Sorghum Surges

Nearly one-third of U.S. sorghum production is going into ethanol—and there's room for growth.
By Holly Jessen | February 09, 2010
Sorghum has been the one and only feedstock of Levelland/Hockley County Ethanol LLC since it started producing ethanol in March 2008. The way Sam Sacco, general manager of the Texas plant, sees it, sorghum is readily available there, priced right and produces good ethanol yields. On top of that, the resulting distillers grains have found an eager marketplace among dairy operations. "Right now I have more demand for my distillers than I am producing," he says, adding that some area dairies have actually gotten upset that the plant can't sell them more distillers grains.

Making the Case
There's no doubt the United Sorghum Checkoff Program sees the possibilities in sorghum as an ethanol feedstock, too. To back up the hunch that sorghum is increasingly being utilized by the biofuels industry, and with the aim of growing that in the future, USCP charged Agri-Energy Solutions Inc. with conducting a study on the subject. USCP has a goal of increasing the amount of sorghum used in ethanol by 50 percent by 2011. The results of the survey tell a positive story. What jumps off the page for Florentino Lopez, marketing director for USCP, is the fact that roughly 29 percent of the sorghum produced in the United States is being utilized for ethanol production. "That was really an eye catcher," he says.

From a survey mailed to ethanol plants located in areas with large-scale production of sorghum, AES determined that Kansas and Texas are the states where the most sorghum goes into ethanol production and designated them tier one states. Follow-up interviews were conducted with each of the 14 ethanol plants in these states, says Tim Snyder, president of AES. The study designated ethanol plants in Colorado, Missouri and Arizona plants as tier two plants with lower levels of use, and all other areas in the U.S. as tier three.

Forty-three percent of the sorghum produced in Kansas and 23 percent of the sorghum produced in Texas is used to make ethanol. All of the plants in Kansas and Texas planned to use some percentage of sorghum in producing ethanol and some of those plants use 100 percent sorghum. On average, the plants used 48 percent corn and 52 percent sorghum, Snyder says.

One notable finding in the survey is that price isn't necessarily the No. 1 reason ethanol producers go for sorghum. Only four of the 14 plants report that price is the primary consideration for purchasing sorghum as an ethanol feedstock. Another four report that sorghum is at the top of their list due to availability. The remaining six plants say they purchased sorghum because of price and availability combined. "This is significantly different than the responses we expected to hear," the AES report says.

The study concludes while the amount of sorghum being used to make ethanol is positive, there is room for growth. Unlike corn, sorghum just hasn't kept up with the demand in the ethanol industry. "Serious efforts need to be made to publicly connect grain sorghum back into this growth market," the study says.

Sorghum as an ethanol feedstock is a new and growing market, Snyder says. Producers of both ethanol and sorghum need to better understand the tremendous opportunity in using more sorghum as an ethanol feedstock. "It's a market that is here to stay," he says. "It's sustainable. It's a market that will benefit both the buyers and the sellers."

Other examples of ethanol plants that use high percentages of sorghum as a feedstock are Kansas Ethanol in Lyons, Kan., and Abengoa Bioenergy plants in Colwich, Kan., and Portales, N.M. "It makes good sense," says Mike Chisam, general manager of Kansas Ethanol. "The economics and the available supply are probably the main drivers as to why we grind quite a bit of sorghum." At Kansas Ethanol, the two grains are typically mixed at 80 percent sorghum/20 percent corn although that ratio varies from 60 to 80 percent sorghum, Chisam adds.

Moving Distillers Grains
While most plants have been able to sell their sorghum distillers grains, it has been a bit of a struggle, Lopez says. The survey finds plant managers and marketers are hearing concerns from feedlot buyers and some dairies about color and the feed value of the product. All plants have received discounted bids for distillers grains with sorghum, partly because of the lesser feed value for sorghum grain and partly just because buyers were aware that sorghum costs the ethanol plant less and therefore wanted in on the savings. Chisam at Kansas Ethanol, however, hasn't experienced these issues and selling sorghum distillers grains at market price hasn't been a problem. Most of his customers around Lyons are familiar with sorghum and sorghum distillers grains and have had good results feeding it, he says. The key moving forward, Lopez says, is to help producers and customers understand how to best utilize the product.

