Sorghum – An Interesting Useful Plant

Sorghum – not just a pancake syrup

If most Americans think of sorghum at all, it is as a honey/molasses like pancake syrup in The South. It wasn’t always that way. At one time it was much more widely grown. Lately it has started a bit of a ‘come back’ as an alternative to wheat for those folks with wheat problems. I grew up with some sorghum grown locally (but not very much) for animal feed.

It was mostly called “milo” in our area, and that name is still used in some places. Often, the grain type is called milo and the sugar type is called sorghum. There are similar distinctions in places that grow things where the farmers use one language as a jargon while the consumers use another. ( Aw-monds vs Aa-monds for example. I grew up where they grow ’em, and in places that grow them, they are not called aw-monds, but aa-monds like in ‘at’. That’s true of most growing places, BTW.) There is even a kind of sorghum hybrid that is called “Sudan Grass” and grown largely for cattle feeding, though it does make grain. I’d heard “Sudan grass” advertising on farm radio shows for decades before finding out it was a kind of sorghum. Similarly, a common weed named “Johnson Grass” is a sorghum, but we don’t call it sorghum as “sorghum good, weed bad” conflicts must be avoided…

So what is my motivation for talking about sorghum and why ought you care? For me, it is about finding a non-corn “small grain” I can grow in a “survival situation” as I am allergic to corn (corn is the easiest for most folks to grow, but hard to save seed effectively with small blocks as the pollen blows for miles). It is also about just finding out what makes a decent food other than corn, but similar. It even pops like popcorn, something I’ve dearly missed. I also have a wheat intolerant friend, so I’m always on the hunt for alternatives to wheat, too. For you’all, it’s about understanding some history, knowing a bit more about the 5th most important grain on the planet, and maybe finding out how to think about plant choice in a changing climate and under adverse conditions. Besides, you might find it tastes good ;-)

Lately, there has been a boom in sorghum demand largely driven by China. They have “sudden wealth” and with that comes more meat consumption. Hogs love grain, so to feed all those Chinese hogs, they were buying our corn. At one point, they banned GMO corn for a while and that spiked sorghum demand. They have lifted that ban, so we’ll see how things shake out.

Moonshine, Hogs and Drought Fuel Sorghum Boom Across U.S. Plains

by Megan Durisin Jeff Wilson Lydia Mulvany

March 30, 2015 — 2:30 PM PDT Updated on March 31, 2015 — 12:13 PM PDT

Across the Great Plains, U.S. farmers are turning to a little-known grain called sorghum for relief from a two-year slump in agriculture prices.

A kernel-yielding stalk that’s native to Africa, sorghum has three things going for it right now: it’s cheap to plant; it holds up better in drought-like conditions than other crops; and most importantly, demand is soaring in China, where farmers feed the plant to their hog herds, and moonshiners make it into a whiskey-like liquor called baijiu. While corn, soybeans and wheat slumped into bear markets last year amid a global supply glut, sorghum prices have held stable.

“As far as an alternative crop, it’s so much better than anything else right now,” said Clayton Short, a 53-year-old farmer in Assaria, Kansas.
Chinese Demand

Exports of sorghum from the U.S., the world’s top grain shipper, are headed for the most in 35 years with most of it going to China, government data show. The Asian nation began tapping foreign suppliers in recent years to meet growing consumption by the world’s largest hog herd. The U.S. Grains Council estimates 10 percent of China’s imports are used to make baijiu, a 100-proof grain alcohol that is the most-consumed booze in the world.
While lesser known than corn, wheat, rice and barley, sorghum is the world’s fifth-largest grain by output. Like corn, it is used mostly to feed livestock and to make ethanol, a grain-based fuel, though sorghum kernels also end up in food like couscous or popped like popcorn.
Grain Slump

The Bloomberg Commodity Index has tumbled 27 percent in the past year, including 25 percent for corn, the biggest domestic crop, to $3.7625 a bushel in Chicago. Wheat slumped 27 percent, soybeans tumbled 34 percent, and cotton plunged 33 percent.

Some farmers in Kansas are being offered 35 cents a bushel more for sorghum planted this spring than corn, according to Dan O’Brien, an economist at Kansas State University in Manhattan. The state will be the biggest U.S. grower this year after Texas, the USDA estimates. The cash price for sorghum delivered in Kansas City slid 0.7 percent in the past 12 months.

There’s more detail in that very readable article, including pictures of the booze made from it in China. Things like:

Dominant Exporter

The U.S. will account for 74 percent of world sorghum exports in the season started Sept. 1, compared with 15 percent for wheat
, the USDA estimates.
Even if exports slow, farmers may plant more because sorghum is hearty and cheap to grow. About 28 percent of the High Plains was in moderate to extreme drought as of March 24, up from 11 percent at the start of the year, U.S. Drought Monitor data show.

It will cost $142 an acre to grow sorghum this year, including seed, fertilizer and chemicals, the USDA estimates. Cotton will be $497.26, corn $350.33, and soybeans $181.07.

