Ethanol plants utilize 29 percent of U.S. grain sorghum production

By Erin Voegele | November 11, 2009
Report posted Dec. 1, 2009, at 11:35 a.m. CST

A recent United Sorghum Checkoff Program-funded study has found approximately 29 percent of the grain sorghum produced by U.S. farmers is used to manufacture ethanol. The study, which was conducted by Agri-Energy Solutions Inc., sought information that will assist the USCP with reaching its goal of increasing the inclusion rate of grain sorghum in ethanol by 50 percent by 2011.

To complete the study, AES developed a set of confidential survey questions that were designed to determine how much grain sorghum is currently being used by ethanol plants. The survey also aimed to determine the primary factors that influence an ethanol plant's decision to use grain sorghum.

Surveys were mailed to ethanol plants located near large-scale sorghum production regions, including plants in Nebraska, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, Missouri and Arizona. After following up with survey recipients, AES determined sorghum is primarily used for ethanol production in Kansas and Texas. Telephone interviews were conducted with 14 ethanol plants located in these two states.

Data gathered from those 14 plants showed they reported using 248 million bushels of grain last year, including 128 million bushels of grain sorghum, to produce 644 million gallons of ethanol. Although these plants took in less than 1 percent of the nation's total corn production in 2008, they utilized 27 percent of the nation's sorghum production.

Overall, none of the 14 ethanol plants surveyed reported using only corn to produce ethanol. In addition, all 14 plants indicated that they expect to continue using grain sorghum in the future.

According to Florentino Lopez, the USCP's marketing director, one reason that grain sorghum is so attractive to ethanol producers today is its price. In general, grain sorghum is currently priced approximately 10 percent below the price of corn. In addition, the ethanol yields on a per bushel basis from grain sorghum are comparable to those of corn.

While four plants reported that price is the primary driver in purchasing starch-based feedstock for ethanol production, four plants reported that the availability of grain sorghum was their primary consideration. The remaining plants reported that price and availability together were their primary consideration.

The interviews conducted with these 14 ethanol plants demonstrated several areas in which education on sorghum's role in ethanol production is needed. Most survey respondents noted that there is a need educate sorghum farmers about ethanol, as well as a need to educate more ethanol producers on grain sorghum. In particular, the surveyed plants identified a need for more assistance from the USCP regarding the advantages of using grain sorghum and cellulosic forms of sweet sorghum. They also expressed a desire to educate nutritionists and feed buyers on the issues surrounding grain sorghum in distillers grains.

Lopez also notes that the while many studies are currently underway to evaluate sweet sorghum, the study conducted by AES evaluated only grain sorghum. "I think the studyshows us that there are a variety of feedstocks that are available for ethanol production," he said. "Grain sorghum fits into that in places where it is readily available and cost effectiveThe study tells us that the opportunities for grain sorghum really do exist in ethanol production."