The race to produce renewable fuel crops in California is looking like back to the future.

Grain sorghum, a crop that once was planted on almost 500,000 acres in the state, but has now almost disappeared, could make a comeback as a feedstock for ethanol and high-grade biofuel production.

About 100 growers showed up for presentations by two of California’s most respected agricultural companies and a global sorghum seed producer. Organizers hope to convince growers to plant as many as 30,000 acres of grain sorghum in the San Joaquin Valley this year to feed the Central Valley’s corn-fed ethanol plants.

Wilbur-Ellis Co., one of California’s leading marketers and distributors of agricultural products; JD Heiskell and Company, a 126-year-old grain and commodity trading business based in Tulare, Calif., and Chromatin, Inc., headquartered in New Deal, Texas, a sorghum seed supplier for more than 40 years with products planted to more than 3 million acres, believe grain sorghum can make a California comeback. Bet on a free lunch — some growers share their beliefs.

According to Roger Price, Heiskell vice president, it could be a huge grain sorghum comeback — 54 million bushels worth or 380,000 acres of production. It likely will never be that big. Fifty-four million bushels is the amount of grain corn California’s three existing ethanol plants utilize to produce about 150 million gallons of ethanol per year. Virtually all the corn is imported from the Midwest.

(See related: Photo gallery: Grain sorghum ready for California comeback)

Using a 56-pound bushel weight and an average yield of 4 tons per acre, it would take 380,000 million acres of grain sorghum production to replace all that corn.

Okay, that’s far-fetched, yet, according to the organizers of the information meeting, those ethanol plants will buy all the grain sorghum California producers can grow.

“Grain sorghum can be used as a drop-in replacement 100 percent for corn. There is no downside to grain sorghum in ethanol production,” Price told growers at the Modesto, Calif., gathering. With the price of corn and reports of a shortage of corn for ethanol, the upside of grain sorghum is shooting up.

The persistent drought has made corn so scarce that 20 of the nation’s 211 ethanol plants have stopped production over the past year.

The U.S. has the capacity to produce 14.7 billion gallons of ethanol from 211 refineries.

California is the nation’s largest ethanol consuming state using more than 1.3 billion gallons of ethanol annually.

California’s grain sorghum production peaked in 1967 when the acreage hit 451,000 acres. It fell to 9,000 by 1989 when USDA/NASS quit reporting acreage. 12,000 acres were planted in 2000, and it peaked at 47,000 in 2008, but the majority of that was for silage. It is no longer reported by NASS.

Grain sorghum growing in U.S.

Price said Heiskell had to search high and low for grain sorghum locally for an ethanol plant to make a trial run with. “We found one field of grain near Bakersfield.”

However, grain sorghum use for ethanol production is growing in the U.S., according to John Fulcher, director of business development for Chromatin. Approximately one-third of the U.S. sorghum crop is now used for ethanol production.

He says 14 of the nation’s ethanol plants use grain sorghum as a feedstock. Most of these are in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas Nebraska, Colorado and South Dakota. However, 95 percent of U.S. ethanol is still made from corn. The National Corn Growers Association estimates that 39 percent of the U.S. corn crop is used in ethanol production.

Grain sorghum, or milo, is discounted in California against corn because it is not as palatable as corn for livestock and dairy feed. Corn is easier to steam and roll to make it more digestible for livestock.

“You cannot really flake milo very effectively, and that is why there is a steep discount. It would be better to run it through an ethanol plant and utilize it as feed as distillers grain to make it viable for livestock feed,” said Price.

The promoters of a new grain sorghum age for California now see the state as “sweet spot” for grain sorghum because of the growing shortage of available irrigation water and the need for a crop to maximize what is available. Increasing problems with saline soils and the ethanol plant demand are two more reasons why organizers believe sorghum can make a comeback. It could be a single crop or a double crop behind wheat.

Meeting organizers said wheat growers in Kansas and Oklahoma can get 3 tons of grain sorghum per acre behind wheat. The growing season there is considerably shorter than in California, presumable offering greater yield potential here. It can also be a good rotation crop after cotton or vegetables.

Water friendly

Grain sorghum is drought tolerant and uses less water than corn, about a third less according to some reports.

“It is a non-food substitute for corn with much lower inputs than corn — $100 to $200 per acre less,” said Fulcher.

However, milo cannot compete with high yield corn on very fertile row crop land. Fulcher says Chromatin is encouraging growers with low fertility soil or limited water supplies to try grain sorghum.

“Sorghum was really big 30 years ago, but it faded away. It can come back with the water issues and salty ground in the state,” Price said.

In a “grower economics chart” handed out at Modesto, 3.36-ton grain sorghum was more profitable than 3.64-ton corn, 26-ton corn silage and three-bale cotton, all yields consider relatively low.

Pricing grain sorghum at $228 per ton; corn at $232 per ton; corn silage at $40 per ton and cotton at $385 income per acre, Chromatin professes that sorghum comes out ahead because of its lower growing costs, mainly for seed, herbicides and pesticides. According to Chromatin, 3.36 tons per acre of grain sorghum would net $245 per acre versus less than $200 for each of the other three crops.

