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Sorghum breeder carries on tradition

Gary Peterson sees great potential for sorghum production in the Southwest and for increased research that will improve yield, digestibility and resistance to insects, diseases and drought.

Peterson, sorghum breeder at the Texas AgriLife Research Center in Lubbock for the last 27 years, said recently that the new sorghum checkoff will stimulate interest in production and research, as well as marketing sorghum products.

The most critical research issue remains yield, he said. “Yield research is a function of numbers. The more people we have working in the area, the more people we have making crosses and the more hybrids we can develop. That means greater potential for higher yielding hybrids.”

He said herbicide resistance is another key effort. “Breeders identified some herbicide resistance in wild sorghums in Kansas several years ago. Now, we’re trying to incorporate that into hybrid lines. These will be non-GMO, from naturally occurring lines. Sorghum is a diverse species.”

He said developing resistance in commercial hybrids will be through the traditional breeding techniques, “the way we’ve always done it.”

He said much of the world’s wild sorghum resistance “is difficult to get at. It’s native to Africa and varieties that developed there may not do well in the United States. Many are too tall and do not flower.”

Nevertheless, some lines he’s evaluating show potential. “We’re making crosses and looking for different genes.”

He said yield and weed control may be the big issues in sorghum breeding, but any new hybrids that carry those traits also must include “everything else we need in a commercial hybrid — disease resistance and insect resistance in certain areas.”

He said grain weathering is another concern. “It will be important to provide hybrids with a nice, clean appearance through adverse weather. That’s especially important as we grow more white sorghum (food grade). Most of the sorghum grown throughout the world is used for human food, but 29 percent in the United States is used for ethanol and most of the rest is for livestock feed. We put very little into the food market.

“Food sorghum is underutilized, but the potential is tremendous because of the health benefits of milo. Some varieties have neutraceutical properties and that could be a specialty market. We have a tremendous range of things we can do with sorghum. We can do anything with grain sorghum that we can do with corn.”

He said grain sorghum performs just as well as corn in ethanol production. He also noted that researchers at College Station are looking at other types of sorghum for cellulosic ethanol production.

“We’re also looking at improving the value of grain sorghum as a livestock feed. We want to increase digestibility. That’s an avenue we need to explore because if we can bring up the value for livestock we improve market opportunities.”

He said sorghum’s adaptability also makes it a good fit for much of the Southwest. “It will grow in areas ranging from very dry to fully irrigated.”

It’s been an important crop in West Texas for many years. “Pioneers in West Texas had no idea what would grow here,” Peterson said. “They brought corn, but it was too dry for corn. Milo would grow, but they had to make improvements. The first varieties were too tall and farmers had to harvest by hand.”

He said some of the earliest work at the Lubbock Research Center developed adaptable grain sorghum varieties. “Other researchers built on that first breeding work and added insect resistance, drought tolerance and other critical characteristics. Molecular biology came along and provided us with even more tools.”

He said water will be the critical issue for West Texas farmers for years to come. Sorghum will play a crucial role in crop selection decisions as an economically sustainable option that will produce yields with one-third or one-half as much water as other crops.

“It could be a preferred option,” he said. “It is already drought tolerant. It evolved in the South African climate.”

It is adaptable across the region. “Most sorghum hybrids are well adapted across Texas and farmers can rotate with just about anything. Cotton farmers have seen a lint increase following sorghum.”

He said the strength of the sorghum industry has always been an “openness and ability to collaborate with other researchers, breeders, entomologists and pathologists.” Longevity must help, too. Peterson is only the fifth sorghum breeder at the Lubbock Station, and work there dates back 100 years.

He’s optimistic about the future. “With ample resources and time, we will continue to find traits to improve milo for end users. We have a lot of issues to consider.”

email: [email protected]

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