Where some see an inevitable decline of high-value agricultural production above the shrinking Ogallala Aquifer, Justin Weinheimer sees opportunity.
“Where you really see the value of an inch of water shine is on a limited-irrigation field of sorghum,” Weinheimer, the Sorghum Checkoff’s crop improvement director, told DTN. “The land above the Ogallala Aquifer is a good fit for sorghum, in part because the aquifer lies underneath the Sorghum Belt.”
Proponents of this hardy grain see potential acreage gains across the U.S., from the water-hungry Great Plains to the marginal croplands of the Southeast and weed-plagued acres of the Mid-South.
In its heyday, the Sorghum Belt cut a wide swath through the center of the U.S. from Texas up through Kansas and Nebraska and into South Dakota. It peaked in the mid-’80s at around 17 million acres, nearly twice sorghum’s acreage today.
Growers switched to crops like soybeans and corn as irrigation technology and prices improved. By 2010, sorghum had lost 12 million acres. Now, Weinheimer and others see a chance for a grain sorghum revival as some farmers on the Great Plains run out of water and global demand booms.
Sorghum has already started to regain its foothold in some places. Between 2010 and 2015, sorghum acres in Kansas have increased by 1 million as the state’s more water-intensive corn acres have dropped by 800,000, according to the National Agricultural Statistic Service. In Texas, after slipping to 1.6 million acres in 2011, sorghum acres have reclaimed more than 3 million acres in 2015.
Sorghum’s ability to perform better than other crops on marginal land makes it an attractive option in other regions where corn and soybeans produce mediocre yields. It also does well as a rotational crop in areas struggling with weed and insect problems.
STRETCHING WATER OUT WEST
“Sorghum’s big strategic advantage from an agronomic perspective is its ability to wait on a rain,” Weinheimer noted. The crop’s root system, waxy leaves and a pore system that closes during high heat to retain moisture combine to help the plant survive dry spells, he explained.
These are valuable traits for those farming above the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive underground lake stretching 174,000 square miles beneath the old Sorghum Belt.
The aquifer has been heavily irrigated since the middle of the 20th century at a pace far beyond its recharge rates. As a result, it lost an estimated 273 million acre-feet of water between 1950 and 2008, according to a 2011 U.S. Geological Survey report.
The worst depletion has occurred in semi-arid regions of western Kansas and northern Texas, where many farmers have already lost their access to the aquifer’s dwindling water levels. Kansas State researchers recently predicted that the aquifer will be nearly 70% depleted in Kansas by 2060 if current pumping rates continue .
That’s where sorghum comes in.
“It will hang on longer during a drought,” said Lonnie Wilson, who grows sorghum and wheat in northwestern Kansas above the shrinking aquifer. The sorghum, which goes to his cattle operation, has been an essential and permanent part of his rotation, especially since the farm wells started running dry nearly five years ago, he told DTN.
Unless he experiences a wet winter that leaves his acres with a good store of moisture, sorghum will continue to pencil out better for Wilson than corn.
MAKING THE MOST OF MARGINAL LANDS
Sorghum also thrives under full irrigation and on good land — the most recent yield contest winner in the U.S. produced a 246 bpa crop, Weinheimer noted. But the grain’s ability to make the best out of mediocre cropland is most likely to open up new acreage possibilities.
“Sorghum performs better relatively compared to other crops on marginal lands,” said Bill Rooney, a sorghum breeder at Texas A&M. “It’s not a miracle worker — it will always yield more on the good land — but if you compare it to corn on marginal land, you will see a bigger drop-off in corn productivity because of sorghum’s better use of water and drought tolerance.”
Weinheimer said he believes areas that produce sub-par corn and soybean crops are ripe for sorghum development. Using NASS statistics, he estimates more than 14 million acres in the U.S. currently produce average soybean yields below 35 bushels per acre (bpa) and up to 5 million acres produce corn yields below 100 bpa. Many of those acres fall within the old Sorghum Belt, but a good portion are in the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic states.
Although irrigation is less prominent in those regions, sorghum’s water efficiency could still be a boon, Weinheimer said.
“We typically don’t think of the Mid-Atlantic or Southeast as being drought prone, but there are very sandy soils out east. A farmer out there will tell you he’s always only seven days away from a drought,” he said. “So growers have to be able to fit a rain-fed crop into an environment where it can withstand short intervals of drought.”
A TEAM PLAYER DOWN SOUTH
It was a tiny worm-like pest that first drove Stewart Weaver and his father to switch to grain sorghum on their operation in Edmondson, Arkansas, in the 1990s. The root-knot nematode was building up in cotton acres, and it easily survived on the corn plants they rotated to.
The Weavers gave sorghum a go and haven’t looked back.
Now, as herbicide-resistant Palmer amaranth weeds c log fields across the South, sorghum is once again proving a rotational boon on their operation. “We can plant grain sorghum and then rotate some of the older chemistries in to combat the weeds,” Weaver explained. “It gives us another alternative to control the resistant pigweed.”
Studies have also confirmed that sorghum gives a following soybean crop the same yield bump that a corn crop would, said Jason Kelley, a University of Arkansas agronomist. “Rotation-wise, it has a lot of advantages here,” he said.
Yet even with these benefits, the availability of good markets still drives sorghum expansion in the Mid-South, Kelley said.
Weaver’s farm sits near the Mississippi River, where his sorghum can be shipped off to fill China’s growing appetite for the grain. “China is the driver right now in the grain sorghum market, so we’ve got an excellent basis and sorghum is trading higher than corn right now,” he noted. Historically, sorghum trades at a deficit to corn.
This dynamic encouraged sorghum acres in Arkansas to nearly triple between 2014 and 2015, but geography has limited the growth, Kelley said. “The further inland you get, the market availability drops off, and the basis falls.”
Arkansas’ large poultry industry is a potential market, but for now, the area’s sorghum production is too low and erratic to convince processors to switch their rations. “They need something that’s consistent throughout the year,” Kelley said. “They don’t want to mess with two weeks of grain sorghum, especially now that it’s worth more than corn.”
Reliable markets aren’t the sole obstacle holding back potential acreage for sorghum, Weinheimer said.
“Right now, the challenge sorghum has from an agronomic standpoint is it doesn’t fit the model of row-crop management in the U.S., which is very much hinged on good technologies, from Bt technology to herbicide tolerance.”
Since sorghum’s non-genetically engineered status is currently boosting its marketability and company investment remains small, growers are unlikely to see a change in this arena anytime soon.
So, for now, Weinheimer and the Sorghum Checkoff are focusing on re-introducing grain sorghum to a new generation of farmers as a water-friendly, rotational crop that thrives where other grains won’t.
“In most places, farmers are an entire generation removed from growing sorghum,” he said. “So there’s an education gap — they only know how granddad and dad did it. We need to change that.”