Over five years ago, my predecessor, Chris Cogburn, kicked off Sorghum Focus with two columns all about sorghum forage. Before starting this month's column, I was a part of a conversation on the growth of sorghum forage acres in feedyard and dairy country just northwest of Lubbock, Texas. So I looked back at those two columns to see how much things have changed since 2015. In case you weren't sure how this experiment would turn out, things have changed a lot!
Despite all the changes, the first thing about these columns that caught my eye was how well some of Chris' statements hold up today. First, forage sorghum was genetically diverse then, and that's especially true today, after another five years and tens of millions of dollars in additional funding from private industry, USDA and even the Department of Energy.
Second, forage sorghum's genetic diversity is matched only by its diversity of uses, and again, that's just as true today as it was back then.
Finally and most importantly, Chris highlighted water scarcity as a defining issue, particularly on the High Plains. I'm not happy to report this hasn't changed, but I am happy to report forage sorghum — and sorghum generally — continues to be a great option for limited irrigation situations. More on that later.
The second thing that struck me upon reading Chris' columns was how much has changed in the next-generation biofuels industry, which would have required a large number of high biomass sorghum acres if it had continued to grow.
In mid-2014, Poet-DSM (a collaboration by the U.S. ethanol giant and Dutch life sciences company) held a grand opening ceremony for its cellulosic ethanol plant in northern Iowa, and as Chris noted, the king of the Netherlands even flew in for the occasion.
Unfortunately, due to uncertainty surrounding the Renewable Fuel Standard, Poet and DSM shifted the focus of their collaboration to research and development in November 2019. Unsurprisingly, some companies exited next-generation biofuel production because of technology challenges, but Poet-DSM's pivot proved political uncertainty was the biggest driver of the industry's decline.
So, were the tens of millions of dollars invested by private industry, USDA and DOE wasted? Absolutely not! As Chris pointed out, sorghum's biggest strengths in biofuels discussions were its established seed industry and research and development community, and this is as true today as it ever was.
The fact is, sorghum is sorghum, and a dollar invested in high biomass sorghum for biofuel production is also a dollar invested in grain sorghum for ethanol production or feed use, and a dollar invested in forage sorghum for silage or hay. So, unlike investments in dedicated energy crops with no use other than next-generation biofuel production, the investment in sorghum over the last five years has paid big dividends and moved the ball down the field in a meaningful way.
Good thing, because we need all the help we can get here on the High Plains! I don't have to remind anyone of the challenges we face with growing water scarcity in areas that rely on the Ogallala Aquifer for irrigation and drinking water, and forage sorghum is becoming an increasingly important part of the crop mix in areas with a large number of feedyards and dairies.
Using a fraction of the water that other forage crops use, sorghum provides protein and high-quality roughage, in addition to its environmental benefits. And we're only going to see more demand for these characteristics on the High Plains and beyond.
Duff is executive vice president for National Sorghum Producers. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sorghumduff.