Who knew the USA was 74% of world sorghum trade internationally… But at least now we have the answer to what we sell to China. Sorghum to make 100 proof booze. I’ll drink to that! (Wonder what it tastes like…)

Realize that ag commodities are very subject to boom / bust cycles as high prices one year cause more planting the next just as buyers are substituting something else as a result of the prior year high priced “burn”… so watch decade scale trends for long term decisions, and for ‘next year’, well, in ag that’s always a roll of the dice. What to plant depends on what everyone else plants… Made for interesting conversations at the counter in the old family restaurant in farm country. Kind of a Liars Poker writ large.

Some Background

Sorghum is a giant grass related to corn and sugarcane. This shows up in the two major crops you get from it. A grain that acts kind of like a very small corn kernel, and sap that can be boiled down to make a sweet syrup. It also makes a third crop in that ruminants just love a dinner of sweet sorghum stalks and leaves, and hogs / chickens think milo in the grain ration is a great idea… It grows well in hot dry areas too, and is tolerant of drought. All around, a nice package.

Think about that for a minute.

Forage for animals. DIY sugar syrup. Grain for animals, or for people. Pops like popcorn. Decent production even on variable rain / sporadic drought. Oh, and did I mention you can make booze out of it too? What more could you want from a plant?

In the original expansion of the United States, sorghum was a common crop just for the low cost sugar syrup. Sugar cane was expensive and used a lot of slave labor, and the purified sugar from it doubly so. Most folks on farms didn’t have the money for that kind of luxury, so ‘sweet sorghum’ was the answer. For that reason, many traditional recipes of The South or of the farms in The Mid-West just don’t taste right made with anything but sorghum syrup. The foods were designed with that syrup as part of the palate, and when you leave it out you get a blander dish. So there is a culinary aspect to this as well as a historical / cultural angle.

That, today, we’ve largely forgotten all of that is our loss. One I hope to restore to some small extent.

What does it look like? Well, it varies some in seed color and shape of the grain head, but here’s an example:

Sorghum bicolor from wikimedia


Some have tighter grain heads, some much looser. One, broomcorn, makes very long loose stems in that grain head and has been used for centuries to make brooms. If you find a broom with real plant bristles, it is likely broomcorn. ( I have one ;-)

What can you do with it?

The Food Network has discovered it as a current trend:

Even has a nice recipe or two:

The Latest Hot Crop: Sorghum
by Toby Amidor in Healthy Tips, March 29, 2015
In the Kitchen

Sorghum kernels can be popped into popcorn, only it comes out slightly smaller than its corn counterpart. Sorghum grains are cooked similar to rice, combined in a 1:3 ratio of grain to liquid (like stock or water).

Sorghum flour is a good substitute for wheat flour in baked recipes like muffins, cookies, cakes, pies and cakes. Oftentimes you will need to incorporate a binder like xanthan gum or cornstarch, since wheat flour isn’t being used. Start by trying 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum per 1 cup sorghum flour. Try your hand at these Gluten-Free Chocolate Devil’s Food Cupcakes using sorghum flour.

While some folks from The South wax particularly nostalgic about it. I first ran into this magazine in Florida. It is a pretty good read and does a nice job of getting oneself oriented to Southern Perspective:

In Season: Sorghum Syrup

If you’ve never tasted sorghum on a hot buttered biscuit, you’ve only half lived.

I don’t know that I’d go that far, but it is a food worth exploring and adding to your set of skills and flavors. I, for one, will be buying a bottle of Sorghum Syrup at Whole Foods and mixing up a batch of biscuits. Hey, us skeptics have to test things you know… ;-) When reading the next quote, remember to put in long pauses and repeating emphasis, and read with a slower cadence, as befits someone on a hot veranda sipping a mint julep… So “In the mountain South [pause] it’s known as long sweetnin’ [pause] for …”

Reading it otherwise: “It jus’ aint riight“…

In the mountain South it’s known as long sweetnin’ for its lingering rich-as-honey finish. Steeped in backcountry tradition, sorghum syrup making is an art–a magical, end-of-summer alchemy bottled in a mason jar.

To Buy
Look for 100% pure sorghum syrup at farm stands or specialty markets, or order online. Unlike molasses, sorghum has a buttery complexity.

To Store
Tuck it into a dark kitchen cupboard, ready to drizzle over baked apples, hot cornbread, or a down-home version of caramel macchiato.

To Cook
Substitute it in equal amounts for corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, or molasses in recipes.

To Party
Syrup-making festivals with hand-harvested sorghum cane and mule-drawn presses are held across the South from late August to mid-October.

At a historical park in Christmas, Florida, we saw just such a big sorghum kettle and mule press set up. All original from the 1800s. The sign said they occasionally did use it for demonstration events, IIRC. This is not a dead history, but an ongoing tradition in The South.

Anything on Growing it and Seeds?

These folks have a variety of interesting kinds / seeds. Some are long season at 120 days, other shorter down near 90 days. Some for popping, others more for sweet syrup. Many are multi-use. I’m particularly thinking about the Mennonite (they are sort of like Amish with phones ;-) so close to what my ancestors likely grew on their farm):

(Sorghum bicolor) Sorghum is one of Africa’s greatest contributions to the world’s agricultural diversity, and is a traditional crop in the South. Adaptable and drought tolerant, sorghum varieties exist that provide grain, sweet syrup, animal fodder, or sometimes, more than one crop from a single planting! The main requirement for sorghum is heat—plant the seeds about ½” deep a couple of weeks after spring frosts are over and soil is really warm. Ordinary garden soil and moisture are sufficient to get a crop, although sorghum may be more productive under better conditions. Seeds are ripe at about the same time as sugar content of the stalks reaches maximum.

