By Jeri Stroade and Michael Boland, Kansas State University.
Revised by Mykel Taylor, Assistant Professor, Kansas State University. June 2012
Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), also known as milo, has a variety of uses including food for human consumption, feed grain for livestock and industrial applications such as ethanol production. The area planted to sorghum worldwide has increased by 66 percent over the past 50 years, while yield has increased by 244 percent. Around half of the sorghum produced is fed to livestock, and half is consumed by humans and used in other applications.
Currently, most human consumption of sorghum occurs in low-income countries, while high-income countries typically use sorghum as a component in livestock feed or to produce ethanol. Sorghum is a versatile plant because it can tolerate drought, soil toxicities, a wide range of temperatures and high altitudes.
U.S. grain sorghum production in 2011 totaled 214 million bushels, down nearly 40 percent from 2010. The sharp decrease in production was due primarily to extreme drought conditions in the primary growing states of Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. The value of the grain sorghum crop was $1.28 billion. (NASS 2012)
Sorghum is grown in 14 states. Historically, Kansas and Texas have been the top two sorghum-producing states. In 2011 the two states retained their ranking as leading producers, harvesting 78 percent of the U.S. sorghum crop. Kansas produced 110 million bushels valued at $671 million, while Texas produced 56 million bushels valued at $331 million. Other states producing large quantities of grain sorghum include Oklahoma, Colorado, South Dakota, Louisiana and Nebraska. (NASS 2012)
Leading producers around the world during 2011 included the United States (10.0%), Nigeria (12.6%), India (11.2%) and Mexico (11.2%) (FAS 2012).
Since sorghum is primarily used as a livestock feed in the United States, and it does not perform as well as corn (that is, it has a higher feed-to-weight-gain ratio and results in lower average daily gain for livestock) in this capacity, its price will be lower. During 2011, the marketing year average price for sorghum in the United States increased just over a dollar to $10.00 per bu (NASS 2011).
Exports and Imports
The United States is the leading exporter of sorghum. In recent years, the country has accounted for more than 65 percent of world trade. In 2011 the United States exported grain sorghum valued at $948.6 million, a 32 percent increase from 2010. The largest buyers for U.S. grain sorghum were Mexico, Spain and Japan. (FAS 2012)
During 2011, U.S. imports of grain sorghum more than doubled from the previous year. The nation purchased sorghum valued at $92,000. Hati and China provided the vast majority of the sorghum purchased in 2011. (FAS 2012)
Globally, about 50 percent of sorghum is consumed by humans, but in the United States over 90 percent of the sorghum consumed is used as a component in livestock feed. Corn is the main substitute for sorghum in livestock feed. The starch and protein in sorghum are more difficult for animals to digest than those in corn, giving corn a distinct advantage for feed usage. However, research is being conducted to develop processing methods that allow animals to digest sorghum more readily. Processing breaks the seed coat, reduces particle size and increases surface area. Some methods of processing make the end-use value of sorghum comparable to that of corn because more starch and protein are able to be digested in sorghum.
While many new sorghum food products are currently being developed, the grain’s food use has been limited thus far. These limitations are mainly due to two characteristics of the plant. First, phenolic acid and tannins cause flour made from sorghum to have a bitter flavor. Second, the lack of gluten restricts sorghum’s usefulness in the food industry. Recently a food-grade sorghum was developed that does not contain phenolic acid or tannins, and thus, the resulting flour does not have a bitter taste. These varieties are being used in snack food applications in the United States and Japan, and can also be used to replace wheat flour in some baked products. The lack of gluten may be an advantage in a niche market, targeting people who are gluten intolerant.
Besides feed and food applications, sorghum is used in several other products. Archer Daniels Midland produces wallboard for the housing industry using sorghum. Due to its lack of conductivity, sorghum is becoming a popular material for biodegradable packaging materials.
Sorghum is increasingly being used in ethanol production. The crop is a good fit for different types of ethanol production including the traditional starch from grain, sugar from pressed juice and high biomass production. In fact, the entire sorghum plant can be used as biomass. Currently, around 12 percent of the U.S. sorghum crop is consumed by ethanol production.
Sweet sorghum is being pursued as a feedstock for half of the ethanol plants planned by Florida companies, including Southeast Renewable Fuels LLC in Fort Lauderdale. Southeast Renewable Fuels has three sweet-sorghum-fueled plants in the works. New Planet Energy LLC, which has an office in Vero Beach, plans to use sorghum as part of the feedstock mix for a plant planned there. Louisiana Green Fuels, LLC, a project in Lacassine, Louisiana, will use an existing sugar cane facility to produce sweet sorghum ethanol. BioDimensions, a west Tennessee company, has assembled a group of farmers, equipment manufacturers and a local bottling company to produce ethanol from sorghum juice.
As of 2012, Kansas had 11 dry mill plants that together produced more than 440 million gallons per year (MGPY) of ethanol, creating a market for 157 million bushels of sorghum and corn. Four ethanol plants in Kansas process both corn and milo, with a total capacity of 143 MGY. The 30 MGPY Abengoa Bionergy plant in Portales, New Mexico, has traditionally used all sorghum when the grain is available.
In 2008, China and India produced 1.3 billion gallons of ethanol from sorghum. In India, Rusni Distillery partnered with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to construct a distillery producing 10,000 gallons of ethanol a day using sweet sorghum (Agriculture Business Week 2008). Such efforts are being heavily supported in India because the grain portions of the crop can still be used for food production and animal feed. Note: For a list of other sweet sorghum renewable energy projects, see the AgriFuelsAustralia website.
Research and Development
While corn and sorghum have similar chemical makeups, corn is easier for livestock to digest and use than is sorghum. However, certain processing techniques can break down the sorghum seed enough so that it is as easy for livestock to use as corn is. Many studies have compared different processing techniques’ effect on various livestock’s ability to digest and use the feed. Studies on cattle show that steam-flaked sorghum was preferable to dry-rolled sorghum because it improved daily gain and feed efficiency. Research also suggested a complementary effect between corn and sorghum in cattle feeding. Sorghum was shown to be a slightly more efficient feed than corn for hogs when similar particle sizes and milling techniques were compared.
Crop Production Annual Summary, National Ag Statistical Service (NASS), USDA.
Crop Values Annual Summary, NASS, USDA.
Examples of Other Sweet Sorghum Renewable Energy Projects, AgriFuelsAustralia.
Global Agricultural Trade System (GATS), Foreign Ag Service (FAS), USDA.
Kansas Ethanol Plant Capacity, Kansas Ethanol Production website.
Sweet Sorghum: A New Smart Biofuel Crop, Agriculture Business Week, 2008.
Created September 2004 and updated June 2012.