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Sorghum: An economical forage for dairy producers

Jenny Hightower Published on 30 June 2010

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This article was #12 in PDmag's Top 25 most-well read articles in 2010.

Summary: Described in this article as a nutrient-rich, water-sipping, high-yielding crop, forage sorghum is becoming a popular ingredient in dairy rations. Jenny Hightower of the United Sorghum Checkoff Program explained the benefits of sorghum and how to incorporate it into a herd’s diet.

Because this article was so popular, we asked Hightower a follow-up question:

Q. On the PD Facebook page , a reader commented on this article: "With feed prices so high, I've been saying sorghum is an economical forage for the last three years." Is this a true statement? And why?
A . According to Texas AgriLife Extension Economist, Steve Amasson, forage sorghum is a drought resistant forage that can yield similar milk production to corn in dairy cows when using high quality varieties and managed properly. However, its profitability compared to corn is based on variables. For a dairy producer who lives in a dry region, where water is limited, forage sorghum is without a doubt a very economical feed. Forage sorghum requires lower input costs because it requires less water and seed costs are much lower.

“When water is scarce, sorghum is a great alternative to corn because it uses less water,” Amasson said.

Sorghum produces more forage per unit of water and is often more economical to produce. This makes sorghum an excellent choice for dairymen who are looking for a hearty, water-sipping forage.
Jenna Hightower, communications coordinator, United Sorghum Checkoff Program


Click a link below to read other articles in the Top 25:
Running out of time: U.S. must become a global dairy supplier http://bit.ly/PDTop25_13
Should I exit the dairy industry? http://bit.ly/PDTop25_14
Crossbreeding study participants share observations, opinions: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_15
Every herd has metritis: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_16
World Dairy Expo video: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_17
5 Things I can't do without: Darin Dykstra: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_18
Let's agree on a few things about MPCs: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_19
Oregon State cows monitored 24-7: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_20
Brubakers find many benefits with methane digester: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_21
How to adjust rations to incorporate BMR corn silage: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_22
Time to reclaim animal well-being as our issue: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_23
3 open minutes with Doug Maddox and Gary Genske: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_24
3 open minutes with David Martosko of HumaneWatch: http://bit.ly/PDTop25_25

ARTICLE

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We have all heard that happy cows come from California, but what exactly do happy cows eat? Just in the last 10 years, researchers have learned that sorghum can offer the same nutrients and benefits to dairy producers as corn. Forage sorghum is a nutrient-rich, water-sipping, high-yielding crop that offers essential nutrients for optimal milk production.

Eddie Schaap, a dairy producer from Clovis, New Mexico, said that even in years when he has fed higher percentages of sorghum than corn, he has never noticed a difference in his milk production.

“Sorghum is less expensive to grow and produces the same amount of milk,” Schaap said. “When water is limited, sorghum produces a good crop where corn can’t. The varieties we have today are getting better and better.”

Proper management
Brent Bean, researcher at the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Amarillo, Texas, said that sorghum is valuable to dairy producers because of its drought-tolerant traits and nutritional benefits.

“We recommend sorghum to dairies interested in conserving water,” Bean says. “The selection of variety becomes very important in dairy production because the nutritional quality has to be very high. When you get the right variety, it has a lot of nutritional value to dairy farmers.”

Studies at the Texas AgriLife Research Station, near Bushland, Texas, compared forage sorghum types and varieties for water use efficiency, standability, yield and nutritional value. Although studies have found that both brown mid-rib (BMR) and non-BMR varieties can produce high-quality silage, BMR sorghums are of particular interest to researchers because of their low lignin content.

Reduced lignin results in a higher percentage of the fiber content of the forage being digested. However, because less lignin potentially can lead to an increase in plant lodging, BMR sorghums require careful attention and management.

The Bushland studies determined that a timely harvest is essential in producing quality silage. Forage sorghum should be harvested when the whole-plant moisture content is between 63 percent and 68 percent. In grain-producing forage sorghums, the correct moisture content is generally present when the grain has reached the “soft dough” stage. This stage occurs after the liquid inside the grain has changed to a dough-like substance, yet is still soft enough to be mashed between the fingers.