“At 4 tons per acre for corn, sorghum is a good alternative with a better net return,” Fulcher said.

Heiskell is contracting for No. 2 grain sorghum at 14 percent moisture for eight delivery points in the valley. The plants targeted for grain sorghum delivery are Pacific Ethanol’s facility in Stockton; Aementis plant in Keyes and the Calgren operation at Pixley.

Jeff Dahlberg, the new director of the University of California Kearney Ag Center in Parlier, is leading sorghum research in California using sorghum industry check-off funds. Dahlberg earned his doctorate at Texas A&M University on the subject of sorghums.

“Drought tolerant does not mean no water,” Dahlberg. To achieve maximum yields with limited water, he said it is imperative to provide the plants plenty of irrigation during the first 30 to 35 days of growth. Without sufficient water at panicle differentiation, Dahlberg said a grower can lose half his yield potential.

“Nitrogen use levels should be based on yield goals,” he says. “If you put down only 50 pounds of nitrogen, don’t expect 150-bushel sorghum. It’s not going to happen.

“You can really push grain sorghum, but you have to use nitrogen to do that. A common mistake in the sorghum belt is under fertilization,” he said. “Yes, sorghum uses fewer inputs, but we are basically talking about less water.”

Market has arrived

The experts say plant to a desired plant population, not seeds per acre, since seeds per pound can range from 13,000 to 22,000. There is a wide range of populations based on variety and time of planting. There is a wide range of maturities in available varieties depending on how a grower wants to produce it as a single crop or double crop.

And, don’t plant with a grain drill; use a conventional planter.

The recommended range can be anywhere from 45,000 to 95,000 plants per acre depending on the variety maturity rating, according to Scott Staggenborg, director of technical services for Chromatin. He added grain sorghum will grow in high pH conditions.

Price said the stalks left after the heads are harvested can make good roughage for non-lactating dairy animals. It can be windrowed and baled.

Overall, Price said he has received favorable responses from growers who would like to grow grain sorghum, but up until now there hasn’t been a market to sell it.

“I saw a lot of ground between Fresno and Bakersfield that was not planted last year where grain sorghum would work,” said Price. “I am optimistic we can get the 30,000 acres.”

Almost all the ethanol produced in the U.S. is conventional ethanol made from corn starch. Critics of the ethanol industry complain that too much corn is routed to energy production, resulting in higher food prices for consumers. Corn affects food prices in multiple ways because it’s a widely used ingredient in food manufacturing and it’s used to feed livestock.

More grain sorghum going to fuel production is unlikely to spark the same complaints, because it is not the main ingredient in a number of foods.

Giving a boost to grain sorghum for fuel, the Environmental Protection Agency recently concluded that ethanol made from grain sorghum can qualify as an advanced biofuel — if it’s made at plants with the proper green technology. Advanced ethanol commands a higher price than conventional ethanol, said Chris Cogburn, strategic business director for the National Sorghum Producers.

Corn ethanol is considered a conventional biofuel with higher greenhouse gas emissions than advanced biofuels.

Advanced biofuels have life cycle greenhouse gas emissions that are at least 50 percent less than baseline GHG emissions. Advanced biofuels result in less lifetime greenhouse gas production than conventional biofuels, measuring from the time a crop is planted to when the fuel is burned in a vehicle.

Corn option

The only advanced biofuels in the United States now are sugar cane-based ethanol imported from Brazil and domestic biodiesel, a mixture of petroleum diesel and renewable sources such as soybean oil, said Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association.

A bushel of grain sorghum produces as much ethanol as a bushel of corn. Sorghum (dried distillers grains with solubles) DDGs, a co-product in the starch-to-ethanol production systems, tends to be lower in fat and higher in protein than corn DDGs.

In an article in Ethanol Producer magazine, Chromatin reported it had conducted a successful grain sorghum trial for both a California ethanol producer and new sorghum grower. Using sorghum seed provided by Chicago-based Chromatin, L and R Mussi Farms of Stockton, Calif., produced 40 acres of sorghum that was delivered to Pacific Ethanol’s plant in Stockton.

"During the third quarter, Pacific Ethanol used sorghum for approximately 30 percent of the feedstock at our Stockton plant,” Neil Koehler, Pacific Ethanol CEO was quoted. “Blended with corn, sorghum has similar conversion properties to corn and produces even lower-carbon ethanol."

With farming in the Central Valley dependent upon irrigation, sorghum’s agronomic requirements are a plus for growers as well. “We were pleasantly surprised by sorghum’s flexibility. It’s a high-yielding, easy-to-grow crop regardless of environmental conditions, and it uses less fertilizer and less water than corn,” said Rudy Mussi, co-owner of Mussi Farms.

Advanced ethanol made from sorghum would give the nation another option, as it aims to meet the federal goal of producing 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels per year by 2022.