Allu Jola Popping Sorghum
This rare landrace from the Kalaburagi District of Karnataka State in India… Read More

Black Amber Sorghum
100 days–One of the oldest cane sorghums still on the market, named for… Read More

Broom Corn Multi-Color Sorghum
The multi-colored tassels are so popular for fall decorations. Colors include… Read More

Dwarf Mayo Sorghum
90 days. A fascinating sorghum bred by Dr. Sam Moyer, Seed Savers member… Read More

Honey Drip Sorghum
Makes sweet delicious syrup. A very old sweet variety; 8-10 foot stalks… Read More

India Red Popping Sorghum
90 days. This red-to-black seeded variety originated in India, which is… Read More

Iowa Sweet Sorghum
125 days. A very sweet syrup type, about 9’ tall with thick, juicy stalks…. Read More

Mennonite Sorghum
A Mennonite heirloom from Missouri. The tall canes are juiced and boiled… Read More

Onavas Red Sorghum
Vigorous, 10-foot plants send out many tillers (side-shoots), and all produce… Read More

Red’s Red Sweet Sorghum
This heirloom has been grown in northern Missouri for many years. More… Read More

Tarahumara Popping Sorghum
100-120 days. From the Tarahumara Indians of Northern Mexico’s Batopilas… Read More

Tunisian Sorghum
Excellent grain-type sorghum, originally collected in a market in Tunis,… Read More

Umbrella Sorghum
100 days—This older variety from Kentucky has unusual umbrella-shaped seed… Read More

White African Sorghum
Introduced to the USA in 1857 by Leonard Wray from Natal, South Africa,… Read More

White Broom Corn
This is the sorghum that was used for making brooms in early America. Lovely… Read More

Yellow Bonnet Sorghum
120 days—A fairly long season syrup-type sorghum, originally from southern… Read More

Most running about $3 a packet, some $4. Lots of choices, and since these are open pollinated, you can save seed from your 50 seed packet and plant a much larger block the next year.

Features And Benefits As Crop

One of the big features is that the plants tend to be self pollinating. For corn, if there is a non-sweet type anywhere up wind for miles, the seed you save may end up being more flint than sweet. Similarly, any “pure” variety is likely a mule in the second season (unless you are far from any other corn grower). As much of the continental USA has a cloud of Monsanto “Sue Me” GMO pollen in the air for months, attempting to save pure seed is “a problem” with corn in large blocks of the USA. Not so with sorghum. (Where getting it to ‘out cross’ for new breeds is the problem).

It is drought tolerant. Very important in places like California and West Texas. As it can adapt to how much water is present, it will adjust to the rain available. Important for variable rain places like summers in Indiana. For corn, you plant at the optimal spacing based on what you expect for rain. If you get too much rain, you could have planted more corn and have missed an opportunity. If you get drought and planted close, you could lose much of the crop. Sorghum will add “tillers” with more rain and those sprouts / stems will have their own grain heads. If it is droughty, sorghum doesn’t tiller as much and just doesn’t grow as much, waiting for more rain. If more does come, it will commence adding growth. So when rain is variable, this plant adapts. Nice, that.

It is not picky about soil and grows even in modestly poor soils. “Inputs” demanded are modest.


Birds love it and will raid small blocks. (For a survival grain, I’d stock a cheap BB gun and 10,000 BBs for a few bucks. Then make “Sparrow on Sorghum pilaf”… and call it a feature.)

It wants things WARM. Hard to grow in Wisconsin or Alaska. Possibly I may have “issues” being near the California coast. So for a “cold turn” this is likely not going to be the best choice. (Why one stocks seeds of many kinds… buckwheat and barley for cold and wet, sorghum for hot and dry).

There are loads of planting guidelines available for the various kinds and places where it is grown. At least one of them is garden oriented, so I’m not the only one trying this “small scale”:

Step 3
Create rows in size of 30 inches or wide enough to ensure the ability to weed between rows.

Step 4
Wait until ground temperature reaches a steady 65 degrees Fahrenheit 2 to 3 inches below planting depth.
Too cool of temperature, especially in the morning, will reduce the stability of the crop, causing thinner and weedy stalks to grow.

For some folks, just getting to 65 F by harvest time is an issue… Sorghum gets started then, and takes 3 months to 4 months from that point on. If you don’t have that, think millet… Prosso Millet can give grain in 60 to 90 days and some varieties are OK with cold. Similarly, if you have sugarcane aphids in the area, there’s a millet for that:

Hybrid Pearl Millet may Resolve some Forage Sorghum Concerns
JUNE 2, 2015 01:06 PM

Hybrid pearl millet may be a suitable replacement for forage sorghums susceptible to sugarcane aphid, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension experts.
By: Kay Ledbetter, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension

With the widespread presence of sugarcane aphid in Texas in 2014, and an expectation this pest could be a threat in 2015 to Texas sorghums, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts said hybrid pearl millet might be an alternative for growers.

