As 2014 gets underway, cotton growers in the Texas Coastal Bend are preparing fields for seeding, but after another year of drought disaster that destroyed 90 percent of cotton acres across the region in 2013, many are looking to grain sorghum as a drought-tolerant alternative.
Many area farmers are expected to crowd into the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds in Robstown Thursday, January 9, when the Sorghum Checkoff and other sponsors open the doors on the 2014 Sorghum U, a farmer focused educational program designed to bring growers up-to-date on the latest developments and news related to the popularity of growing grain sorghum as an alternative crop.
The one-day educational series will provide growers with information about the changing business environment for farmers, using technology efficiently, managing sorghum for top yields, marketing strategies, and lessons learned from farmers in previous growing seasons.
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Of particular interest to growers will be a special presentation of the latest research on grain sorghum at the USDA Cropping Systems Research Laboratory in Lubbock.
Laboratory Director and Research Team Leader Dr. John Burke will offer growers the latest report on sorghum breeding programs and news about the development of new varieties currently underway by at least six major seed companies.
"The research we have been doing at the USDA plant stress lab is related to water and temperature stress on crops. Our team has been conducting screening of germplasm collections for sorghum lines for cold tolerance, in other words, we have been looking for plants that germinate earlier in the season and demonstrate early season vigor," Burke says.
So far the team has been able to develop plants that germinate at temperatures in the low 50s, a breakthrough that makes the plant more adaptive to early planting schedules.
But the research team focus has also been on drought stress. Burke says the team has discovered a chemical in sorghum plants that directly relates to how much pre- or post-
flowering drought tolerance the plant can exhibit. Through laboratory breeding programs, Burke says the team has developed traits that allow for higher drought tolerance and lower water demands.
"Our third approach to developing better sorghum plants, the next focus of our research, is perhaps one of the most exciting. Our team took a line called BTX 623, the first sorghum line in which all of the plant's genes were sequenced. We chose that line because we wanted to go in and make mutants using a compound known as EMS, and we have been able to identify two new genes associated with the Brown Midrib trait," Burke reports.
He says the Brown Midrib variety is best suited as a forage or energy plant and the new research uncovers its potential for development as a primary energy crop that could one day replace corn as the energy crop of choice.
"The advantage to the mutant variety is that the stalks tend to dry out quickly at seed maturity, similar to what happens in corn, so the drying stage of the crop becomes much more efficient, a requirement for a good energy crop," he added.
Burke says this is good news for growers in the Deep South where a killing frost comes either late in the season or not at all. He says in such cases input costs spiral with the need to introduce defoliants to the crop, a step that potentially can be eliminated by the introduction of this new breed.
The research team has also developed varieties that are called 'stiff stalks,' or sorghum plants that resist lodging.
"You can grab these with your hand and pull and twist them and they won't fall over," Burke explained.
But of most significance is a new variety he is calling a tri-seed plant.
"Normally, when sorghum is produced and you look at the head, there are three flowers there. The one at the center is fertile and will make a seed, but the two on either side of it are not fertile and will not make a seed. As you go down the stem you will see this pattern replicated several times. But in a new variety developed through breeding at the lab, all the flowers set seed, so we have nearly doubled the number of seeds at the head," Burke said.
"Yield is everything of course, so when we discovered a way to correct what nature apparently messed up, we realized we were developing a new trait, a new variety that has the potential of yielding a great deal more than existing varieties, and this has profound implications for the future of grain sorghum."
Sorghum U 2014, sponsored and made possible by the Sorghum Checkoff, Sorghum Partners, CrustBuster/Speed King Inc., and others, will be staged at four strategic locations including Texas, Kansas and Nebraska.
“The Sorghum Checkoff is committed to increasing producer profitability, and we believe the Sorghum U education program is an excellent opportunity to help producers do just that,” said Dr. Justin Weinheimer, crop improvement program director for the Sorghum Checkoff. “Sorghum U will showcase regionally-specific information on management and marketing to help growers increase their bottom line with sorghum.”