American Dairymen: Water-Efficient Sorghum Silage Provides Dependable Forage While Lowering Production Costs


Across the country, dairymen are discovering the next generation of sorghum hybrids can beat corn with high tonnage, digestibility, palatability and, most importantly, less water use and lower production costs. Dairymen looking to improve their forage solutions are turning to forage sorghum because of its ability to produce high quality feed that is cost-effective and water-efficient.

Chuck Grimes, a private silage consultant from Ulysses, Kan., works with many dairies throughout the United States that have incorporated sorghum into their rations. As a silage specialist, he helps dairymen determine the best cropping decisions for their forage needs. Grimes says he and his clients must consider all variables when looking to select the right crop. Recently, water availability has played an increasingly important role in these decisions.

“I have clients with irrigation wells that used to be able to pump 800 gallons of water a minute,” Grimes says. “Then the drought hit a couple of years ago and now they are only able to pump about half of what they once could. This was a real shock to some of the dairies I work with and at first they didn’t know how to react.”

Many of the dairies Grimes works with are located in areas that depend on irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer to provide the water necessary for crops. He says it doesn’t matter if the dairy is located in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas or Kansas; water availability has become a serious issue.

“A lot of the dairymen I work with are questioning how much water they are going to have available to grow a crop,” Grimes says. “It depends where you’re located, but the drought certainly has made corn silage production much more daunting and especially expensive. I’m seeing more growers using forage sorghum due to its ability to produce a dependable feedstuff with considerably less water than corn.”

According to Grimes, a variety of factors have caused corn silage production costs to rise drastically in some areas of the High Plains. He says he knows of dairies that have seen their silage costs double and in some cases triple.

“That’s one of the primary reasons why BMR sorghum silage becomes so appealing,” Grimes says. “You can save a third or up to half the water you’d need to grow corn silage and still get a high-quality feed with little to no tonnage lag compared to corn. I saw many circles in 2013 that were planted half corn and half forage sorghum, whereas those circles would have all been corn in the past.”

Sorghum’s Water-Sipping Efficiency

One of the greatest advantages of sorghum over corn is the excellent heat and drought tolerance. Sorghum provides a summer rotation that has proven to be profitable in the harshest conditions. According to independent research data, irrigated forage sorghums will yield 1.76 to 2.5 tons of biomass per inch of irrigation water, while corn produces less than 1.0 ton per inch of water applied. With rising energy costs and water conservation concerns across the US, sorghum with its high water use efficiency offers a viable economic and sustainable alternative to corn.

Sorghums tolerate significant moisture stress and will resume vegetative growth after drought-induced dormancy. Sorghums also have a very large and extensive root system capable of reaching soil profile depths of more than five feet. This large and efficient root system enables the sorghum plant to find water when other crops cannot.

With rising energy costs and water conservation concerns across the U.S., sorghum offers a viable economic and sustainable alternative to corn. A study by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service indicated that if producers in the Texas Panhandle converted irrigated corn silage acreage to a sorghum-based system, the region could save more than 400,000 acre-inches of water annually. This would lower the cost of irrigation pumping by $2.8 million. Likewise, a Regional Water Plan prepared for the Texas Panhandle Water Planning Group in Amarillo, Texas, found that the water savings over 50 years for 524,243 acres spread over 21 counties in the Texas Panhandle would amount to 7.36 million acre-feet of water if irrigated corn acreage were converted to irrigated sorghum. That’s an average of 147,200 acre-feet of water saved per year—about 48 billion gallons per year.

“The water use efficiency benefits of sorghum are not unique to Texas,” says Barry Lubbers, Alta Seeds director of sales. “Sorghum can help most producers in areas with water concerns reduce production costs without sacrificing tonnage or forage nutritional quality.”

Growers Converting Acreage to Sorghum

For Grimes, the idea of growing sorghum for silage is nothing new. He first started growing sorghum in the 1970s and regularly incorporated BMR sorghum hybrids into his feeding plans for a 4,000 cow dairy herd he managed for 8 years in Comanche, Texas. Forage sorghum hybrids have advanced quite a bit since he first started growing the crop, and Grimes thinks growers are taking notice.

