Sorghum Marketing: Sorghum for Pet Food

The growing pet food market provides new value-added opportunities for sorghum farmers. As pet food industry demands change, it may open the door to new paw-sibilites for sorghum use.

Written by: Matthew Winterholler

It seems like every day brings a new use for sorghum, which provides unique opportunities. If you turn a bag of pet food over, you may just see sorghum as one of the ingredients, and this market continues to gain traction meaning more chances for sorghum producers to get in on the profit stream.

The use of sorghum in pet foods began over 30 years ago, long before the Sorghum Checkoff’s market development programs began. Now we are seeing the pet food market as a value-added opportunity for many sorghum farmers.

In 2020, the pet food industry will be worth $30 billion. With sorghum being used by 15 pet food companies and over 130 pet food products, demand for the grain by this growing industry has the potential to create an outlet for many producers to sell into.

John Williams, a sorghum farmer from Enfield, Illinois, has taken full advantage of that value-added opportunity by selling 100 percent of his sorghum into the pet food market.

“You’re looking at 60-70 cent difference between the price of corn,” Williams said, “and on ground that corn won’t make over 150 bushels. The milo is $85 an acre cheaper in terms of inputs and on seed cost savings. It’s a no-brainer.”

“Corn today is 50 cents under basis, and the milo today is 10 cents over,” Williams said on October 1. “But I sold my milo at 20 cents over.”

Williams first began selling his sorghum into the pet food market about 18 years ago after making the decision to include sorghum in his crop rotation to positively affect his bottom line.

“Our local elevator is Consolidated Grain and Barge,” Williams said, “and that was actually the one that developed the relationship with the Mars company. They’re shipping that to IAMS™ dog food.”

Producers who are hoping to sell at a premium into the pet food market can often take the same route as Williams, creating a relationship through their elevators with pet food companies or working with Sorghum Checkoff regional directors to find desired markets, pet food or otherwise.

The pet food market is primarily concentrated within the Southeast and Midwest regions, but with no requirements for variety of sorghum sold to pet food companies, any producer within those regions can tap into the potential price premiums. Often times pet food companies will take number two graded sorghum while offering other premiums for number one graded sorghum, said Brent Crafton, Sorghum Checkoff regional director.

Williams’ clear decision to sell into the pet food market also has science behind it, making the potential growth and opportunity of the pet food value-added market even more exciting.

Greg Aldrich, Ph.D., the research associate professor and pet food program coordinator at Kansas State University, worked for IAMS™ when the company first started utilizing sorghum in their rations in the late 1990s.

Aldrich said sorghum has not always been comparable to other grains in feeding, largely because sorghum studies were focused on production agriculture.

“When we start looking at sorghum use in pet food relative to the other grains, we have to remember in pets, we’re going through extensive processing,” Aldrich said. “We start to convert the starches that are in the sorghum to the point that it levels the playing field. We see sorghum can have the same kind of overall nutritional digestibility utilization to the other cereals.”

Even though companies like IAMS™ have been using sorghum in pet food for many years now, Aldrich still believes there is work to be done to market sorghum within the sector.

“We have yet to begin to really take and deconstruct sorghum to extract its full value,” Aldrich said. “There’s more stories to be written about the ingredient.”

“We have yet to begin to really take and deconstruct sorghum to extract its full value,” Aldrich said. “There’s more stories to be written about the ingredient.”

The last 15 years in the pet food industry have focused on grain-free, Aldrich said, and the demand for that is flattening out some.

“I think the market is looking for something new,” Aldrich said. “The next new thing may be ancient grains, and I see sorghum sitting in that category.”

With sorghum staking its place in pet food, Aldrich discussed brand-new products for pets, such as sorghum crisps or sorghum granola bars.

“Instead of using rice and some other components, we would be using sorghum crisps, whether red or white,” Aldrich said. “There are none of those products in the marketplace today.”

Outside of the arising opportunities in product development, the pet food industry offers incentives for sorghum farmers in terms of prices, as well.

The market that Williams and some of his neighbors sell into has treated them well, and Williams sees it as a place for expansion within the sorghum industry.

“I think it’s a very bright future, and I see the markets expanding,” Williams said. “I hope the markets keep arriving, and that pet food keeps expanding what they’re doing because it helps all of us.”

Product innovation will hopefully continue to drive demand for sorghum within the pet food industry, which will, in-turn, help sorghum producers with expanding market opportunities.

“Those people that put their effort behind it, the pet food industry typically rewards them with business,” Aldrich, K-State researcher, said.

While we may not know what the future holds, one thing is for sure: Aldrich and Williams agree it is bright for sorghum’s use in pet food, which could be positive for many producers’ bottom line.