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USCP hosts seed tour in Texas Panhandle

By Kylene Scott

Chad Hayes of the Agricultural Research Service station in Lubbock, Texas, describes work he does in the nursery at the station. In order to protect the seeds from birds, samples are bagged and then nets are placed over to keep the heads in tact. Hayes works with John Burke, Zhanguo Zin and Gloria Burow. (Journal photo by Kylene Scott.)

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series about the United Sorghum Checkoff Program seed tour. The first part appeared in the Oct. 7 issue of High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal on page 1B.

Growers, state sorghum group leaders and a number of farmers visited ground zero for sorghum seed production in the Texas Panhandle Sept. 4 and 5 for the United Sorghum Checkoff Program seed tour. Both public and private breeding nurseries were visited, and stops included: Richardson Seed in Vega; NexSteppe and Advanta locations in Hereford; Pioneer’s research facility in Plainview; the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service station in Lubbock; and the Chromatin nursery in Idalou.

The main purpose of the tour was to expose leaders of the sorghum industry to various aspects of the sorghum seed sector, including research and development, seed production, marketing and sales.

Pioneer Seed

Compared to other seed companies on the tour, Pioneer was one of the largest. Shipping out numbers in the hundreds of thousands of units of seed—corn, sorghum, and soybeans among others, the plant near Plainview, Texas, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

“This year’s actually the biggest sorghum crop we’ve planted and hopefully get harvested here in the next couple of weeks or so,” Michael Subealdea of Pioneer said. “Weather’s really good this year. Pollination was excellent and we got some pretty good yields around here.”

The plant has several cold and warm storage units to house bags of seed, as well as totes, and employs 60 full time and another 63 part time when harvest starts. Although the only Pioneer sorghum plant in the program, the Plainview location handles a variety of other crops as well.

“We condition, treat, and pack sorghum; prepack corn, soybeans. Handle just about every crop through here,” Subealdea said. “A little bit of wheat; alfalfa inoculants; kind of run a little bit of everything through here. Kind of hand in hand with Cleve (Franks) and his folks.”

Cleve Franks handles all the sorghum breeding for Pioneer at the Plainview location, and he has about 45,000 nursery plots this year. He’s at the tail end of his herbicide tolerance tests and has been working with molecular markers for the resistance gene.

“Again, we’re testing these for their level of resistance and we’re testing these for their yield and agronomy,” Franks said. “It’s been an uphill battle. We’ve never had to deal with traits in sorghum before. Our corn brothers already know how to do that. It was a learning curve for us, but I think we’ve got it pretty well figured out if you can believe that.”

Having the work already done in corn is something that Franks has taken advantage of, especially at his location. Machinery and other technology help the sorghum program at Pioneer.

“Having the corn program here has been really good for us in sorghum,” Franks said. “Our plots are two rows wide (combines are four rows wide). So four rows might not seem like a big deal to some of you, but for us it doubles our efficiency because we were just going through a time with that.”

The sorghum program uses the corn program’s eight-row planter to speed up the process as well.

“That’s pretty much our philosophy, our approach to what we do within the sorghum program at Pioneer,” Franks said. “We leverage everything we can from the investment Pioneer does in corn. They’ve spent literally billions of dollars on corn research every year, and we—even if we get table scraps, those are pretty good table scraps.”

Franks said the sorghum program tries to emulate the work that has been done in corn in areas like molecular markers.

“Just in the last two or three years, our molecular marker budget has expanded exponentially,” Franks said. “We couldn’t even have foreseen this even a couple years ago.”

Software developments and programs have helped Pioneer succeed as well. Many of the technologies have become “plug and play.”

“I think that’s an advantage that we have over companies that don’t have that capacity in place,” Franks said. “What you’re seeing in that nursery and now in the yield trials is the first results of that effort.”

Agricultural Research Service

The ARS cropping systems research lab in Lubbock, Texas, has four research units: cotton production and processing; animal well-being; wind erosion, water conservation; and plant stress and germplasm development.

John Burke is the research leader for the plant stress and germplasm development. The sorghum program started in 2000.

“I didn’t even know what sorghum was,” Burke said.

It was an experience for Burke and his staff to go through and learn about sorghum over the years, but the National Sorghum Producers have been vital for the program’s development.