Recent research conducted by our program discovered that many dairymen are misinformed about the role sorghum can play in their rations. For this reason, our organization has compiled sorghum feeding guides that are directed specifically towards producers in the dairy industry.

“We want to inform dairy producers of the benefits that sorghum can offer,” says Sue Ann Claudon with the checkoff program. “The goal of these feeding guides is to put the information in front of the end users and show them how to use forage sorghum, grain sorghum and sorghum DDGs effectively.”

Nutritional benefits
Robert Hagevoort, a dairy extension specialist at New Mexico State University’s Agricultural Science Center in Clovis, New Mexico, says that if sorghum is processed correctly, it has the potential to have similar energy to corn silage.

“When grown correctly it will have similar energy and fiber values, and you can use it in a milk cow ration with no problems,” Hagevoort says. “Harvesting and processing has a lot to do with the quality of silage you get. By harvesting at the soft-dough stage and chopping it before the grain gets too hard, the energy could be similar to corn silage. ”

To process sorghum for silage, the plant is chopped up at harvest and then processed through a crimper, which allows the maximum amount of carbohydrates to become available for fermentation and subsequently to the animals. The sorghum is then sealed off in pits or in large silage bags.

“Packing and getting a good seal is important in eliminating as much oxygen as possible from the forage in order to create the anaerobic environment that is necessary for the production of silage,” Bean says.

Hagevoort said that sorghum serves as an excellent risk management tool, as well. Sorghum does well in hot, dry weather in years when corn may not produce a quality crop. In areas where water is limited, sorghum is beneficial because a dairyman can yield more sorghum than corn per gallon of water under reduced irrigation conditions.

A green crop
Researchers have also found that for peak yield performance, sorghum requires approximately 30 percent less water than corn. Even so, watering during critical growth stages does increase yields.

In trials conducted at Bushland in 2003 and 2004, sorghum silage yield increased approximately three-quarters of a ton per acre for every inch of water provided to the crop. This included water stored in the soil, rain and irrigation.

Though he is feeding a smaller percentage of sorghum than in previous years, Schaap said he sees sorghum as a real advantage to dairy producers who are running short of water.

An economical option
From an economic perspective, sorghum is not only cheaper to grow, but it is also cheaper to plant.

Lawson Spicer, an independent dairy nutritionist from California, says dairy producers are starting to understand that there is a place for sorghum in their industry because of water shortages.

“The two main things about sorghum are to choose the right variety based on your location and what you’re feeding, and to process it properly,” Spicer says. “Sorghum is a very cost-effective feed when you consider that it is also higher in protein and is a very hearty plant. It grows well in difficult conditions so you’re more likely to get a good crop in hot, dry years than you are with corn.”

From an economic perspective, it is cheaper to plant sorghum seed than corn. According to 2010 Texas AgriLife Extension budgets, the cost of planting sorghum seed for silage production is $11.20 per acre while corn seed cost is $102 per acre.

New Mexico dairyman, Eddie Schaap, uses sorghum silage to balance his rations.

“You have to balance the ration with what the crops cost and what the grain markets are at the time,” Schaap says. “I like forage sorghum because it ensiles well, it mixes well and it’s easy to feed. Sorghum is also less expensive to grow and is very drought-tolerant.”

Schaap says even though sorghum fares better in dry weather, you still get more tonnage if you put a good supply of water on it. PD

The feeding guides mentioned in this article offer tips and methods to incorporate forage sorghum and grain sorghum into rations in the livestock industry. To request your copy of the Sorghum in Dairy Feeding Guide, contact Sue Ann Claudon at or call (817) 291-3237.

Jenny Hightower
Communications Coordinator
United Sorghum Checkoff Program

PHOTO : Forage sorghum is a nutrient-rich, water-sipping, high-yielding crop that offers essential nutrients for optimal milk production. Photo courtesy of the Sorghum Checkoff.

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