Saved by Sorghum: Farmers, ethanol plants turn to milo in rough year for corn

Source: By Janelle Atyeo, Tri-State Neighbor Editor • Posted: Tuesday, June 18, 2019

With farmers unable to plant corn this year, NuGen Energy is eager to take grain sorghum at its ethanol plant in Marion, South Dakota for the first time since 2016.

“If they can get milo in the ground, they definitely have a market,” NuGen CEO Robert Bauerle said Friday, as the post cash price for milo sat at $4.23 per bushel — not far off from corn at $4.52.

Milo — an old brand name now synonymous with sorghum — provides an option for a cash crop that can be turned into ethanol, sold as grain or chopped for livestock feed. It’s typically a crop favored in dry regions. During this wet year, farmers unable to get into their fields are turning to sorghum because it can be planted later than corn.

“It’s a drought-tolerant crop, but when you do have more water, it will respond to that water,” Bean said.

Kansas is the top state for sorghum, producing 193 million bushels a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census. Texas was No. 2 with 95 million bushels.

South Dakota farmers planted 152,525 acres to sorghum and harvested 9.28 million bushels, according to the census. Nebraska sorghum yielded slightly more — 9.5 million bushels from 116,000 acres.

The further east you go, the less popular the crop becomes. Minnesota produces less than 50,000 bushels a year, and Iowa’s yield is about half that.

That’s changing with the late planting season. Bean now takes sorghum-related calls from growers as far east as Illinois and Iowa, where it’s not widely produced.

“With some of the challenges with planting and weather, some of the eastern states are much more likely to plant sorghum. We’re excited about that opportunity,” said Tim Lust, CEO of the United Sorghum Checkoff.

NuGen was one of two South Dakota ethanol plants that announced bids for sorghum this week, along with Ringneck Energy in Onida. Lust expects more places to post bids, too.

Few elevators in South Dakota buy milo, but it is routine for the Gavilon elevator in Kimball. That’s where Matt Huizenga delivers his grain sorghum.

Huizenga is farm manager for Christiansen Land and Cattle and farms from Platte to north of Kimball and as far west as Reliance. He’s gradually increased sorghum acres over the last five years to about 1,200. It diversifies their crop rotation and helps split the workload in the fall.

“People think of milo as a secondary or drought crop,” he said. “I’ve found out by treating it as a cash crop it can be just as valuable to a guy as corn or soybeans.”

Milo is typically planted at Christiansen Land and Cattle in early May and harvested in time to follow with a crop of winter wheat. With planting season running late, Huizenga planted only forage sorghum this year. The forage quality is on par with silage corn, but the seeds cost less.

“It really helps us. Our feeding costs are lower,” he said.

Gavilon’s grain sorghum is used for ethanol and the bird seed market. Some is exported, though exports have slowed due to the trade war. Domestically, grain is commonly used for ethanol production where it’s grown en masse like in Kansas and Texas. Plants must be approved to use it in ethanol production through the Renewable Identification Number program. Switching from corn to milo requires some documentation, which is why NuGen steered away from using it after 2016.

“We don’t have that luxury at this point,” Bauerle said.

This season, he’s worried about securing enough corn to meet his plant’s needs. He’s expecting they’ll need to draw from a much larger area. Bauerle hopes that by buying sorghum, they’ll meet production needs and help local farmers at the same time.

“If you want to sell us milo, give us a call. We are definitely open to take it off your hands,” he said.