“They went to Congress and got money, permanent funds for us so that we could actually have a sorghum team, and now we have a very powerful sorghum team,” Burke said.

A number of permanent technicians help run the program, and checkoff funds help employ summer and wintertime workers to keep the program going during the off season.

“It’s getting bigger as time goes on, but right now we have interactions all over the place. It’s really nice to have,” Burke said. “There are a lot of talented scientists out there that have expertise that we don’t have. Our group is water and temperature stress and that’s it. We don’t do diseases.”

Because of the focus on water and temperature stress, other important issues are not overlooked, but instead Burke works to develop relationships with those who have expertise in other issues like disease and insects.

“There’s a lot of things that we don’t do, and so what we’re trying to do is work with a range of people and really develop a national team where we can go through and look at all aspects of the germplasm at the same time,” Burke said.

ARS’s goal is to discover things and pass them along. Once they started in 2000, it has taken a couple years before they really got going on sorghum. Eventually they started having material transfer agreements.

“This is where we’d invite people to walk our fields, if they like what they see, they send us a list of every plant they want,” Burke said. “We package it up, we ship it to them and they can use it in their breeding program.”

The relationships have gotten better as time went on, and now ARS has very close relationships with all the industry partners. Burke believes this is because of the help from the Checkoff.

ARS first started working with Chinese germplasm—150 lines. Work narrowed it down to 25 lines. Four made the cut by being able to germinate 80 percent or better at about 50 to 55 degrees.

“So it had to be cold, and these things had to germinate well and have good early season vigor,” Burke said.

Eventually the lines were released to the public. However, release doesn’t come without work.

“It takes seven generations to get these things developed, so we do two a year. We have this one gone; these two will go out the door in the next six months. They’re ready to go,” Burke said. “We have another new one. It’s in the field now and it’ll go out next year.”

The Chinese material has a lot of disease issues, and they are tall and spindly with feathery heads. This led them to look at other lines, specifically ones in Ethiopia.

“Ethiopia is nice because they have different elevations and you can find some from the highlands that maybe have some cold tolerance,” Burke said. “So we went through in the wintertime and did germination test on the entire Ethiopian collection.”

Replications were done, with the best 125 going to the fields. From there 25 lines looked promising.

This year happened to be a good testament for their cold tolerance, Burke said.

“We plant April first and we monitor on the 30th. But here (in Lubbock) April 10, we got a snow storm, and on the 11th after it melted, you can see the ones that were tall enough got nipped by the freeze,” he said.

But 20 days later, there were healthy looking plants, even with three different days in that time span 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

“So, we have some very good cold tolerance, and you can see pretty healthy looking plants. They’re not spindly. They’re pretty solid,” Burke said. “That’s one of the nice things with the Ethiopian lines that we like.”

ARS also works on two types of drought tolerance—pre-flowering and a post-flowering drought tolerance. They developed two other techniques in the lab—one looking for a sugar accumulation that can be sensed very quickly.

“This is the most exciting thing we’ve come up with,” Burke said. “Yes, this is an important compound for the whole process. It turns out stay-green lines have a lot of this and senescent lines have very little of it, and we didn’t know what it was.”


East of Lubbock near Idalou, Texas, Chromatin is working to improve sorghum, and only sorghum. The company has its research team, seed production and sales facility near Lubbock, but is headquartered in Chicago.

“We have sales internationally and sell sorghum to, I think, about 30 some countries,” Daphne Preuss, president and CEO of Chromatin, said. “Business is growing worldwide, but of course our focus is largely here in the U.S.”

Chromatin is making a very serious commitment to sorghum, she said, spending and investing in research—not only in breeding, but also in downstream uses.

“The company’s got a hundred percent focus on sorghum. So that’s all we do, and when you have that focus it really causes you to look at the crop in a broader and deeper way,” Preuss said. “We see a lot of opportunity here, and we’ve got a number of investors that back us, including oil companies like BP as well as private equity groups and we’re interested in sorghum because we see a lot of growth potential.”

Driving the process for Chromatin is water, and worldwide, a crop like sorghum provides a tremendous opportunity.

“As we look worldwide at the need for a crop like sorghum we see tremendous opportunity,” Preuss said. “That’s true whether we are looking at grains or forages or sorghum that’s used for new renewable energy reasons.”

