Grain sorghum could be among the keys to reducing the massive mining of water in western Kansas, once it’s deemed economically desirable.

Long an ugly step-cousin in the family of Kansas staple crops, grain sorghum – more commonly known as milo – is growing in popularity as a source for livestock feed, ethanol and, perhaps, human food.

It can be raised under irrigation for a third less water than other feedstocks, according to the Kansas Grain Sorghum Producers Association. But there is reluctance among some farmers for the hit they claim they take on revenue.

While paychecks vary from year to year, corn is still king in western Kansas, where the Ogallala Aquifer is depleting at an alarming rate.

“My approach on this whole thing, when it comes to water, is creating alternative markets. It’s gotta be market-driven,” said Gary Harshberger, a farmer using irrigation in the Dodge City area. He also is chairman of the Kansas Water Authority board.

Corn is on top “because we have a demand for it,” he said. “Until this point, there really hasn’t been the demand for milo, other than export markets.”

‘Feeders like corn’

The grain, a staple human food in other cultures, is poised to take its place among the commodity leaders as a primary crop that’s planted on the best of land, and not the typical marginal soils, said Sarah Sexton-Bowser. She’s a field staff member for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program and the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission.

“It certainly will yield on the higher end, but we need to see it managed as a primary crop,” she said. “Sorghum needs investment from private industry to attack some issues.”

Given its drought tolerance, sorghum needs better genetics and good management expertise. Researchers proved long ago that milo, like corn, can put weight on cattle, said Christopher Reinhardt, an associate professor and feedlot specialist for Kansas State Research and Extension.

“We can make milo almost as effective at finishing cattle as corn is when we steam-flake either grain,” Reinhardt said. “The only difference is corn carries a little more fat content, therefore a little more energy. If they were priced the same, corn would have a slight advantage, to a tune of 1 or 2 percent.”

Corn is “everywhere,” Reinhardt said, and available.

“If there were a lot of milo and corn were limited, we definitely could use milo,” said Reinhardt. “Corn is the gold standard for our grain industry, our grain exports. Corn is preferred, from a farming standpoint.”

Breaking down barriers is the challenge, Harshberger said.

“Cattle feeders like corn. It’s what they’re used to,” he said. “We’ve got to get over some of these preconceived notions.”

Fiscal factors

That could be changing.

Time and continued groundwater depletion in western Kansas should clear more acres for water-conscious crops, such as milo and triticale, said Vance Ehmke, a Lane County farmer.

“There is clearly gonna be less corn,” he said. “The economics are in favor of growing milo.”

Kansas Farm Management Association figures showed that milo held an edge of nearly $2 an acre versus corn on net return to labor-management in 2013 – $59.48 to $57.82 an acre – in northwest Kansas.

Ehmke peered deeper into those numbers and found that irrigated corn growers in northwest Kansas spent $903 to fetch a yield of 194 bushels to the acre, while the milo growers spent $458 an acre for a yield of 88 bushels to the acre, and a tad more profit.

So, for just that one crop year, milo cost less to grow and provided more income.

“I will guarantee that the grain sorghum used one helluva lot less water than that corn did,” Ehmke said.

Some biases

To be fair, one of the clear benefits to corn is in weed control. Roundup-ready corn “made management simple and increased productivity,” said Ehmke. “We do not have Roundup-ready sorghum.”

But thanks to a developing resistance to spraying Roundup herbicide, he said, some are being forced to return to the more complicated and costly methods before the Roundup-ready breakthrough.

Ehmke, who is also a certified seed grower, was recruited by a seed company a few years back to sell a certain brand.

When Ehmke inquired what his profit per bag would be, the company representative told him he would make $5 to $7 for each bag of milo seed and $20 to $50 a bag for corn.

“Seed companies want you to raise corn because they make more money,” Ehmke said. “Biases are strongly incorporated into farm policy and insurance policy. Sorghum has a much lower insurance value, and this is a big incentive to plant corn.”

Milo and ethanol

Milo markets are growing, however.

Sorghum is beginning to appear in U.S. food products, particularly as a substitute for wheat for those who can’t tolerate gluten. It’s also used in ethanol production.

Western Plains Energy, in Gove County, can make ethanol from either commodity, said Derek Peine, general manager. But it costs a little more to process milo and the grain yields less ethanol than corn.

“When we’re buying, we’re looking at the price of corn today versus the price of milo, and we make our decision on those economics,” he said. “Going forward, based on economics, we expect to use predominantly corn.”

What could tip that balance in milo’s favor is if ethanol plants can achieve advanced biofuel status. That requires using non-corn-based starch, and a renewable form of energy.

If that occurred, Peine said, sorghum producers would see increased demand for their grain, and the plant would receive an economic incentive for making an advanced biofuel over the traditional fuel-grade ethanol.

Milo easily fits that requirement, he said. The problem is the energy mandate.

“In the western two-thirds of Kansas, we could use more and more milo. It’s the other piece that’s difficult to achieve,” he said. “We’re interested in participating and doing what we can to save the water resources of the state.”

‘Good fit’ out west

About 40 percent of the milo raised in the United States was exported last year to places such as Asia, Africa and the Middle East, where it’s consumed by both livestock and humans. Another 30 percent is used to make ethanol and feed cattle through distillers grain, and about 2 percent encompasses domestic human food, said Bowser, of the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission.

Milo also is used in construction products, birdseed and pet food.

Looking ahead, milo could be poised to snatch irrigated acres in western Kansas as demand grows and groundwater tables fall.

“The market distortion is coming from the government’s subsidy for crop insurance that’s heavily weighted for corn, especially for dry land,” said Tanner Ehmke, Vance’s son. He farms in Lane and Gove counties.

“We’ve seen a lot of kamikaze corn planted into land with no moisture, and they’re going to get some very lucrative insurance settlements,” he said.

Grain sorghum has a case, said farmer Harshberger.

“I don’t prophesy that milo’s gonna replace corn, but it’s darn sure a good fit out here,” he said.

When you factor in the cost of pumping water, low commodity prices are currently in milo’s favor, Vance Ehmke said.

“Farmers are not stupid, and at the end of the day, they are doing what makes them more money,” he said.

Alternative crops, such as triticale – the Ehmkes are seed producers for that crop – will become more popular, too, Vance Ehmke predicted.

Triticale is irrigated during cooler months and it’s harvested sooner because it’s not reaped for seed, thus saving water. The plants are ground and fed to cattle as ensilage.

Conditions are ripe for water supplies to influence planting less water-intensive crops.

“The worst thing you could do in terms of water was having eight-dollar (a bushel) corn. The most effective way of curtailing water is making it very unprofitable to use,” Vance Ehmke said. “Three-dollar-and-50-cent corn is a powerful law.”

Tim Unruh is a veteran agricultural journalist with the Salina Journal. He grew up on a diversified farm near Deerfield, the son of a grain elevator manager and a schoolteacher. Email: tunruh@salina.com.

Other stories in the series:

Milo brings “Nu Life” on the High Plains for fourth generation farmer

Milo posed to help water woes in western Kansas

Food-grade sorghum catches on with south-central Kansas farmers

Crop has international appeal

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