Grain sorghum benefits touted for Earth Day

While April 22 marked Earth Day observances nationwide, officials with the National Grain Sorghum Producers (NGSP) contend that for the nation's farmers, every day is Earth Day. More importantly, NGSP believes grain sorghum, one of the most drought-tolerant cereal crops, can offer significant environmental benefits, while producing “more crop per drop” as water supplies tighten.

“For us, taking care of the earth's natural resources is a daily privilege and responsibility,” says Leo Bindel, NGSP president and a producer from Sabetha, Kan. Bindel says producers who choose to grow grain sorghum as part of a healthy rotation plan are taking an extra step toward improved conservation.

“Grain sorghum producers should congratulate themselves for making conservation-friendly planting decisions,” says Bindel, “because sorghum is a water-sipping rather than water-guzzling crop.”

University studies have compared water savings through alternative cropping patterns and the use of crops that require less water, such as grain sorghum. Dr. Terry Howell from the USDA-ARS facility in Bushland, Texas, found in a recent study that seasonal water use for corn was 30.3 inches, while sorghum consumed only an average of 22.7 inches.

Howell also studied the issue from a silage standpoint. Based on the data, if corn silage production could be replaced by sorghum silage, 432,000 acre inches of water could be spared annually in the Texas High Plains and South Plains.

Pumping costs for producers also would be reduced about $1.4 million, based on Howell's assumptions of 2.4 million tons production and $3.25 per acre. Pumping costs have more than doubled for this year due to a sharp increase in natural gas costs since this study was completed.

Similarly, a Panhandle Water Planning Group Regional Water Plan prepared as a result of 1999 Texas water legislation (Senate Bill 1) has found that the total 50-year water savings for six counties in the Texas Panhandle would amount to 3.5 million acre feet of water if producers converted to irrigated grain sorghum.

Taking this to a wider scope, water savings from acreage converted to grain sorghum could be astounding when looking at total irrigated feedgrain plantings last year in Kansas, Nebraska and Texas combined.

“From a conservation standpoint, the question is simple,” says Bindel, “How can a limited resource be most efficiently used?” By planting more water-efficient crops such as sorghum, says Dr. Jeff Dahlberg, NGSP research director.

“A global population that benefited in the latter part of the 20th century from the Green Revolution led by Dr. Norman Borlaug is today facing a future predicted to have 25 percent of the world population experiencing severe water scarcity by 2025. However, 50 percent of the increase in demand for water by 2025 can be met by increasing the effectiveness of irrigation and by growing more water-use efficient crops,” says Dahlberg.

He adds that as water availability in the U.S. Great Plains, dependent on the Ogallala formation, decreases, grain sorghum's ability to become dormant during moisture stress will allow more yield stability with less risk.

“A second Green Revolution; perhaps a Blue Revolution, less dependent on irrigation seems imperative,” says Dahlberg, “Grain sorghum can play a significant role in continuing to feed the world while protecting its natural resources.”

Grain sorghum is a versatile, gluten-free, non-genetically modified grain that can be used in the cereal, snack food, baking, brewing, pet food and animal feeding industries.

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