Fueling the Sorghum Ethanol Coproducts Engine

Producers work to expand markets for sorghum distillers and oil.
By Kelli Fulkerson | June 02, 2015

While exports are undeniably the hottest market for grain sorghum right now with China set to buy over 70 percent of the 2014-’15 U.S. crop, sorghum's advantages as an ethanol feedstock remain evident and vital to end-users. Grain sorghum ethanol producers have recognized the benefits inherent to sorghum and are working to exploit the feedstock’s numerous advantages, including coproducts.

An innovator in this is Kansas Ethanol LLC, located in Lyons, Kansas. In addition to about 60 million gallons of ethanol annually, Kansas Ethanol produces wet and dried distillers grains, oil, and protein and forage supplements. Taking advantage of value-added coproducts does add cost, but extracting value from every component of grain pays big dividends, says CEO Mike Chisam. “We see the economic importance of utilizing the added value that every kernel of grain provides.” Kansas Ethanol typically grinds a blend of one-third corn and two-thirds grain sorghum.

Chisam and his team began working with ICM Inc. to implement the company’s Advanced Oil Separation system, which utilizes a proprietary process to maximize the recovery of nonfood grade oil from centrifugally separated syrup.

“Grain sorghum fit into the oil extraction process very easily,” Chisam says. “ICM made a few alterations in the evaporation and oil extraction process to ensure the oil remained a liquid rather than solidify because sorghum contains more wax than corn, necessitating slightly different procedures."

Grain sorghum oil extraction—like corn oil extraction—is quickly becoming a key component for financial health during times of tight margins. However, this can vary from plant to plant dependent upon the amount of oil that is being extracted. Chisam says oil extraction has had a positive contribution to Kansas Ethanol's net income. “We could earn more on every gallon, but we choose to hold back during extraction to ensure our feed tag will read 4 to 5 percent fat for the livestock feeders we work with,” he adds.

Grain sorghum oil is primarily used as a feedstuff in the swine, poultry, beef cattle and dairy cattle industries. The swine and dairy industries in particular have found extra value in grain sorghum ethanol coproducts, as protein content and even the contents of lesser-known micronutrients like iodine can become important. Research also suggests that sorghum can help keep the glycemic index of dairy cows in check and can boost meat quality scores in swine.

Like corn oil, another outlet for sorghum oil is the biodiesel market. Currently the National Sorghum Producers and several industry partners, including Kansas Ethanol, are working with the U.S. EPA to develop a pathway for sorghum-based biodiesel to generate renewable identification numbers (RINs).
Another effort led by the Sorghum Checkoff is working with USDA on a research project devoted to sustainable sorghum biofuels and coproducts. A major focus of this work is adding value to sorghum ethanol plants by relying on the unique properties of grain sorghum.   

Value-added DDGS
Ethanol plants in 2014 produced approximately 39 million metric tons of feed, according to the Renewable Fuels Association, making the renewable fuels sector one of the largest animal feed processing segments in the U.S. With such a large market of so many participants producing the same products, Kansas Ethanol has worked to differentiate its products by working with Rayeman Elements Inc. to develop DDGS cubes and tubs for cattle producers. “We knew our WDGS and DDGS were being utilized in feedlots and dairy operations, respectively, but also wanted to develop products for the cow-calf producers,” Chisam says. Rayeman Elements and Kansas Ethanol developed the 100 percent DDGS range cube and supplemental tub products and Furst-McNess has been helping with marketing the products.

The cubes, trademarked Bova Cubes, are a convenient, quality feed for cows, stockers or calves that can be fed on the ground without high waste or wind loss. The tubs, trademarked Bova Tubs, are 200-pound lick tubs offering expected intake of 1 to 3 pounds per head per day. Both products feed at a 30 percent crude protein and 8 percent crude fat rate. "I'm feeding my heifers Bova Cubes during fall grazing," says Furst-McNess customer J.P. Conrad, manager of Lazy 9 Ranch. "The fat content is outstanding. It really boosts the heifers along their way."

“Our customers have been impressed with the cube and tub products,” Chisam says. “The sorghum DDGS do offer a little higher protein content, making the product development even easier on our end.”

Sorghum Background
Sorghum has been a regionally important feedstock to the ethanol industry since the late 1970s with approximately one-third of the U.S. crop typically used to produce fuel. Naturally drought-tolerant sorghum can be used to produce starch, sugar and cellulose-based ethanol. Grain sorghum is an excellent option for ethanol production because it produces the same amount of ethanol per bushel as corn and can be grown using one-third less water.

Sorghum and corn are virtually interchangeable in ethanol production, as there are few differences in yield or handling through the process. The advantage for sorghum is seen when ethanol producers are mindful of coproduct challenges and opportunities when formulating a feedstock procurement strategy centered on sorghum. Sorghum DDGS tend to be higher in protein and slightly lower in fat than corn DDGS, while starch content remains basically the same.

The most common states in which sorghum is used to produce ethanol are California, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Texas. Producers in several other states also use sorghum when market conditions are favorable. Two states lead the way as pioneers of sorghum-based ethanol: Kansas with a total capacity of 510 MMgy and Texas with 390 MMgy.

As more learn about sorghum’s advantages in low-water demand for growers and added value in distillers grains and oil, there is potential for sorghum-based ethanol production to grow. “Even though we don’t have as much sorghum running through our plant today as we normally do, we have many alternative markets we are exploring when supply increases,” says Matt Durler, vice president of marketing for Conestoga Energy Partners, in Liberal, Kansas.

Author: Kelli Fulkerson
Communications Director, National Sorghum Producers