Kansas Farmer Logo

Cattle feeders rediscovering sorghum’s benefits

Sorghum Focus: Feedyards and dairies are rediscovering what sorghum brings to the ration.

John Duff

June 25, 2024

3 Min Read
cattle eating from feed bunk
SORGHUM DIET: Feeding sorghum to livestock adds value to this already valuable crop in the High Plains states. It offers agronomic and conservation benefits to farmers who grow it on their land and adds solid nutrition to livestock rations. Andy Sacks/Getty Images

For the better part of seven decades, the High Plains has been the epicenter of value-added agriculture in the U.S. From Lubbock, Texas, up through Garden City, Kan., over to central Nebraska and up into the Dakotas, tens of millions of cattle are fed each day, adding value to grain farms while helping feed not only the U.S. but also the world. The environmental benefits of feeding livestock in this region are numerous, but many people forget one of the key driving forces behind the buildout of this storied industry — and a veritable agribusiness dynamo — was an overabundance of grain sorghum.

In the mid-1950s, sorghum breeders developed the first commercially available hybrids; and by the early 1960s, hybrid grain sorghum had reached more than 99% market share. Yields more than doubled over the period, and the acreage spike that came with this technological revolution drove sorghum prices to historic lows. With the economic need to add value to grain to save family farms coupled with the practical need to make large piles of sorghum disappear, the modern cattle feeding industry had all the incentive it needed to complete its buildout on the High Plains.

The National Grain Sorghum Producers Association was started against this backdrop, when five men of vision signed the organization’s original charter in 1955. This group, along with the army of High Plains farmers whom they rallied to support their cause, hoped to add value to their grain while promoting pro-sorghum legislation. The subsequent rise of cattle feeding in the region — along with other milestones, such as the formation of the U.S. Feed Grains Council and significant growth of demand for U.S. grain and livestock in international markets — represented the pinnacle of their success in adding value on a level not to be matched again until the buildout of the modern ethanol industry in the mid-2000s.

Corn’s rise

The meteoric rise of grain sorghum usage for cattle feeding wouldn’t continue. Cheap, plentiful corn in the Midwest coupled with improvements in cross-country rail transport boosted corn’s standing in High Plains cattle rations, and soon, the relatively more energy-dense grain dethroned sorghum as the king of cattle country. Add in the fact that the two grains process quite differently, despite being fairly similar in composition, and consistency-minded feed mills stopped using sorghum altogether. By the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2000s, the sorghum industry was arguing that grain sorghum used in cattle rations should first go through an ethanol plant, where it would be transformed into distillers grains that fed the same regardless of whether they were produced from corn or sorghum.

Today, we’re seeing a reversal of this trend away from sorghum-heavy cattle rations. And grain sorghum isn’t the only beneficiary. Rather, the beneficiaries include sorghum forages, sorghum distillers grains and grain sorghum, as High Plains cattle feeders and dairy producers deploy all of the above strategies to manage the accelerating decline of irrigation water availability in the Ogallala Aquifer. Grain sorghum uses approximately one-third of the water that corn uses, and in practice, silage sorghum often receives half of the water that corn silage receives. With irrigation capacity declining in some pockets of High Plains cattle country exceeding 90%, the region is out of options. Every feedstuff is on the table.

Return to sorghum

Fortunately, sorghum’s genetic diversity means there’s something for everyone, and with the rich history of sorghum use by the region’s cattle feeders, the crop has a significant head start. Large increases in acres of sorghum forages are already underway, and the interest from feed mills in overcoming grain sorghum processing hurdles is steadily ramping up. Though declining irrigation water availability is certainly a great challenge, the opportunity to change strategies in a way that makes value-added agriculture on the High Plains sustainable for the long haul is equally great. Regardless of what the exact strategies look like, there’s no doubt sorghum will play a big part in each.

About the Author(s)

John Duff

John Duff is founder of Serō Ag Strategies and serves as a consultant to National Sorghum Producers.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like