Complex Factors Influence Shift to Sorghum Silage

A change in the economic picture, including nutrition, genetics and equipment, and increasing pressure on agricultural water supplies has led growers, dairies and feed yards across the Texas Panhandle to make a dramatic shift from corn silage for feeding rations to sorghum silage.

Article By Hannah Lipps

Growers, dairies and feed yards across the Texas Panhandle and beyond are in the midst of a dramatic shift from corn silage for feeding rations to sorghum silage. This shift is driven by an overall economic picture that includes nutrition, genetics and equipment, but mostly increasing pressure on agricultural water supplies.

Jerry O’Rear, President of MOJO Seeds is a long-time sorghum breeder and resident of the Texas Panhandle. While the picture is complex, he sees water as the driving force behind the shift to sorghum silages.

“None of these wells are pumping more than they used to,” he said. “And a lot of these dairies are doubling in size and using more feed. They know they can’t keep pushing toward corn in a water deficit area.”

Meanwhile, farmers are pushing back against end users who are accustomed to using corn silage because they do not have the water to support the crop year after year.

Chris Urbanczyk, a farmer in Deaf Smith County in the Texas Panhandle has been gradually shifting to sorghum silages for the past decade for use in his own feed yard as well as contracting to local dairies.

“As our water supply is going south, we have to come up with more alternatives that are efficient on water,” said Urbanczyk.

The switch to sorghum silage has been significant both for dairies and the farmers who sell to them, but each situation has its nuances.

“One of our dairies plants all his corners in premium Sudan grasses,” said Larry Richardson, president of Richardson Seeds. “Depending on the rain, they may get two or three cuttings and early or late rain can make multiple crops.”

“The question is, what can I grow with the water I have?” said O’Rear. “A lot of people grow a half circle of corn then sorghum silage on the other half, or some guys will put four circles on a section—one on corn and the other three on sorghum silage.”

They can shift the water, then, to meet the most pressing need.

Besides water, a number of other factors have also influenced the switch over the past decade.

Nutritionists have been one key—especially when they recognize the pressures on water supplies. They are more willing to explore adding sorghum to their rations.

O’Rear of MOJO Seeds is well positioned to understand what he calls the “phobia of starch utilization” among some dairy and feed yard nutritionists.

“Years ago,” he said, “sorghum silage was not digestible because it had too much lignin, and dairies also didn’t like sorghum because they couldn’t utilize the grain. That high tannin, small seed doesn’t break down, and the mills couldn’t process it, so the grain was coming out in the manure.”

Today, his company, along with other industry innovators, has developed products that come very close to the starch content of corn, between 25 and 35 percent. The grain in his product runs about 14 percent protein, 35-40 percent higher than other grain sorghum. Once in the silage pile, MOJO products clock in at 9 or 10 percent crude protein.

Meanwhile, MOJO hybrids boast a larger berry size and consumer demand has driven equipment advances like new choppers that do a better job of breaking down the grain so the animal can utilize the entire plant.

“The equipment companies developed this new equipment with some push from the dairies,” said Richardson. “The dairies and producers said, ‘We are running out of water. We need to grow sorghum, and we’ve got to have better equipment.’”

The result is a fully utilizable silage product that nutritionists are pleased to feed, and farmers are happy to grow.

“We can process 85-90 percent of the grain, and whatever you can’t process is soft after a month in the silage pit,” said O’Rear.

O’Rear said it is critical to get nutritionists on board with solid science.

“You have to work it from the back-end forward. You have to have a product that when dairies switch, you don’t cost them any milk,” O’Rear said. “Giving them something they can plant on all their acres and not just the water acres, that’s an easy sell. But if you’re costing milk, you’re fighting a battle you won’t win.”

He’s confident they have new products that hit that mark.

While the most dramatic shifts have been seen in the Texas Panhandle, Richardson says his sales profile suggests the opportunity is broader.

States with strict water regulations, like Nebraska for example, are shifting to sorghum silage in order to meet water benchmarks and maintain quality rations.

“The number of bags [of seed] we send to California has been steadily growing for several years,” Richardson said. “South Dakota is another state that’s figuring out how to utilize it.”

“The varieties out there are getting better,” said Urbanczyk. “They’re aphid resistant, have bigger berries, they process better and that makes the silage better.”

“Everyone has so many tons they need to feed and it’s just a question of how to get those tons,” concluded O’Rear. “We have very smart consumers, growers and stewards of the land.”