As drought and water issues continue to threaten forage production, the use of sorghums – which need less water than corn and survive in hot and dry conditions – is more than a growing trend. It’s a necessity, say several experts.

Although there’s a known sorghum belt from Texas to southern South Dakota, the crop is being boldly tested and grown in areas where it hasn’t been grown before.

Sorghum comes in several types that are used for several purposes.

Grain sorghum is utilized for animal feed in the U.S. and human consumption worldwide. Forage sorghum is grown for silage and greenchop, while sudangrass – yes, it is a sorghum – is used for hay, silage and grazing. To further complicate matters, hybrids of sorghum and sudangrass, appropriately called sorghum-sudangrass, can be cut for hay or silage or be grazed.

Then there’s sweet sorghum, grown for molasses or syrup production, and the new kid on the block, high-biomass sorghum, was recently developed for renewable bio-products.

But sorghums are attracting the most notice as livestock feed. The past 30 years, plant breeding has increased the crops’ yield, quality and digestibility. Equally important, half the water is needed to produce a ton of sorghum silage vs. a ton of corn silage, according to university studies. Some researchers are more conservative, saying sorghums are a third more efficient than corn.

Sorghums aren’t new. They “disappeared” in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, says Jeff Dahlberg, director of the University of California Kearney Agricultural Research & Extension Center.

“Now we’re trying to rediscover the crop in the state,” he says. “This is something we seriously have to look at as water is going to be a major limiting factor in a lot of our ag production. We are trying to introduce more of our producers to forage sorghums and grain sorghums.”

“Forage sorghum has traditionally been widely used in the South and Southwest,” adds Ricky Rice, Winfield Solutions’ forage product manager. “With some of the improvements, we’re seeing that market expand up into the Midwest and into other areas.”

The Upper Midwest helped increase sorghum sales last year when growers there needed a fast-growing, high-yielding forage to take the place of winterkilled alfalfa and grasses.

In the short growing season of the Northeast, even into southern Canada, sorghums can be grown as summer energy crops between winter forages such as triticale and provide “excellent” dairy feed. So says Tom Kilcer, an agronomist and former Cornell University Extension agent.

“We’re pulling off two crops on one acre,” says Kilcer, now an independent crop advisor at Kinderhook, NY. On ground that could produce 22-24 tons/acre of corn silage, he’s seeing 30-ton/acre yields from the triticale-sorghum double crop.

“We’re going to have weather that’s more like the 1930s (Dust Bowl); we’re going to have more variability, and we need to be able to consistently produce forage. By getting two crops instead of one, our risk is now spread out,” Kilcer says.