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 2017 totaled 363.8 million bushels, valued at nearly $1.18 billion.(NASS)
Sorghum is grown in 15 states. Historically, Kansas and Texas have been the top two sorghum-producing states. In 2017 the two states harvested 81 percent of the U.S. sorghum crop. Texas produced 94.5 million bushels valued at $341.3 million and Kansas produced 200.9 million bushels valued at $624.4 million. (NASS)
Leading producers around the world during 2017 included Mexico, the United States, Nigeria, India and India (FAS).
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 is lower. During 2017, the average price for sorghum in the United States increased to $5.65 per cwt from $4.95 per cwt in 2016. (NASS).
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.
The United States is the leading exporter of sorghum. Thanks to continued purchasing by 22 countries, U.S. sorghum exports totaled 6.04 million metric tons (238 million bushels), a 30 percent drop year-over-year but still greater than the prior five-year average of 5.26 million metric tons (207 million bushels).
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.
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.
Global Agricultural Trade System (GATS), Foreign Ag Service (FAS), USDA.
Kansas Ethanol Plant Capacity, Kansas Ethanol Production website.
US Grains Council
Links checked August 2018