“This is true especially for growers who need annual forage and grazing, as the hybrid pearl millet appears to be largely unaffected by sugarcane aphid,” said Calvin Trostle, AgriLife Extension agronomist in Lubbock.

This leafy forage may fit where some sorghum forages, in particular sorghum/sudan or haygrazer – a common annual choice for grazing and haying, suffered a heavy hit by sugarcane aphid in 2014, Trostle said.

As of early 2015, he said, there are no commercial forages like sorghum/sudan, sudangrass, sorgo/sudan or haygrazer that have been publicly identified as tolerant to sugarcane aphid.

This also shows some of how crop decisions are made. There are a number of plant choices, from oats and barley on the cold and wet end to millet and sorghum on the hot and dry end (with corn in the middle somewhere). Farmers often grow a mix of them in areas that can go ‘both ways’, and will slowly drift the mix as market prices and weather expected shift. As a drought begins, an 80 / 20 corn / sorghum farm might go to 60 / 40 and end up at 10 / 90 after 5 years of strong drought. Similarly, as a new pest shows up, another resistant crop gets swapped in while folks work out pest treatments or resistant alternative varieties. A sudden surprise of a climate shift will have an impact in the first and second year, but not much after that.

Here’s an example of using millet in a colder location to extend crop production with a fast ‘second crop’. An example of how decisions are made for just when it is warm, and for how long. Millet being a much shorter crop cycle than sorghum:

New Crops News, Spring 1992, vol. 2 no. 1

Pearl Millet: Double Crop for Northern Indiana

Soybeans have never been a reliable double-crop after wheat for the northern third of Indiana, north of a line drawn between Lafayette and Richmond. Now, John Axtell, Robert Nielsen, and Greg Brown, Purdue University agronomists, are ready to try pearl millet as a possible new crop to fill this void under grants from Purdue’s Crossroad ’90 program and Purdue’s New Crop Center, the latter supported by the Indiana Business Modernization and Technology Corporation. Axtell is convinced that millet has potentials as a double crop for over 200,000 acres in northern Indiana. Pearl millet has good drought tolerance, so it could withstand some of the late summer droughts in Indiana. More important, it requires a short growing season. It is possible to harvest a mature crop 60 to 65 days after it has been planted.
One of the present problems is that elevator operators are not set up to handle millet, so growers will have to be prepared to feed it in their own operation. Pearl millet has good digestibility and a relatively high protein content and has great potential for monogastric species such as hogs. Pearl millet, of course, is a preferred human food in Africa. In Niger, two-thirds of the population prefer pearl millet to any other grain. Most Nigerians will consume pearl millet porridge before they’ll accept rice, wheat, or other cereals. Thus the acceptance of pearl millet for human food is a matter of developing new products with food processors. One drawback to pearl millet it that is is relatively high in lipid content, making it subject to rancidity; oil content is between 5 and 6% as compared to 4 to 5% for other cereals. This means that pearl millet has a very high energy content. It could be particularly useful as an early feed source for hogs in the fall before corn is harvested.
Axtell is convinced that millet deserves a good hard look. If it can provide additional income for wheat farmers in the northern third of the state it should be a welcome addition to Indiana’s crops.

Carl Eiche
Indiana Prarie Farmer

For a “survival plan” seed storage system, I’d make sure to have both millet and sorghum. As there are many varieties of both, there are many potential choices. My “first cut” was just to get a bag of bird seed for “dirt cheap” as it is a mix of millets and sorghum with some other seeds. A “quick scatter” has shown that both prosso millet and what looks like pearl or maybe foxtail (not ripe yet…) have grown nicely. It’s been too cold a soil temp to trial sorghum… yet… But having a 5 pound bag of bird seed is darned cheap “seed insurance” for the budding cereal garden, and can always be used to attract birds and squirrels as a ‘crop’ alternative if the planting doesn’t work out ;-)

For “the whole scoop” on Sorghum there’s that Perdue site again (that I love, BTW):

Grain Sorghum (Milo)

P.R. Carter1, D.R. Hicks2, E.S. Oplinger1, J.D. Doll1, L.G. Bundy1, R.T. Schuler1, and B.J. Holmes1

1 Depts. of Agronomy, Soil Science, and Agricultural Engineering, Cooperative Extension Service and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin -Madison, WI 53706.

2 Dept. of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108. Nov. 1989.

I. History:

Farmers on the hot, dry plains from Texas to South Dakota grow and use grain sorghum like Corn Belt farmers use corn. Large acreages of grain sorghum are also grown in Africa and Asia in areas where the climate is too hot and dry for corn.

During the past 25 years, the grain sorghum acreage in the U.S. has ranged from 15 to 18 million acres per year. Grain sorghum acreage is somewhat greater than acreages for oats and barley, but considerably less than the land area planted to corn, wheat, and soybeans.

In cooler, more humid regions, corn is usually a better choice than grain sorghum, but renewed interest in grain sorghum occurs whenever hotter and drier than normal growing seasons are experienced.