Jeff Widder, vice president of seeds and president of Sorghum Partners LLC, said the company has experienced a lot of growth in the last couple of years, due mainly to the focus on sorghum.

“We’re not only proficient in sorghum, we’re proficient in grain sorghum, forage sorghum, Sudan grasses, sweet sorghums,” Widder said. “Other companies kind of focus in on one particular thing. We’re really becoming proficient in all those areas.”

Widder said currently there are three breeders on staff and, adding a fourth is in the works. Adding to the research and development is also a future priority.

“R&D is really the tip of the iceberg of this company,” Widder said. “We support our research 120 percent. That’s the future.”

Larry Lambright, director of sorghum breeding at Chromatin, said they are also doing a lot of developmental work for bioenergy, the biofuel sector, as well as for forages and high biomass products—both lignin cellulosic utilities and thermochemical.

At the Chromatin nursery, the area is irrigated with a 40-inch drop system and each row has a tape buried 15 inches below the surface to maintain the crop’s water needs.

“It’s been a real blessing to us. This year’s been somewhat better, but 2011 was a nightmare in this part of the world, a lot of the sorghum growing areas, and this drip system allowed us to make a crop, have a nursery that year,” Lambright said. “To some extent the same thing last year as well because it was a little better but not normal.”

More moisture in 2013 has helped things, even though Lambright said the area is quite a bit below normal on rain averages.

Chromatin has about 70 acres around Lubbock and Idalou, on four different farms, using the same farmer for all the land. At the nursery the tour visited, the site had about 45 acres. To the south another 70 acres are replicated field trials with grains and Sudan grasses. Between Idalou and New Deal, Texas, Chromatin has about 5 or 6 acres in forage trials, and in another location, they have dryland grain trials.

“There’s a lot of activity in this area that we have here,” Lambright said. “In addition to that, this program has in the neighborhood of 40 sites in the U.S. where we evaluate products.”

There are key sites in Kansas—three rather large sites evaluating both grains and forages. Other work extends east and west from North Carolina to California, to as far south as southern Florida and north as far as South Dakota.

“We have a lot of material spread out over a big area that we’re evaluating these different products in,” Lambright said

Lambright said Chromatin started with essentially nothing.

“With Chromatin in 2009, the acquisition of Sorghum Partners, the world changed for us in terms of germplasm availability. Prior to that time we’d been real busy and active in accumulating germplasm from both public and private third-party sources,” Lambright said. “We either accessed public available materials, or buy material in from different places, and then we put that with the sorghum partners pool, when we got it. All of a sudden we have a lot of stuff to work with.”

Chromatin is continually on the hunt for new sources of germplasm that can be used in its program.

“One of the keys to a successful program to develop a lot of quality product—be it grains or sweet sorghums or forages, or what have you—is having the right germplasm under your roof that you can use,” Lambright said. “So our access to those materials we have to evaluate them to see what traits might be included.”

In the hybrid seed business, the end result or how the hybrid performs is the goal. Very little is known about what the parents look like or what their quality is—apart from how they made those hybrids and if they are productive.

“Do the parents have good combinability or produce high-yielding hybrids; hybrids that stand; hybrids that have stay green; hybrids have different attributes for the interest,” Lambright said. “We evaluate those new materials that move in with test crosses to see (if) we want to use them in our program, or do we not. We identify those that are of interest and move them in and start recreating breeding populations with them and pull out new material.”

Chromatin also receives checkoff grants, and Lambright expressed his gratitude for them.

“We were blessed and very thankful to receive checkoff grants recently, and this grant is to provide us extra resources to new parental material for the industry, so those materials will be made available to licensing, to other companies that want to do so in the form of hybrids,” Lambright said.

In the nursery, breeders have a section where they are doing new populations. The new breeding populations are initiated under small white bags on the plants, and Lambright said they are crossing two things together, later working them through the program through segregating generations to pull out new lines. Later evaluations take place in the form of hybrids.

“As I mentioned before, that’s how you determine the marriage of something in this kind of business,” Lambright said. “Then we’ll carry them through the process all the way through advanced testing and decide if they merit duration and will be made available to the industry.”

If anything comes out of the project it will be made available, he said.

Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804 or by email at

Date: 10/21/2013


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