets remain crucial to sorghum's future. Kubecka says much of the 2007 crop is bound for Europe. Mexico has been a strong market for U.S. grain sorghum, but this year Europe outbid Mexico.

Rose says European buyers are interested in grain sorghum partly because of the GMO issue. “That is about to change, but grain sorghum is non-GMO and that has been a factor.”

Kubecka says grain sorghum has enjoyed a basis advantage because of increased European demand.

“But we don't want to lose Mexico. Mexico has been a good customer and that may be a long-term concern.”

“We need to maintain these markets,” Rose says. “That's why we need more market development funds.”

Kubecka says the industry has three years to pass a referendum on the checkoff. A short delay may help. “We have a 12 million acre grain sorghum base but only 7 million acres of production. We want those who grow grain sorghum to vote.”

Tim Lust, executive director, National Sorghum Producers, Lubbock, Texas, says industry participation in funding grain sorghum research and development is crucial.

The infusion of grower dollars, he says, will encourage industry capital to make an “investment to improve the crop.”

Lust says improvements made for other crops can “work in grain sorghum.” With some of the basic groundwork already completed for other commodities, some work on grain sorghum can be done relatively cheaply.

He says cold tolerance is a key target. “Cold tolerance is one of the best things we can do to increase yield. If we can get the crop in the ground 30 days earlier, we can show a significant increase in yield. We've seen earliness help cotton.”

He says obstacles remain. “We always see challenges to any program in a government process.” The National Grain and Feed Association, the Arkansas Farm Bureau and “some Nebraska producers have expressed concerns about the checkoff. We will continue to work with these groups and to understand their concerns. We will meet with them.

“But the reality is that we need private investment to make grain sorghum more profitable.”

A checkoff program could provide seed money to make private investors more interested, he says.