Sorghum distillers grains do have nutritional differences from corn distillers grains, and, because sorghum is a different color going into the ethanol plant, the end product is a different color. Research has found sorghum distillers grains is comparable to corn distillers grains. Terry Klopfenstein, an animal science professor at the University of Nebraska, conducted a trial with beef cattle, feeding 30 percent distillers grains, with one group of cattle receiving corn distillers grains and the other sorghum distillers grains. At the end of the study, there was no statistical difference between the corn and sorghum results. The numbers, however, did show corn distillers having a slight advantage in the beef ration. When considering feed efficiency, the beef cattle gained more weight on corn distillers grain than sorghum distillers grain. "I think that is consistent with other [studies]," Klopfenstein says. [Corn and sorghum distillers grains] might not be greatly different, but likely there is a difference." He adds the results of this study shouldn't be applied across the board to all sorghum varieties.

Michael Galyean, Texas Tech University's Thornton chair in beef cattle nutrition and management, has also studied feeding beef cattle corn and sorghum distillers grains. He and his fellow researchers anticipate their paper will be published soon in the Journal of Animal Science. Their study finds corn distillers grain has an average of 34 percent of protein on a dry matter basis while sorghum distillers grain has 42 percent protein, Galyean reports. Fat content is 12 percent in corn distillers grain and slightly lower at 11 percent in sorghum distillers grain. Acid detergent fiber content is 16 percent for corn and 26 percent for sorghum. Thanks to that higher protein level, there are those in the dairy industry that prefer sorghum distillers grains over corn distillers grains— something that Sacco, the general manager at Levelland, attests to anecdotally. He tells of dairies that are located right next to a corn-based ethanol plant 126 miles away that travel to the Levelland plant just to get sorghum distillers grains.

In general, the second study finds that when fed at 15 percent of the ration either corn or sorghum distillers grains can be a "very useful component" of beef cattle diet. "There's no doubt that we can get along with it quite well," Galyean says. Digestibility and feed efficiency is about the same for both distillers grains containing rations as the control diet of steamed-flake corn. However, the study consistently shows that when the inclusion rate of distillers grains reaches 30 percent, feed efficiency starts dropping off. "That's true when you compare corn or sorghum," he says.

Researchers find the average daily weight gain is higher with the control diet steamed-flake corn due to a higher feed intake with corn. That's not necessarily true all the time, Galyean adds, he's seen other studies where feed intake of distillers grains is the same as a corn diet.

In addition, the study finds that straight corn and distillers grains from corn or sorghum have similar calculated energy values. Sorghum's higher fiber content does cause the energy value to drop slightly when including straight sorghum distillers grains, rather than a 50/50 percent mix, Galyean adds.

The bottom line is, including sorghum distillers grains is a change in the fat, fiber and protein in the diet. However, having the nutritional data will help producers make financial decisions. If distillers grains can be purchased at the right price it won't matter if the animal is gaining slightly less weight, Galyean says. "Differences in performance don't necessarily equate to a difference in the ultimate profit or loss, because that depends on what the particular distillers grains is going to cost."

To the Future
In order to meet their goal of increasing the use of sorghum by the ethanol industry, USCP is developing educational and promotional projects. Lopez says they are planning a series of ethanol producer meetings to both promote the use of sorghum as an ethanol feedstock and to learn what factors are limiting its use. The checkoff program is also creating technical documents on feeding sorghum to poultry, dairy, beef and swine that will include sorghum distillers grains as well as grain sorghum and forage. More research on feeding all forms of sorghum is likely to come with time, Lopez adds. "We're very encouraged by sorghum being utilized in the ethanol industry and we welcome that as a continuing outlet for sorghum," he says. EP

Holly Jessen is associate editor of Ethanol Producer Magazine. Reach her at (701) 738-4946 or hjessen@bbiinternational.com.