Sorghum's Genetic Pipeline Stocked with Potential

Sorghum is on the rise. There’s no doubt about that. An increase in productivity and interest in creative markets both domestically and abroad have boosted demand. While demand is steadfast, supply is no longer meeting the growing various market needs of sorghum.

One way to meet demand and achieve producer profitability is by placing a key emphasis on enhancing sorghum genetics. The Sorghum Checkoff is leveraging valuable research through collaborative and strategic investments with public and private entities across the U.S. to unlock the genetic potential of sorghum to ultimately bring new and improved traits to growers’ fields.

In 2013 alone, the Sorghum Checkoff invested $3.9 million toward crop improvement.

"Devoting efforts to broad areas of seed innovation such as harvestable yield, drought tolerance, and breeding technologies are key in the advancement of grain sorghum genetics," said Justin Weinheimer, crop improvement program director for the Sorghum Checkoff.

Although advancing sorghum genetics is no easy task, breeders are now utilizing techniques such as DNA sequencing, marker-assisted breeding and gene identification to help with efficiency and success.

Unlike years past, advancements and technologies developed in other commodities are now being made available to sorghum. Weinheimer said herbicide tolerance has eluded sorghum farmers for many years but that could soon change.

"DuPont Pioneer is currently working toward finalizing the development of a chemical product within the ALS class of herbicides to provide growers with post-emergence grass control," Weinheimer said. "The chemical, which currently does not have approval, Zest, will be used in conjunction with Inzen sorghum genetics, originally developed by Kansas State University."

Hybrids with ALS tolerance are expected to be available to growers as early as 2016 with limited possibilities in 2015. Weinheimer said this naturally occurring, non-transgenic herbicide tolerance will bring a new age of farm-level management to growers.

Diversity in sorghum genetics adds tremendous value for sorghum breeders. The USDA Agricultural Research Service center in Lubbock, Texas, with support from the Sorghum Checkoff has explored this diversity and has discovered some unique genetics in some sorghums, including a genetic line known as multiseed.

Weinheimer said multiseed offers an unprecedented opportunity for yield.

"There is a high correlation between grain yield and the number of seeds on a sorghum head." Weinheimer said. "Multiseed can generate up to three times as many seeds in a sorghum head."

While the full impact of multiseed is currently unknown, Weinheimer said it certainly offers plant breeders an opportunity to integrate a new platform of genetics with the potential for increasing yield that will be visibly seen in the field.

Advancing sorghum genetics is a numbers game and can take upwards of seven to 10 years to land in the hands of growers. The Sorghum Checkoff recently partnered with DuPont Pioneer to develop a plant breeding tool known as double haploid. This technology is common in other predominant crops and essentially allows plant breeders to shave years off of their breeding programs.

"If successful, this technology would allow sorghum breeders to incorporate ideal genetics into sorghum by as much as three years faster," Weinheimer said. "Within the fast-paced plant genetics community, this would allow sorghum to bring better hybrids to market faster."

The horizon for sorghum genetics is bright. With accelerated emphasis on the advancement of seed genetics, the pipeline of available tools continues to grow and puts the sorghum seed industry on track to deliver innovative products to growers. With a bag fully stocked of premiere seed technology, this could be the dawn of a new era for sorghum growers.