II. Uses:

Worldwide, sorghum is a food grain for humans. In the United States, sorghum is used primarily as a feed grain for livestock. Feed value of grain sorghum is similar to corn. The grain has more protein and fat than corn, but is lower in vitamin A. When compared with corn on a per pound basis, grain sorghum feeding value ranges from 90% to nearly equal to corn. The grain is highly palatable to livestock, and intake seldom limits livestock productivity. However, some sorghum varieties and hybrids which were developed to deter birds are less palatable due to tannins and phenolic compounds in the seed. The grain should be cracked or rolled before feeding to cattle; this improves the portion digested.

Pasturing cattle or sheep on sorghum stubble, after the grain has been harvested, is a common practice. Both roughage and dropped heads are utilized. Stubble with secondary growth must be pastured carefully because of the danger of prussic acid (HCN) poisoning.

Grain sorghum may also be used as whole-plant silage, however another sorghum, sweet sorghum, was developed as a silage crop. Sweet sorghum produces much higher forage yields than grain sorghum, but feed quality will likely be lesser because there is no grain. Some growers mix grain sorghum with soybeans to produce a higher protein silage crop.

III. Growth Habits:

Grain sorghum is a grass similar to corn in vegetative appearance, but sorghum has more tillers and more finely branched roots than corn. Growth and development of sorghum is similar to corn, and other cereals. Sorghum seedlings are smaller than corn due to smaller seed size. Before the 1940s, most grain sorghums were 5-7 feet tall, which created harvesting problems. Today, sorghums have either two or three dwarfing genes in them, and are 2-4 feet tall. While there are several grain sorghum groups, most current grain sorghum hybrids have been developed by crossing Milo with Kafir. Other groups include Hegari, Feterita, Durra, Shallu, and Kaoliang.

The grain sorghum head is a panicle, with spikelets in pairs. Sorghums are normally self-fertilized, but can cross pollinate. Hybrid sorghum seed is produced utilizing cytoplasmic male sterility. Sorghum flowers begin to open and pollinate soon after the panicle has completely emerged from the boot. Pollen shedding begins at the top of the panicle and progresses downward for 6-9 days. Pollination normally occurs between 2:00 and 8:00 a.m., and fertilization takes place 6-12 hours later.

Sorghum can branch from upper stalk nodes. If drought and heat damage the main panicle, branches can bear panicles and produce grain.

The grain is free-threshing, as the lemma and palea are removed during combining. The seed color is variable with yellow, white, brown, and mixed classes in the grain standards. Brown-seeded types are high in tannins, which lower palatability. Percentages of the seed components, endosperm (82%), embryo (12%), and seed coat (5-6%) are similar to corn.

IV. Environment Requirements:

A. Climate:

Low temperature, not length of growing season, is the limiting factor for production in most of the Upper Midwest. Average temperatures of at least 80°F during July are needed for maximum grain sorghum yields, and day-time temperatures of at least 90°F are needed for maximum photosynthesis. For example, normal average temperatures for July are about 75°F in southern Wisconsin. Night temperatures below 55°F for a week at the heading and pollination stage may result in heads with very little grain. Normal night temperatures during August range from about 65°F in southern to 60°F in central Wisconsin. In September, the range is from 55°F in southern to 50°F in central Wisconsin. In southern and central Minnesota, July and August temperatures are similar to those for southern Wisconsin. Therefore, low temperatures may prevent successful production of grain sorghum in central and northern Wisconsin and Minnesota or as a late-planted emergency grain crop in southern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Plants should complete heading by early August to insure excellent grain set.

Soil temperature at planting time is critical for grain sorghum. Sorghum seed needs soil temperatures of 60-65°F for good emergence.

Three characteristics of sorghum give it a potential advantage over corn in dry areas:

Corn is cross-pollinated. Severe drought at silking time may cause barren ears (no kernels). Sorghum is self-pollinated and produces heads over a longer time period because tillers develop over several weeks. Consequently, short periods of drought do not seriously damage pollination and fertilization. In a longer drought, sorghum produces fewer and smaller heads but they are rarely without kernels.
An optimum relationship between plant population and moisture supply is often critical with corn but unimportant with sorghum. When soil moisture is plentiful, sorghum heads grow large and tillers produce heads. But if drought occurs, heads are small and fewer tillers develop. Consequently, sorghum growers can plant high populations for potentially high yields. Corn growers can choose between high populations for maximum yields or lower populations with less chance of serious loss from drought.
Sorghum foliage resists drying. At equal moisture stress, corn leaves lose a greater percentage of their water content than do sorghum leaves. The waxy coating on sorghum leaves and stems may be an important cause. This coating often gives the leaf sheaths a sticky, frosty appearance.
B. Soil:

Sorghum is more tolerant of wet soils and flooding than most of the grain crops-an interesting phenomenon in relation to its drought tolerance. However, most of the poorly drained, wet soils in Wisconsin and Minnesota are too cold for grain sorghum.

I’ll leave the rest of it for folks to “hit the link” for more details. It goes on to cover cultural practices, breeding, weeding, yields and economics. I’ll just note that they are quoting yields in Wisconsin, not exactly the hotbed of sorghum advantage.

Grain sorghum yields exceeding 100 bushels per acre have been obtained in Wisconsin (Table 2). Yield potential and economics of grain sorghum must be compared to corn to determine whether or not grain sorghum offers an advantage.

