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Sorghum technical conference brings researchers to Amarillo


VARIETY SELECTION--Tour participants listen as sorghum breeder Fred Miller, of MMR Genetics, explains some of the data from sorghum variety trials at Richardson Seeds. (Journal photo by Jennifer M. Latzke.)

Researchers from around the country gathered in Amarillo in mid-August to discuss innovations in the sorghum industry.

The Great Plains Sorghum Conference, in conjunction with the Sorghum Improvement Conference of North America, brings some of the country's leading researchers together to discuss genomics, biotechnology, and other projects over two days of presentations and field trips.

One such researcher was Lloyd Rooney, professor at Texas A&M University, who was presenting some of his research into sweet sorghum advancements. He explained that sorghum can be used as a dedicated bioenergy crop either as fuel for electrical plants, or in a thermochemical conversion such as to create biofuels. While it may not be practical, as yet, to grow sweet sorghums strictly for the bioenergy industry in the Texas Panhandle, Rooney explained that researching the genetics of sweet sorghums may allow for advancements in other sorghum varieties.

Rooney and his team look to hybrid development of sweet and energy sorghums.

"Sweet sorghums are grown for their soluble sugars in the stalk," he said. "Energy sorghums are grown for their lignin and biomass."

Sweet sorghums may never take off in temperate climates because of the lack of infrastructures to handle the crop, he said. "It's capital intensive to process sweet sorghums," Rooney added.

Energy sorghums are more in tune with the U.S., he explained. He and his team are looking at breeding sorghums that are more drought-tolerant, or have greater flexibility in their water usage, or respond later in the season. While cellulosic ethanol isn't as efficient or prevalent of a process today, Rooney and his scientists are working to improve energy sorghums so that they are available for producers when the time comes.

The competition between sorghum and other cellulosic crops, such as switchgrass, will come down to return on investment, Rooney explained. As cellulosic ethanol plants come online and the demand for cellulosic feedstock grows, producers will have to decide if they have the time and money to invest in a crop that may not return a profit for five or 10 years, rather than a perennial crop that allows them planting flexibility.

The highlight for many researchers were the afternoon field trips to Advanta Seed's nursery near Hereford, or Richardson Seeds, Ltd., and MMR Genetics facility near Vega. The tours also stopped by two local dairies in the area that use forage or grain sorghums in their feed rations.

At Richardson Seeds, the group was treated to a tour of the research plots and some of the interesting projects the company has set up to improve its sorghum varieties. Richardson is an international leader in sorghum breeding, with nurseries in Puerto Vallerta, Mexico, and Argentina, as well as its Vega location.

Fred Miller, sorghum breeder for MMR Genetics, showcased the facility's new "dark house" that it has built with cooperation of the United Sorghum Checkoff Program.

Miller explained he had always wanted a greenhouse facility at the Vega location, but that it was impractical with the climate of the Texas Panhandle. The dark house, though, is a building that researchers can use to control the temperature, light, and other production inputs to evaluate variety performance. The shed has a complete air conditioning system to control the ambient temperature and carbon dioxide exchange. A special lighting system simulates dawn, daylight and dusk, as well.

"This allows us to grow sorghum any time of year, and evaluate photoperiod sensitive sorghums for conversion programs," Miller said. A new crop of varieties can be evaluated every three months, and those varieties deemed worthy of advancement can then be planted conventionally at the Vega location or the Argentina location.

The newly formed United Sorghum Checkoff Program helped sponsor some of the day's events. Jeff Dahlberg, research director for USCP, explained the checkoff board has a goal of supporting more field days and events such as this to promote the industry. "We consider field days that showcase over-the-top weed control, and forage and bioenergy sorghums, and yield trials to be valuable tools," he said. The research goals for the checkoff are simple--to meet the needs and wants of the producers who support the checkoff program. The board is looking at research proposals that cover everything from over-the-top weed control, to increasing yields, to boosting water efficiency in the crop.

Most important for the future of the crop, Dahlberg said, will be researching new uses for sorghum to make it a visible crop to the general public. He explained that wheat, soybeans, corn and other crops have a more visible presence on the dinner tables of Americans, and that sorghum needs to follow their example.

"The American consumer needs to realize that sorghum is more healthy for them and, when they do that the interest in the crop will rise and the price for sorghum will rise as well and trickle down to the farmer," Dahlberg said.

Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached by phone at 620-227-1807 or by e-mail at jlatzke@hpj.com.



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