Sorghum Plays Role in Ethanol’s Impact

By Bill Kubecka | January 14, 2011

As the many visionaries of the renewable fuels movement gather in Phoenix, Ariz., this month for the annual National Ethanol Conference, I’ve been reflecting on this country’s march to a more secure energy future. While much discussion and attention are focused on future developments in biofuels technology, it is ethanol that is making an immediate impact each time a motorist fills up the car.

Despite the naysayers, the future of this movement looks promising. I’m reminded of the quote, “The road before us is shorter than the road behind.” Sorghum growers are proud to play a critical role in this journey toward a future less dependent on fossil fuels.

The facts: Sorghum is now the No. 2 crop used for grain-based ethanol production. Thirty to 35 percent of domestic sorghum production is utilized in the grain-to-ethanol market.

The benefits: Sorghum and corn are interchangeable in the grain-based ethanol market. A bushel of grain sorghum produces as much ethanol as a bushel of corn. Sorghum dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) tends to be lower in fat and higher in protein than corn DDGS. Grain sorghum is an excellent crop for sustainable ethanol production because it 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.

The process: Most major ethanol construction companies design their plants to either use grain sorghum or corn. There are a number of newer ethanol plants that are set up to receive both sorghum and corn at the same time. For older plants, minor modifications may be necessary, including smaller filtering screens because the sorghum kernel is smaller than a corn kernel.
A year ago, those of us at the United Sorghum Checkoff Program (USCP) were poring over the results of an extensive survey we had commissioned on the use of sorghum in the ethanol industry. The results were not only a wake-up call, but a call to action. Out of this survey, the Sorghum to Ethanol Plan was born. STEP provides information to all parties on sorghum to ethanol, distillers grains, transportation logistics and more.

The pace has been frenetic over the past 12 months. We fanned out across the sorghum belt, holding meetings every 35 days with sorghum producers and ethanol plant managers. We also spoke with feedlot managers, dairy managers and nutritionists to assist in advancing sorghum distillers grains in these most critical markets.

Our ethanol conversion kits are being distributed to plants across the United States. This industry-first “calculator” was created to provide bottom line numbers for sorghum and ethanol. The kits provide a detailed look at the costs and technical aspects of using grain sorghum in the ethanol production process.

On the research front, Conestoga Energy and the USCP are conducting a feeding trial on the performance of beef cattle fed wet distillers grains with solubles (WDGS). The different rations will contain blends with corn WDGS or sorghum WDGS and used together. The trial began in September and has a target completion in the next month. The goal of this test is to establish sorghum nutrition for beef cattle. This theory, if proved, should increase the value of sorghum WDGS being sold directly from the ethanol plants and, in turn, allow them to purchase more sorghum at a higher value.

The future is bright. For those of us at USCP, the breakneck pace will continue in 2011. But we’re comforted by the words of Henry David Thoreau: “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.”

Author: Bill Kubecka
Board Chair
United Sorghum Checkoff Program
(806) 687-8727