On very droughty soils, or if subsoil moisture is very low, grain sorghum may out yield corn. This occurred at the Hancock Research Station in 1971 and 1972 (Table 2). However, when conditions are more favorable for corn production, corn yields will probably be at least 15-20% higher than for grain sorghum.

The key takeaway for me being that yield is about the same as corn, give or take, and with an advantage in drought prone areas… like where I am now.

For a less technical approach, this link is interesting:

What is Sorghum?
Sorghum, a grain, forage or sugar crop, is among the most efficient crops in conversion of solar energy and use of water. Sorghum is known as a high-energy, drought tolerant crop. Because of its wide uses and adaptation “sorghum is one of the really indispensable crops” required for the survival of humankind (From Jack Harlan, 1971).

Pretty strong words… but then again, for much of Africa that is absolutely true. Alaska not so much ;-)

Sorghum Uses

In the United States, South America and Australia sorghum grain is used primarily for livestock feed and ethanol production and is becoming popular in the human-food sector. In the livestock market, sorghum is used in the poultry, beef, dairy and pork industries. Stems and foliage are used for green chop, hay, silage and pasture. Sorghum produces the same amount of ethanol per bushel as comparable feedstocks and uses one-third less water.

An interesting point. Now I’d not want to feed it to my car, but maybe a “Sorghum Vodka” has potential ;-)

A significant amount of U.S. sorghum is also exported to international markets where it is used for animal feed and other growing uses.

Sorghum is also used for building material, fencing, floral arrangements, pet food, brooms and more.

Sorghum Production in the U.S.
Sorghum was planted on approximately 7.1 million acres in 2014 and 433 million bushels were produced. The top five sorghum producing states in 2014 are:

Kansas – 2.7 million harvested acres
Texas – 2.25 million harvested acres
Oklahoma – 310,000 harvested acres
Colorado – 280,000 harvested acres
Arkansas – 165,000 harvested acres
2014 USDA Crop Summary

The Sorghum Belt runs from South Dakota to Southern Texas and the crop is grown primarily on dryland acres. Over the years, sorghum has been either exported, used in animal feed domestically or utilized in industrial and food uses. In recent years, sorghum’s use in the ethanol market has seen tremendous growth, with 30 percent of domestic sorghum typically going to ethanol production.

One presumes the dry land folks wanted in on the ethanol subsidy boom…

Sorghum History
The origin and early domestication of sorghum took place in Northeastern Africa and the earliest known record of sorghum comes from an archeological dig at Nabta Playa, near the Egyptian-Sudanese border and had been dated at 8,000 B.C. It spread throughout Africa and along the way adapted to a wide range of environments, from the highlands of Ethiopia to the semi-arid Sahel.

So back in Ancient Egypt, a bowl of sorghum couscous would be right at home on the table… For folks doing “food reenactments” that’s nice to know. Yes, there are folks who try to make ‘period correct’ meals. Harder and more interesting than you might think. For example, you can’t just use a grocery store turkey for your “Pilgrims and Indians” event as they are monstrosities of all breast and pudge. Period correct turkey is a much more slim animal with much darker meat – and a lot more flavor, BTW. Similarly carrots historically were yellow and purple, not the more recent orange innovation that now dominates. Egyptian lettuce looks like a modern romaine, but about 3 times as tall! Not so visible on the plate, but important in a ‘reenacting garden’…

That makes millets and sorghums among the very first grains domesticated and farmed. Which also implies they were more easily handled. My recent garden experiment with millet confirms this, IMHO. Just dumped some bird seed on the ground and ignored it near the squash. Now I have large seed heads and it’s doing fine, thanks. Zero care given other than spillover water from the squash and decent dirt.

Finally, since I’ve wandered into millets in a sorghum posting, you might be wondering why.

Millet varieties

– Major millets (The most widely cultivated species)

Eragrostideae tribe :
Eleusine coracana : Finger millet (also known as ragi, nachani or mandwa in India), fourth most cultivated millet.
Paniceae tribe :
Panicum miliaceum : Proso millet (syn. : common millet, broom corn millet, hog millet or white millet), 3ʳᵈ most cultivated millet.
Pennisetum glaucum : Pearl millet (also known as bajra in India only in Hindi states), the most cultivated millet.
Setaria italica : Foxtail millet, second most cultivated millet (also known as “kang or rala” in Maharashtra, India).

Andropogoneae tribe :
Maize and sorghum are occasionally counted as major millets.

– Minor millets
Andropogoneae tribe :
Coix spp. : Job’s tears
Eragrostideae tribe :
Eragrostis tef : Teff
Paniceae tribe :
Digitaria spp. : white fonio, black fonio, raishan, Polish millet
Echinochloa spp. : Japanese barnyard millet, Indian barnyard millet (syn. : sawa millet) (also known as “bhagar” or “varai” in Maharashtra, India), Burgu Millet
Panicum sumatrense : Little Millet
Paspalum scrobiculatum : Kodo millet
Urochloa spp (also known as Brachiaria) : Browntop millet, Guinea millet

It is worth noting that sorghum, corn, and millets are so closely related that often both corn and sorghum are thought of as just a highly evolved or special kind of millet.

And yes, someday I may well delve a bit more into the “other millets”, once my “harvest” comes in and I’ve done a sorghum trial.

