NC+ breeds sorghum for ethanol production

A longtime grain sorghum breeder and research scientist feels that a recent research grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) could be the catalyst that makes sorghum a major resource for ethanol production.

NC+ Sorghum research director Jim Osborne says the five-year, $7.5 million matching grant will allow the research project participants to eventually develop grain sorghum hybrids with much higher starch contents.

“The bottom line is that a higher starch content makes sorghum much more economically feasible as a primary source for ethanol production,” Osborne said. “For our purposes we figure current grain sorghum starch content at an average of 68 percent. We would like to increase that average content up to 80 percent. We feel at that level we can reduce the per gallon cost of producing ethanol from grain sorghum by 40 to 50 percent.”

The DOE selected a consortium comprised of NC+ Hybrids, Orion Genomics LLC and SolviGen LLC to conduct the grant funded project. The research will use NC+'s breeding expertise and collection of elite germplasm; Orion's proprietary genomics technology; and SolviGen's technology development and market expertise.

“Orion will use a recently discovered genomics technique to identify and sequence all the genes of sorghum,” Osborne said. “Once the appropriate gene markers have been identified, NC+ will begin incorporating them into the appropriate germplasm with existing conventional or, if needed, transgenetic approaches.”

The grain sorghum research program at NC+ was initiated in 1971. Since that time, the company has acquired the breeding programs and germplasm of five other companies.

“I'm sure the size of our sorghum program and the size of the germplasm base we're working with figured into NC+ being considered for this project,” Osborne said. “The expertise our company has already exhibited in DNA sampling and the sorghum research we've conducted in the past were other factors that helped in our selection.”

One of the goals of the research project is to develop high starch grain sorghum hybrids from germplasm that contains high-yielding and high drought tolerance characteristics. This would allow farmers to produce grain sorghum on acres that are classified as marginal.

“I'd like to see 18 million to 20 million acres of grain sorghum planted in the U.S. again because of the marketing opportunities and cropping options this project could afford farmers,” Osborne said. “I don't want to necessarily see acres taken away from other crops.

“Instead we would like to see those additional acres added to production because sorghum's higher water and nutrient efficiency would allow a higher profit on marginal land.”

According to Osborne, discussions have already begun with members of the National Grain Sorghum Producers Association to begin exploring marketing opportunities for identity preserved grain sorghum. “NGSPA is just getting started on a certification program for food grade, pet food grade, and cattle feed grade sorghum,” he said, “We would certainly like to look into the possibility of identity preserved hybrids down the road that would be used especially for ethanol production. The goal is to develop a marketing system for the American farmer that will increase his profit through identity presentation for a specific end use.”

Research is expected to take place immediately in the matching grant funded project that is scheduled to continue for at least five years. Osborne is optimistic that during that time period some “research quantities” of new sorghum hybrids will be produced and ready for ethanol analysis. He feels it may take a few more years after that to have those hybrids ready for commercial availability.

NC+ Hybrids, based in Lincoln, Neb., is one of the largest independent seed companies in the United States. Farmer-owned for over 40 years, NC+ nationally markets corn, soybeans, grain sorghum, forage sorghum, sudangrass and alfalfa. For more information contact their web site at

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