“Over the years, interest began to shift away from sorghum in favor of corn, but now things are trending back to sorghum once again,” Grimes says. “I’m predicting sorghum silage will see an increase in acreage next year; and I think that its popularity will likely grow.”

Input costs can be considerably less with forage sorghum than corn. Independent studies show forage sorghum saves producers an average of $215 per acre in total production costs compared to corn silage.

“I’ve worked with several dairies that have opted to feed only BMR forage sorghum for a season and they were able to cut their costs without sacrificing milk production,” Grimes says. “Even on dry land, we’ve produced great tonnage with forage sorghum.”

Grimes strongly recommends planting sorghum silage with the BMR trait due to its high palatability and digestive qualities. He is also impressed by sorghum hybrids with the brachytic dwarf trait.
“You get lots of structural carbohydrates and good nutritional value with the BMRs,” Grimes says. “It’s remarkable how the reduced lignin content of the BMR forage sorghum improves ruminant stability. BMR-6 sorghums are a great forage option with roughly 50 percent less lignin than conventional sorghums for forage.”

“Several of my customers have grown Alta Seeds AF7401 forage sorghum which has the brachytic dwarf trait. It’s very leafy with a shorter stature that performs well. I’ve seen the AF7401 after strong winds come through and it really holds up well.”

Dairies From Coast to Coast Incorporating Sorghum

Forage grower Daniel Austin of Rocky, Mount, Va., has been growing forage sorghum and sorghum-sudangrass for 8 years. Austin grows the feed for his brother who runs the family’s 120-cow dairy. Austin is a fan of AF7401.

“We’ve grown a number of hybrids from Alta Seeds like the AS6402 sorghum-sudan and AS9301 sudangrass but the AF7401 forage sorghum is our clear favorite,” Austin says. “The drought tolerance and yield potential of the crop will amaze you.”

According to Austin, farmers in his area have faced significant drought pressure in recent years that has caused them to seek out alternatives to corn silage.

“There are lots of folks who have completely quit growing corn silage and grow nothing but forage sorghum in our area,” Austin says. “It replaces corn silage in their rations and it’s proven to be a successful alternative crop. Not everyone is familiar with forage sorghum but I often tell people that ‘Once you learn how to grow it, it will change the way you farm’.”

Gary Fernandes, who farms in the California Central Valley near Tipton, Calif., decided to try forage sorghum for the first time in 2013. Like Austin, Fernandes grows forages for his family’s 2,800-cow dairy and was looking for a crop that he could grow that wasn’t as water needy as corn.

“We don’t have the water restrictions yet that other dairymen have in other parts of the country, but it seems like that is only a matter of time,” Fernandes says. “We’ve noticed water supply contracts that haven’t been renewed and there have been talks about putting a moratorium on drilling new wells in our area. When you look at all the water concerns we have in California, it only makes sense to try planting a drought-tolerant crop like sorghum.”

“We only get about 7–8 inches of rainfall per year, so we were looking for something to replace corn silage,” Fernandes says. “This year we planted 50 acres of AF7401 forage sorghum from Alta Seeds as a test. Despite some aphid issues that had an effect on yield, we were still able to produce 20 tons per acre.”

Fernandes hasn’t had a chance to analyze his harvested sorghum silage to test its nutritional performance yet, but he is looking forward to the results.

“We think forage sorghum can give us a dependable crop that fits well with our double-cropping rotation,” Fernandes says. “The sorghum isn’t as susceptible to the elements as corn. It will stand up better to heat and drought while keeping our costs lower. It’s really a no-brainer decision.”

Grimes says it’s important for growers who have never grown forage sorghum before to work with their agronomist and nutritionist to make sure they have a good plan in place. He advises dairymen to take a similar approach as Fernandes did and experiment with a small plot their first year to familiarize themselves with the crop.

