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Global trends in sorghum production

Sorghum is the fifth most produced grain globally and due to its inherent drought tolerance, short growing season, and relatively low cost of production, interest in growing the crop is increasing.

What is Sorghum?

Sorghum is a grass species crop similar in appearance to grain maize and is grown both as a forage crop for animal feed and a seed crop for food.

One species of sorghum called sorghum bicolour is an important crop grown worldwide, with a range of end uses including food as a grain or as sorghum molasses, feed for animals, and in the production of alcohol and biofuels.

How is sorghum grown?

Sorghum for grain can be grown in a similar way to corn, using commercial corn planters at a depth of 2-5cm and at a population of between 50,000 and 300,000 seeds per hectare depending on row spacing and soil fertility.

Sorghum likes the heat, requiring an average temperature of at least 25°C to maximise yield and thrives in daytime temperatures of at least 30°C, when many other temperate crops start to struggle.

The downside is that night-time temperatures below 13°C for more than a few days can really impact on the plants’ potential yield which limits the location and planting dates.

Sorghum is a competitive crop, particularly when planted in narrow rows, and does well to out-compete weeds.

It produces and releases a chemical compound from its roots, called sorgoleone, which inhibits the growth of the surrounding weeds, like a natural herbicide.

Where is sorghum grown?

By area, more than 90% of the world’s sorghum can be found in developing countries, mainly in Africa and Asia.

By production, the USA currently leads with an annual output of around 9 million metric tonnes, followed by Nigeria (6.9MMT), Ethiopia (5.0MMT) and Mexico (5.0MMT), India (4.5MMT), and China (3.6MMT).

Production by country is likely to change as farmers hit hardest by climate change and a reduction in rainfall look to replace maize with drought-resistant sorghum. 

How much sorghum is grown?

In 2019 the USDA forecast global production of sorghum will reach around 59 million metric tonnes.

Over the last seven years, global production has fluctuated between 57MMT to 66MMT.

Between 2013 and 2015, global demand for sorghum increased dramatically driven largely by China who began to buy US sorghum to use as livestock feed as a replacement for domestically grown corn.

Global demand and consequently production have fallen since 2015 to the current level.

 

What is the future for sorghum?

There are a number of issues that may influence the future use, demand and production of sorghum, here are a few key points:

Demand

 

Globally, China is expected to be a key driver in demand for sorghum as their feed sector starts using more of the crop as a lower-cost substitute for corn. 

Currently, over 80% of the sorghum imported into China is used to produce animal feed.

Climate change

 

Sorghum has a much higher (3X) tolerance to drought than corn.

Production will likely increase in regions that are experiencing an increase in drought as a result of climate change.

Sorghum has a smaller leaf to root ratio than other crops.

It also has an extensive root system, smaller stomata, a heavy wax layer, and specialised cells on the leaf to facilitate leaf curling under stress, all of which allow it to take up water and hold on to it more efficiently.

Gluten-free

An increase in the diagnosis of celiac disease has led to strong growth in the gluten-free market.

Sorghum is a key component in gluten-free foods.

Health food

Sorghum is a whole grain that provides many other nutritional benefits.

Sorghum has an edible hull (unlike some other grains) and retains the majority of its nutrients.

Medicinal properties

Some sorghums are high in antioxidants, which are believed to help lower the risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and some neurological diseases.

The wax surrounding sorghum grain contains compounds that may have a positive impact on human cardiac health.

Non-GMO Sorghum is bred using hybrid seeds and does not contain traits introduced through biotechnology, an important consideration in some markets.
Yield improvements

Globally, sorghum yields well below its potential.

The average yield of sorghum is often below 2.0MT/HA.

With improved varieties and agronomy, yields of 5.0-6.0MT/HA are readily achievable and yields in excess of 12MT/HA have been achieved.