All About Sorghum

What is Sorghum?

Sorghum is truly a versatile crop that can be grown as a grain, forage or sweet crop. Sorghum is one of the top five cereal crops in the world. The United States is the world's largest producer of grain sorghum, having produced 597 million bushels in 2015. 

Sorghum is among the most efficient crops in conversion of solar energy and use of water and is known as a high-energy, drought tolerant crop that is environmentally friendly. Due to sorghum's wide uses and adaptation, “sorghum is one of the really indispensable crops” required for the survival of humankind (From Jack Harlan, 1971).

Grain Sorghum

Grain sorghum can take many shapes and sizes from a tight-headed, round panicle to an open, droopy panicle that can be short or tall. There are various types of sorghum including red, orange, bronze, tan, white, and black colored sorghum. Red, orange or bronze sorghum is traditionally grown and is used in all segments of the sorghum industry. Tan, cream and white colored sorghum varieties are typically made into flour for the food industry, while black and burgundy varieties contain beneficial antioxidant properties and are utilized in other food applications. 

Forage Sorghum

Depending on which species and variety is selected, sorghum can be used for grazing pasture, hay production, silage and green-chop. Forage sorghum typically grows 8-15 feet tall and is most popular for use as silage for feeding livestock.

Biomass Sorghum

Biomass sorghum has the largest stature of all the sorghum varieties, reaching a height of 20 feet in a normal growing season. Biomass sorghum has been bred to produce a large amount of non-grain biomass. These hybrids are used primarily for the production of bioenergy. 

Sweet Sorghum

Sweet sorghum is predominantly grown for sorghum syrup. Unlike grain sorghum, sweet sorghum is harvested for the stalks rather than the grain and is crushed like sugarcane or beets to produce a syrup. Sweet sorghum was once the predominate table sweetener in the U.S. Today, sweet sorghum is used as a healthy alternative sweetener to produce whiskey and rum type products and for biofuel and chemical production. 

Where is grain sorghum grown in the U.S.?

Sorghum is traditionally grown throughout the Sorghum Belt, which runs from South Dakota to Southern Texas, primarily on dryland acres. Acreage increases are seen in non-traditional areas like the Delta and Southeast regions. In 2016, sorghum was planted on 6.7 million acres and 480 million bushels were harvested. The top five sorghum-producing states in 2016 were:

  1. Kansas – 3.1 million acres
  2. Texas – 1.9 million acres
  3. Colorado– 450,000 acres
  4. Oklahoma – 400,000 acres
  5. South Dakota– 270,000 acres

View the 2016 crop summary.

sorghum map

How is sorghum used?

In the United States, and other countries across the globe, sorghum grain is primarily used for livestock feed and ethanol production, but is becoming popular in the consumer food industry and other emerging markets.

The livestock industry is one of the longest-standing marketplaces for sorghum in the U.S. In the livestock industry, sorghum is utilized in feed rations for poultry, beef, dairy and swine. Stems and foliage are also used for green chop, hay, silage and pasture. 

Traditionally, nearly one-third of the U.S. sorghum crop is used for renewable fuel production. In fact, sorghum produces the same amount of ethanol per bushel as comparable feedstocks while using up to one-third less water. Learn more about sorghum's role in ethanol here.

Sorghum exports have represented a large portion of the U.S. sorghum marketplace over the last few years. International sorghum customers have included Mexico, China, Japan and many other countries. Sorghum is typically used for animal feed within these countries, but other opportunities in the consumer food industries as well as ethanol production are arising. Learn more information about how sorghum fits into the international marketplace here.

The consumer food industry is a growing marketplace for sorghum. With so many healthy benefits packed in every delicious grain, consumers are finding creative ways to use sorghum in recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and even snacks. Plus, sorghum grain can be cooked using a stove top, slow cooker, oven or rice cooker to add a new twist to favorite recipes. As a result, sorghum now can be found in more than 350 product lines in the U.S. alone. Learn more about how consumer demand for sorghum is on the rise.

Sorghum is also used for new and expanding markets such as building material, fencing, floral arrangements, pet food, brooms and more. Sorghum's versatility gives it the flexibility to reach beyond traditional marketplaces, further enhancing producer profitability. Discover more about sorghum's innovation.

bar chart

HISTORY OF SORGHUM

The origin and early domestication of sorghum took place in Northeastern Africa. The earliest known record of sorghum comes from an archeological dig at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border, dated 8,000 B.C. Sorghum spread throughout Africa, and along the way, adapted to a wide range of environments from the highlands of Ethiopia to the semi-arid Sahel.

The development and spread of five different races of sorghum can, in many cases, be attributed to the movement of various tribal groups in Africa. Sorghum then spread to India and China and eventually worked its way into Australia. The first known record of sorghum in the United States comes from Ben Franklin in 1757 who wrote about its application in producing brooms.

Other key years in sorghum history:

Thirty-one forage and grain sorghum introductions from Africa, India and China to the U.S.

1853-1910

Genetics (germplasm) for improved varieties, primarily from milos and kafirs, in the first introductions

1923-1956

Wheatland and other “combine sorghums”

1931>

First hybrid grain sorghum (DEKALB)

1956

First silage/grazing sorghum

1958

Downy mildew and anthracnose affects U.S. sorghum with resistant hybrids to follow

1966-1969

Sorghum greenbug threatens future of sorghum

1968

Greenbug resistant hybrids

1976