“I tell all my customers to look at the available hybrids for your area and test them to see how well they work on your farm. The dairymen who are willing to experiment and try new things are the ones most likely to survive in the long run.”

Alta Seeds — Leaders in Sorghum Genetics

“Sorghums have come a long way from what our fathers or grandfathers grew years ago,” says Jeff Dahlberg, director of the University of California’s Kearney Agricultural Research & Extension Center. “Those who haven’t grown sorghums in 20 years will be pleasantly surprised by the selection of hybrids and their quality. It’s to the point now that we can compete with corn silage on both quality and tonnage.”

Dahlberg has been working with sorghum in many capacities for a number of years. In the past, he’s served as research director for the National Sorghum Producers and the United Sorghum Checkoff Program. He also previously served as the USDA Agricultural Research Service curator for sorghum. Now Dahlberg is conducting forage performance trials with the latest genetics such as hybrids with the brachytic dwarf trait from Alta Seeds.

The Alta Seeds brand has been at the forefront of developing the most advanced genetics in sorghums for forage and it is set to deliver a new set of hybrids with its proprietary brachytic dwarf trait. Alta Seeds is introducing two new forage sorghum hybrids with the unique trait that offer early maturity for greater versatility. While forage sorghum hybrids with the brachytic dwarf trait have been available to growers since 2008, Alta Seeds is introducing the first early-season brachytic forages this winter. This opens up a number of options for growers including: planting in areas with shorter growing seasons, double-cropping and as a replacement crop for failed corn.

The brachytic dwarf trait reduces the distance between internodes (leaves) on a sorghum plant resulting in a short, stout plant that stands well and produces yields equal to taller plants. New AF7102 is the earliest maturing forage sorghum (85–89 days) with the multiple tillering brachytic dwarf and BMR-6 traits for excellent quality, palatability and digestibility. AF7202 is a new, medium-early (90–95 days) forage sorghum also with the brachytic dwarf and BMR-6 traits. Both hybrids are highly drought tolerant and excellent silage options.

“AF7102 and AF7202 extend the usefulness of brachytic forages to benefit farmers and ranchers in areas with short growing seasons or late plantings,” says Barry Lubbers, director of sales for Alta Seeds. “Additionally, the shorter maturities of these hybrids make them a viable option for growers interested in double-cropping or as an emergency forage for farmers looking to replant.”

Alta Seeds also is set to debut the first sudangrass hybrid with the brachytic dwarf trait to hit the market. AS9302 combines the stout stalks and excellent standability of brachytic forage with BMR-6 genetics for high nutritional quality plus the dry stalk trait for quicker dry down.

Capitalizing on the 40-year germplasm base built by the legacy seed companies of Advanta US, senior sorghum breeder Vicente Trucillo and his breeding team developed the brachytic dwarf BMR forages for commercial use in the United States and Argentina. Advanta has more than 20 breeding locations and labs around the world producing the hybrids carefully selected for the Alta Seeds product portfolio.

“Since we introduced the brachytic dwarf trait in sorghums for forage, it has become increasingly popular with growers,” says Trucillo. “Our brachytic sorghum hybrids feature leaf spacing of about an inch and a half to two inches versus every six inches on conventional forage sorghums. This results in a compact plant that produces multiple tillers and resolves the lodging issues of taller plants. Our new brachytic dwarf hybrids will feature these same attributes, packaged in a hybrid that can reach maturity faster, offering increased versatility and usefulness.”

The Alta Seeds forage hybrids offer dairymen an alternative to corn with high-quality, nutritious forage and lower costs and water requirements. Whether irrigated or on dryland, sorghum is a versatile crop that can be worked into any dairyman’s cropping and feeding plans.

About Alta Seeds

Alta Seeds is a brand of Advanta. Advanta is a global seed business that combines proprietary crop genetics and plant breeding capabilities with biotechnology to produce high-quality seed products and solutions for its customers around the world. Advanta is a member of the UPL group of companies.