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Bronze Beauty: Kansas State University research helps the growth of sorghum in Kansas, worldwide

By Pat Melgares

Each fall, a sea of bronze fills the Kansas landscape, from the most rural areas of the state to lush farm fields that are sometimes just a stone’s throw from Interstate 70 and the most heavily populated cities.

This is a hotbed for American sorghum, whose origins in Africa may contribute to its relative anonymity in the United States.

Also known as milo, sorghum is the beaded heads of the mature crop. The farther west you travel in Kansas, the more sorghum you’re likely to see because it is an ideal crop in areas where water is sparse.

“Sorghum is a very hardy, water-sipping crop, making it fitting for our harsh, unpredictable weather,” said Pat Damman, director of the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission.

“It also is gaining in popularity because of our growing export market. China has really made the world look at grain sorghum.”

Sorghum’s standing in the world’s agricultural economy is growing and increased funding for science is helping Kansas State University and other U.S. researchers study its uses for food, fiber and fuel.

Kansas: No. 1 in production

Kansas farmers grow the crop better than farmers in any other state. In 2014, Kansas ranked first in grain sorghum production in the United States with 200 million bushels grown — or more than 40 percent of the country’s total production.

“We rely on the drought tolerance of sorghum,” said Matt Splitter, who planted 750 acres of sorghum this year on his farm near Lyons, Kansas. “With sorghum, we are able to raise high yields even when we have long periods of drought and heat.”

Damman, who farms near Clifton, Kansas, noted that traditionally one-third of U.S. sorghum is used as livestock feed; one-third is used to produce biofuels; and one-third goes to the export market. But in 2013, the Gun Jen Juee Agriculture Trading Co. rocked the export market when it became the first Chinese company to import U.S. sorghum.

“In recent years,” Damman said, “nearly 80 percent of U.S. sorghum has been exported.”

“The demand for sorghum is at an all-time high because of the purchasing patterns of the export market,” said Florentino Lopez, executive director of the United Sorghum Checkoff Program, which has contributed $5.1 million since 2009 to the Kansas sorghum industry for research, market development and education.

Nutrition for the hungry

The beauty of fully mature sorghum is a stark contrast to the deprived, drought-stricken villages where the crop is a critical food product.

In the Mara Region of Tanzania, one of the most starved areas of the world, Kansas State University grain scientist Sajid Alavi is part of a research team working to improve child nutrition and health by providing a sorghum-soybean porridge blend to children under age 5.

The study is being conducted in partnership with Project Concern International, a humanitarian agency that combats food insecurity and poor health in 15 countries by promoting nutrition education.

“Sorghum as a staple crop is grown in this part of Tanzania and is something that is a known and accepted part of the diet,” said Michael Mulford, country director for Project Concern International in Tanzania.

“We saw this as an opportunity, in an area where sorghum is a common and drought-resistant crop, to look at its potential use in fortified foodblended products that help with undernutrition and are often part of supplementary feeding programs.”

Earlier this year, 2,000 children ages 6 months to 5 years and their mothers traveled up to 10 miles by foot to a central distribution point to receive the porridge blend. While the results of the five-month study are yet to be finalized, Alavi said the early indications are that children were healthier and grew at a more normal rate.

Many porridge blends — known as “uji” in Tanzania — are made of corn-soy blends. Sorghum may provide more long-term stability in this region because it can be grown in the dry, hot climate common to many parts of Africa where millions of people consider sorghum a staple in their diets.

“This whole project was started by our own sorghum farmers in Kansas and nationwide through the checkoff program and the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission,” Alavi said. “Through the checkoff program, farmers realize that the university’s work might help them in terms of creating more demand for their products, adding value and getting them better prices.”

Protecting the industry with science

In 2013, the U.S. Agency for International Development awarded Kansas State University $13.7 million to establish the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet.

The five-year project focuses on advancing the science of sorghum and pearl millet in semiarid regions of the world. The award was a huge boost to a university already well-positioned to conduct research on climate-tolerant crops.

USAID also recently awarded another $1.08 million to the lab, supporting a genomics-assisted breeding platform in Haiti.

“We’re confronting stresses to crops that we see elsewhere in the world before they get to the United States,” said Tim Dalton, the lab’s director and a professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University.

“Largely, the solutions that we’ve found at this time have been through exploration of genetic diversity around the world,” Dalton said. “That’s a huge benefit to the U.S. That’s why it’s important that we have researchers on campus who are involved in breeding for the Kansas sorghum community and who also are involved with international sorghum. They can take advantage of those genetic traits, where possible.”

In the 1980s, the tiny greenbug aphid became a giant pain to U.S. sorghum producers, causing economic losses in several states. But U.S. scientists dipped into the country’s germplasm stocks to develop host plant resistance and saved an estimated $389 million in economic losses for the nation’s farmers in 1989 alone — the equivalent of $750 million in 2015 dollars.

The new bully in U.S. sorghum fields is the sugarcane aphid, which in the past three to four years has pushed its way from Louisiana to Kansas, and more recently into the Rio Grande Valley in south Texas and northern Mexico.

Stocks of germplasm, originally from Africa, will help U.S. researchers develop varieties to combat the pest.

Research unlocks sorghum’s potential

Geoffrey Morris, an assistant professor of agronomy at Kansas State University, develops genetic tools that sorghum breeders use to create new varieties.

Traditional breeding techniques may require 12-15 years to develop resistant varieties of sorghum. Morris and his research team can cut that time in half by identifying genetic markers and developing genetic tools that breeders use to develop varieties with desired traits.

One project funded by the Sorghum and Millet Innovation Lab is developing genomic tools to accelerate marker-assisted breeding, as well as training West African students to develop drought-tolerant varieties for the Sahel, the dry savanna region south of the Sahara Desert.

Another project supported by the Kansas Grain Sorghum Commission is developing climate-resilient sorghum for Kansas farmers.

“We look for genetic differences that help plants cope with climate stresses, like limited availability of water and chilling stress early in the season,” Morris said.

'“Chilling tolerant sorghum would allow Kansas farmers to plant earlier and capture more of the moisture from early season rains,” Morris said. “It could increase yield by extending the growing season, and will give Kansas farmers more options for their rotations by having a sorghum season that matches the corn season.”

In Kansas, the work means that farmers like Splitter worry less about what they’re planting in their field.

“What I love about what Kansas State University does is that it solves problems that are real and applicable to what I do in the field,” he said. “When the research is being done 80 miles from my farm, 50 miles from my farm, or sometimes right on my farm, it’s more likely to help what’s going on here.”

Read the rest of Seek and see the PDF version of this story from New Prairie Press.