In Conclusion

The USA was not always dominated by corn / soybean mono-cropping. There are still lots of folks growing other grains, and among them sorghum is worth a look. Especially for the small operator or guy-with-a-garden type. You don’t need a combine to harvest it, nor a huller to get the seed coat off of it (it shares an edible seed coat property with corn). There are many heirloom varieties available with both specialized intended uses, and multi-use types.

While present USA uses for millet and sorghum are mostly as animal feeds, in large parts of Asia and Africa they are common food products. I’ve had millet in several different ways, and like it. As a “not quite a corn bread” alternative, it’s ‘similar but different’, with a slight bitter aftertaste (that I’ve come to like with toasting and butter ;-) and sorghum promises a similar use (but hopefully without the bitter – especially in the light seeded types with low tannins. The millet flower develops more of that over time, so I think it is oils oxidizing). As a bowl of cooked grain, millet is quite nice, though bland (and lacking the bitter after taste again pointing to an oxidation on long standing time in the flour). I’m hoping to find sorghum is in the same flavor profile or better.

Having a choice for either 60 day millet or on up to 120 day sorghum with high drought tolerance in both gives many more choices as to “what can I plant now?” decisions. For example, I have some squash that I’m harvesting now (first one was lunch Memorial day!). As more come on line and become prolific, with some of these aging out, I might want to try planting something else in, say, July. Now July in California is generally hard core hot and dry. While this year has been overcast and cool a lot – today no exception and even a mention of a drizzle of rain possible… in June… in California(!) – I’d not want to count on that in “bad times”. Being able to put in a heat and drought tolerant grain for harvest in about September is an interesting alternative. Similarly, being able to have Millet “in” at about March, harvested about now, and start Sorghum in June 1 for later hotter dryer harvest, would be a ‘neat trick’. The millet would be natural rain watered, and the sorghum might be watered to start it, but then the large plants and deep roots can go mine water from deeper in the soil stack.

So simply as a more flexible grain choice in ‘bad times’ and for being able to extend more into hot and dry (vs cold and short for barley and buckwheat) means that you can ‘be ready’ for a lot more alternatives.

Next step for me is that bottle of sorghum syrup, bag of sorghum flour, and maybe a pound of sorghum grain from Whole Foods. No reason to plant a bunch of this stuff if I’m not fond of eating it. So “test first”, then plant…

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Emergency Preparation and Risks, History, Plants - Seeds - Gardening and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Sorghum – An Interesting Useful Plant

  1. Quail says:

    Hi Chiefio,

    Sorghum is a perennial here in Livermore and should do fine in San Jose. A small planting will yield very heavily in Sept. over and over even in the cooler summers. It starts growing very late each spring. Ours is green all winter and a low rosette of leaves this time of year. It will start growing taller in a few weeks, then really take off in August. Honey drip, a red seeded one, is ignored by local birds until the desperate depths of winter. A friend planted a light colored one and got raided very early on. Chickens and rabbits do not care for it and will eat everything else before gnawing on the plant leaves and stems.

    Also, in another post, you mentioned sweet potatoes. I plant starts out in March surrounded by water bottles and a floating row cover in a spot with only half a day sun. Even with the cool soil start and some really rotten weather, they are outgrowing the ones planted a month later in warmer weather. Next year I hope to start in February using a low hoop house, water bottles and the row cover so maybe I’ll get bigger roots. The largest I’ve grown was 8″ long but rather skinny. Rabbits and chickens will do all they can to invade the garden for the leaves.

    Glad you are blogging again!

  2. p.g.sharrow says:

    @Quail, I would caution about very early starting sweet potatoes. I went in that direction early on in My growing them and wound up in getting a lot more long skinny roots and smaller tubers. Now they are among the last things I plant as cuttings or slips in early June or like NOW! They don’t like cold soil and love hot weather.
    Earlier, while learning, I started plants in the green house and set them out in the spring, also planted slips much later as I ran out of started plants. The started plants grew much faster in the spring BUT produced great amounts of green tops and ropey roots that ran deep. The later planted slips seemed slower until late summer and then really took off and produced a bunch of heavy tubers that were shallow. I think the trick is, they fill the earlier grown roots during the surface growth spurt in the late summer as they bloom. If they are later planted, slips or cuttings, the early roots are few and shallow. A well set plant will have a solid nest of tubers just under the plant. Almost like a semi closed hand’s fingers under your wrist. After a dozen years of practice, I am still learning, some plants produce Great tubers and others next to nothing. And gophers Love them. I grow Reds, Yellows and Whites, some tubers are as large as my forearm. My favorite planter for sweets is a 60 gallon plastic barrel with a few 1/2inch holes in the bottom, 2/3 full of garden soil, nothing special. The soil warms early, drains well, takes up less space and is gopher proof! To dig in the fall as the foliage dies, just knock over the barrel. Works on regular potatoes as well, but plant Them EARLY, as soon as the frost is gone out of the soil. Sweets like soil on the warm dry side, regular potatoes cool and damp. Have fun playing in the dirt!. pg

  3. Quail says:

    @PG Thank you for the information. Do you think that it would work if I took cuttings now from the early, leafy plants or would it be too late? I could turn the early ones into feed for the rabbits. Have you tried the warm hay bale plus nitrogen method? Do you think it is a cool soil response or day length?

