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Sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), also known as milo, is an important warm season crop in the grass family. Sorghum was first domesticated in northeastern Africa and found its way to the Americas in the mid-18th century. The areas of greatest production are in several countries in Africa and in India where it is used primarily as a food crop including its use in the production of locally brewed alcoholic beverages. Sorghum is an important crop in the U.S. where it is used for animal feed, and biofuels. Sorghum is more drought tolerant than corn so is often the preferred cereal crop in areas of low rainfall or that experience frequent droughts. It also tolerates some soil toxicities and a wide range of temperatures and high altitudes.
Sorghum is grown in more than a dozen states in the U.S. but is a major crop in Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska and South Dakota. In 2021, sorghum was produced on 6.5 million acres and had a production value of $2.492 billion. The average yield for the U.S. was 69 bu per acre, though the range in yield varied considerably from state to state due to variations in rainfall amounts.
In the U.S. the genotypes most commonly planted are hybrids, which means that growers cannot use saved seed and expect to retain the genotype’s performance. Growers should use unbiased land-grant university trial data when selecting the hybrid to use. In addition to yield, consideration should be given for resistance to pests and diseases and maturity length. Grain color can also be an important consideration when growing for the premium food market. A desiccant may be recommended to facilitate earlier harvest to avoid weather-related losses and losses from birds.
Sorghum is used in the U.S. for animal feed, ethanol production, as a human food and is exported. It is also 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.
Since sorghum is primarily used as a livestock feed in the United States, and because it does not perform as well as corn in animal production (that is, it has a higher feed-to-weight-gain ratio and results in lower average daily gain for livestock), it fetches a lower price than corn in the market. However, in 2020 and 2021, sorghum prices were on par or superior to that of corn. Furthermore, certain processing techniques that break down the sorghum seed enough so that it is as easy for livestock to use as corn may improve sorghum’s relative feed value. For example, 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. 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 from the grain. The use of sorghum in aquaculture is also being developed and promoted.
Globally, about 50 percent of sorghum is consumed by humans, but in the United States its use in human food is limited. Sorghum is considered an ancient grain and therefore there has been an increase in interest in developing food products from it. There are two characteristics of the plant that make its use in human food challenging. 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, although there is significant demand for gluten free flours. 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. In Japan, sorghum is used in making pancakes and noodles. It can also be steamed and popped.
The United States is the leading exporter of sorghum accounting for about 75% of the global trade. The primary export markets are Mexico, China and Japan, though sorghum is regularly exported to more than 20 countries, For the 2020/21 (October – September) marketing year, U.S. export of sorghum is forecast to be 7.8 million tons with an estimated value of $2.4 billion. If realized this will be the largest quantity exported since 2015/16, with 95% of export being to China. In China, sorghum is substituted for corn and is preferred since imports are not subject to tariff-rate quota and have not faced technical restriction that impede the trade of corn. However, there is no guarantee that this market will remain so strong. As recently as the 2018/19 marketing year, no sorghum was exported to China.
Currently about 12% of the sorghum crop in the U.S. is used in ethanol production. Furthermore, the crop is a good fit for different types of ethanol production including the traditional starch from grain, sugar from pressed juice and biomass. In fact, the entire sorghum plant can be used as biomass. Sorghum grain produces the same amount of ethanol per bushel as comparable feedstocks but uses on-third less water in its production.
Sweet sorghum is being pursued as a feedstock. In the case of sweet sorghum, the feedstock for ethanol production is obtained by pressing the whole plant, similar to what is used to extract sugar from sugarcane.
Crop Production, 2022, Annual Summary, National Ag Statistical Service (NASS), USDA.
Crop Values, 2022, Annual Summary, NASS, USDA.
Global Agricultural Trade System (GATS), Foreign Ag Service (FAS), USDA.
Ethanol Plants and Projects, Kansas Ethanol, website with last update 2014.
Sorghum, US Grains Council, website.
Grain Sorghum, Kansas State University website with links to production information.
Sorghum, University Kentucky
Sorghum, 1989, Purdue University.
Crop Testing Results- Sorghum, 2021, Colorado State University.
Sweet Sorghum Production Basics, 2013, Penn State Extension.
Grain Sorghum Production Handbook, 1998, Kansas State University Extension.