Grain Sorghum Means Big Money for Ethanol Production

By Kayla Wilkins, Communications Intern

Grain sorghum certainly fits the bill for Conestoga Energy Partners’ ethanol plants.

“We use sorghum because of the benefits it offers to the environment and the Ogallala aquifer," said, Conestoga Energy Partners CEO, Tom Willis. "We think it’s the best crop to raise in this area."

Conestoga currently has three ethanol plants that utilize grain sorghum as a vital part of their production, two in Kansas and one in Texas. For ethanol production, the Kansas facilities devote approximately 40 percent of their annual grain use to sorghum and 98 percent at the Texas plant.

Willis said Conestoga’s mission is to be the primary source of a very low carbon ethanol. Through extensive research, Conestoga discovered sorghum offers just that.

“We like to produce a boutique ethanol,” Willis said. “Sorghum is beneficial for the environment and has a lower carbon footprint than most grains.”

Sorghum's attributes make it the smart choice for ethanol production. Not only does sorghum have a low carbon footprint and a high stress tolerance, but it also produces the same amount of ethanol per bushel as comparable feed grains while using up to one-third less water in the plant growth process.

Willis also said the stress tolerance of grain sorghum makes it more desirable for producers in the Sorghum Belt.

“Sorghum fits well in production and in the farm ground that we draw out of in the high plains,” Willis said. “It’s a crop that is very forgiving and uses less water than other grains, but still produces a very good, quality distillers grain, and it works well in our plants.”

Conestoga produces approximately 342,000 tons of dry distillers grain sorghum annually as a valuable co-product for livestock producers, especially because they tend to be lower in fat and higher in protein. To ensure the highest possible quality, Willis said Conestoga has conducted research on distillers grains to determine which type is most nutrient-rich for livestock.

Sorghum has proven to be a successful feedstock for the ethanol industry. In fact, Conestoga currently utilizes approximately 38 million bushels of grain sorghum annually across all three production plants. Through collaboration with the ethanol industry to help improve genetics, the Sorghum Checkoff is paving the way for increased sorghum use in ethanol production in the future.

“We are excited about sorghum’s use as we see the breeding programs put more emphasis on starch and yield,” Willis said.

The success of grain sorghum in the ethanol sector means more marketing opportunities for producers. If more producers take advantage of this viable crop, it will in turn make purchasing grain sorghum easier for ethanol plants, like Conestoga.

“As farmers learn to drive the yield potential that sorghum has, I think they will find that it can compete profitability-wise with other grain crops,” Willis said. “I think more farmers will use sorghum as they are able to see the better yields and see the impact it has on their bottom line.”