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Drought Spurs Grain Sorghum Acreage Increase

Apr 10th, 2013

Article originally posted at - by Bryce Anderson

USDA’s March 28 planting intentions report shows more grain sorghum in the crop mix for 2013, by a significant percentage. Total grain sorghum acreage is listed at 7.62 million acres — a 22% increase from 2012 and 39% more sorghum acreage than 2011′s intentions report.

Within this total, there are some hefty increases state by state. On a percentage basis, Missouri’s sorghum intentions total is 69% higher than a year ago; Nebraska, up 52%; Colorado, up 35%; Texas, up 30%; Arkansas, up 21%; Georgia, up 18%; Kansas, up 16%; and South Dakota, up 15%.

Perhaps a more significant number, though, is the actual acreage. Kansas and Texas are the top two sorghum-producing states, together growing close to 80% of the crop. And in those two states, more than 1 million acres have been added to the grain sorghum total — 400,000 in Kansas (2.5 million 2012, 2.9 million 2013) and 700,000 in Texas (2.3 million 2012, 3.0 million 2013). Other states had these increases: Colorado 85,000 acres; Nebraska 75,000 acres; Missouri 45,000 acres; and South Dakota 30,000 acres.

Not coincidentally, every state with at least a 30,000-acre increase in sorghum acreage had not only extensive drought last year, but, except for Missouri, has also had a minimal rebound in soil moisture supplies going into this year. That plays to a big strength in sorghum — its ability to do more with less during a drought.

“Drought really stressed the entire Plains, and we’re seeing especially the western Plains still locked in that drought,” said Justin Weinheimer, crop improvement director with the Sorghum Checkoff in Lubbock, Texas. “Growers had struggled with other enterprise options. Sorghum is a hardier and more drought-tolerant option than the grain mix we’ve seen in other years.”

Research from Kansas State University shows that sorghum’s shorter plant height, deeper root system, and waxy leaves for moisture retention offer significant advantages when precipitation is less than 20 inches per year compared with corn.

Besides lower rainfall totals, declining water supplies for irrigation also make sorghum a more-popular row-crop choice this year.

“We see broad-scale water resource issues, whether it’s natural rain-fed or deep-well irrigation issues,” Weinheimer said.

And, following the 2012 drought, tighter irrigation water supplies are already in effect; for example, in southern Nebraska.

“I do know there will be a sizeable increase in milo acres, or at least that is what I have been hearing,” said Al Dutcher, Nebraska state climatologist. “I believe that in the Republication River Basin, allocations are set at 10 inches.”

Those low allocations highlight another advantage of sorghum — its water needs are about 50% less than corn, according to Kansas State University research.

Sorghum industry spokespersons also point to an improved market for the grain, particularly in the ethanol industry. “Any starch-based ethanol plant can use sorghum; it takes very minor modification for sorghum use,” said Justin Weinheimer, National Sorghum Checkoff crop improvement director. An ethanol plant in northwestern Kansas, in fact, uses sorghum extensively.

If there is any drawback for increased sorghum acreage this spring, it may be in the form of tight seed supplies — another weather-related angle.

“The (Texas) drought in 2011 really hurt seed production, so 2012 supplies were already tight,” Weinheimer said. “Then, on Oct. 7 last year (2012), we had a freeze in the Texas Panhandle that hit much of the seed-growing region. So, seed supplies are tighter than normal.”

However, Weinheimer noted that it appears that growers intending to plant sorghum either already have seed supplies on hand or have orders in place for delivery.

Tanner Ehmke contributed to this article