  4. p.g.sharrow says:

    @Quail; I take cuttings from growing plants. 4 to 6 inches long, remove all the leaves except the newest one and the tip, Plant all but the end and tip. Most plants root best from a node, so you should plant 2 nodes in the ground. Water well at least once after planting. My guess is maturity is length of day triggered to start blooming as well as tuber filling in late August or early September, so you need about 120 days of warm weather. I harvest in late October as the cold weather and rainy season starts. Sweet potatoes ROT in cold wet soil! They need to be dug and cured dry before they will keep well. pg

  5. Quail says:

    @PG Thank you very much! :)

  6. Chuckles says:

    Nice article E.M., the size of US production is interesting. I’m more familiar with it in the African context where it is a firm staple in many diets. Much used to produce a beer, and also as a breakfast porridge. This has a nutty/chocolaty flavour which is a bit of an acquired taste, but one that many acquire.

    I ate great quantities as a child, and much preferred it to the more prevalent maize or corn meal. Although both were much improved when farm produced and coarse ground, rather than the finer milled commercial products.

    And p.g. see if you can find some madumbis. They are a ‘cousin’ of the potato or sweet potato, very unpromising and unassuming in appearance, as they’re a hairy striped brown-grey colour…
    They’re usually cooked by boiling for 20 mins to half an hour, and skinned once cooked, at which time they’ve turned a pasty to dark grey colour. Like many of these vegetables they are toxic if eaten raw or under-cooked (oxalic acid, I think).
    Normally served with some salt and butter, the flavour is however delicious, and well worth it if you can find them

  7. Brad says:

    I didn’t read the entire post but Sorghum is used to make Gluten Free Beer. I’ve tried it. I don’t like it. But it’s an alternative.

  8. @Quail:

    Thanks for the insight on sorghum “near here”. I’d had a small one that had overwintered and looked like it would be perennial, then went to Florida and someone decided that “clean up the garden” meant “rip out everything including the perennials”… and it was gone. (Along with a 5 year old Avocado Tree I was growing from seed… ) Oh Well…

    I’ve got some red seeds from the bird seed mix that I may start just to have some going. Highly colored seed usually has more lectins and polyphenolic compounds that make it taste “less good”. This keeps critters away more, but also makes some people less fond of it. I usually grow very strongly colored seeds for my “preparedness seed pack”, and white ones for the spouse to eat…

    Knowing the local birds strip the white ones will save me about a year of finding out ;-)( Thanks!

    I never really stopped blogging, just slowed down a lot when living on the road, and then in rental property in Florida with “catch of the day” internet access… But yeah, volume is up more now. Still working on getting fully back into gear. I’m still somewhat “bi-coastal” at the moment and have a load of stuff in the “digs” in Florida still. (Frankly, hoping I can land another job there and just head back…)


    Good stuff on Sweets. I put one in a tub of water to sprout. I think the cold coastal effect we’ve had lately and the office not being heated at night was too cold ( we’ve been getting 50 F nights); even sitting in the window sill it decided to rot. Guess I need to find where my seed warming mat has gone off to ;-)

    @Chuckles & Brad:

    I’m fond of nuts and chocolate! (But the one time I bought some Sorghum beer at Whole Foods I deeply regretted it… “Needs Work” was not strong enough a statement… Don’t know if that’s a generic issue, or just that brand…)

    Taro root is the common name for madumbis in the USA. It’s incredibly widely grown. Oxalate crystals if in quantity and large can cause a burning sensation in the mouth. Absorbed oxalate contributes to kidney stones and some other maladies. As the spouse had a calcium oxalate stone, we use a low oxalate diet most of the time (though I occasionally make spinach just for me… as I rather like it… Oh, and I get all the chocolate ;-)

  9. p.g.sharrow says:

    @EMSmith; Never had any luck with sprouting sweet potatoes in water. Generally I use damp sand or potting mix and some warmth. house temperature 70F+ should be ok, 60F or less they are very reluctant. Warmth is more important then moisture. Commercial sweet potatoes are often treated with a sprout inhibitor much as regular potatoes are. So look for active “eyes” for your next attempt. Inhibited potatoes “eyes” look shriveled or dessicated.
    I have large growing plants in the dug out greenhouse that are over 2 years old. They did not like the cool damp winter climate of the greenhouse. Lower then 50F for an extended period was Not to their liking, they lost most of their leaves, but they did resume growing after warming up over 60F. pg

  10. E.M.Smith says:


    I’ll likely just pick up a couple of “runts” at the local Organic Grocery and stick them in the garden once night temps are consistently over 60 F. I’ve got too many other irons in the fire right now to do much more than that… (Still have 5 squash in pots I’ve not set out, that need it…)

  11. Chuckles says:


    Yes, sorghum beer is definitely an acquired taste in the African version, and not a taste you really want to acquire :)
    The African version is usually an ahem.. interesting as it’s made from steeped malted sorghum, usually as a sour pinkish opaque liquid, which keeps fermenting in the packaging…

    That said, it’s VERY nutritious, and full of starches, vitamins, yeast and the like, and usually between 1 and 8% alc, so if survival is the name of the game, useful to know, even if it’s not going to be taking any gold medals anytime soon.

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