USCP hosts seed tour in Texas Panhandle
By Kylene Scott
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series about the United Sorghum Checkoff Program seed tour. The second part will appear in an upcoming issue of High Plains Journal and Midwest Ag Journal.
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 U.S. Sorghum Checkoff 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’s 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.
At the first stop, Richardson Seed near Vega, Texas, Larry Richardson guided guests through his storage and production facilities. The family sold its first bag of seed in 1955, after being approached by Texas A&M.
“Texas A&M approached him with this new sorghum, a hybrid sorghum, so he produced it for them in 1956. So we’ve been growing sorghum hybrid seeds longer than anyone,” Richardson said. “Today we still operate the business as a separate unit, even though we are owned by NuFarm with the only independent brand that they have.”
As part of NuFarm, the Richardsons can do private label and work with regional distribution companies throughout the U.S. and globally. The company bags it, ships it and then the other company handles the retail side of it.
Richardson went fully automated 15 years ago with their packaging, becoming one of the first sorghum companies to do so.
“We went from having 22 employees on the payroll to run all of our packaging lines, to today we have six,” Richardson said. “So it’s a very efficient operation.”
Richardson has a full portfolio—grain sorghum (early and/or all maturities), food grade, high tannin, forages, BMRs. Also, late maturing, photoperiod sensitive, sudan grasses and hybrid pro.
“You’ll see different brands, different packages in the warehouse,” he said.
Smaller production lines in the main building house grain sorghum, and breakdown and cleanup takes roughly an hour.
“We may run 50,000 bags at a time,” Richardson said. “Take a day and a half to break this down.”
Richardson also works with the Sorghum Checkoff for its conversion program. A climate-controlled, automated building gives the plants 12 hours and 20 minutes of light, allowing them to flower so breeders can make a crop by incorporating sorghum germplasm to make new sorghum germplasm. Later the material goes to Mexico to their winter nursery. There it will be increased to the F2 generation. It will be brought back to Texas for the F3 stage. Once it gets to F4 it’s released.
“This is a public funded, public trait. It’s where it all starts,” he said. “All your new sorghum germplasm starts here.”
Tim Lust, CEO of the National Sorghum Producers, said NSP helps fund the program with the checkoff. The conversion program collaborates with Richardson and later the material will go back and be packaged at the Agricultural Research Service station at College Station, Texas. Forty-four lines were released last year, with about seven private and four public groups taking the material.
“So, a question of whether, you know, is private industry and (are) the public programs using the material up, and the answer is very clearly yes,” Lust said. “They are using the material.”
Richardson is breeding varieties suited toward earlier maturities—both food grade and feed.
“We’ve had producers actually tell us if they can get a good drought-tolerant good grain sorghum where they can double crop that they’ll be willing to give up a little yield to get more out of that land,” Richardson said. “So that’s kind of the direction the grain sorghum program’s going through. We’re still breeding the mediums, full-season, things like that, just for different markets.”
At the NexSteppe nursery, visitors walked through the biomass seed production plots. At the principal location, the majority of the breeding and screening through germplasm take place for the renewable energy market, Jerry O’Rear told the group.
“Everything we’re releasing in the hybrids, whether those hybrids are sweet sorghum or high biomass sorghum, is all in hybrid,” O’Rear said. “We’re not doing anything in the OP (open pollinated) version, so we’re not releasing anything.”
The females that NexSteppe develops stay in a range of 48 to 60 inches for maximum height so that growers can combine it at harvest. The female seed is what is harvested for the hybrid seed, O’Rear said, but males can vary from short to tall. This allows breeders to get the right height genes to make the hybrids they need to.
The nursery location, about 40 acres, is under drip irrigation and plants are planted with a skip row to allow for the height of the plant.
“You’ll probably notice we’re going two in and one out. It’s not because we’re trying to conserve water, is the crop we’re dealing with is so tall, that a skip row gives us the ability to get in between the rows so we can make selections, make the crosses, do what we need to phenotyping the genetics,” O’Rear said.
NexSteppe is testing just shy of 1,000 hybrids—600 sweet sorghum hybrids and 400 high biomass hybrids. All the hybrids had to be put together by hand at the Vega, Texas location and at locations in Puerto Rico and Brazil where other nurseries are located.
“We’ve got a female development, and you’ve got a male development program,” O’Rear said. “So you’re developing newer lines with the traits you want. You’re developing females with the traits you want and then you check heterosis.”
Later, combinability is checked by making thousands and thousands of top crosses to see what kind of heterosis has been achieved, as well as what kind of hybrid vigor and yield. Later, when the hybrids go out to the growers, the product they get is the premium product in that market segment.
In one area of the nursery, early hybrids (that may go to Europe, northern U.S. markets or even Asia) will help develop sweet hybrid lines with good juice and sugar levels. Hopefully, they will fit in anywhere in the world that needs that kind of market, as with the biomass market.
“One of the things that’s kind of holding us back on the U.S. is getting these products, especially sweet sorghum and high biomass sorghum, approved as a renewable feedstock so that you’re eligible for the government entities that come into that,” O’Rear said.
Work the Sorghum Checkoff is doing to get these sorghum crops approved is huge.
“We’ve got the product, we’ve got the hybrids, you’ve got to have a market developed, but a lot of that market is kind of waiting until these things are on the list,” O’Rear said. “Grain sorghum is now approved. So we need sweet sorghum and high biomass sorghum to get on that list as well. I think it’s really important for this market.”
O’Rear said the hybrids he’s working with can be grown anywhere, but limits come where there are plants available to juice it. Even in limited water situations, the biomass and sweet hybrids produce good tonnage numbers.
“The profitability and the producibility of these crops are amazing,” O’Rear said. “The heterosis we are getting is amazing. That’s one of the things that’s really exciting to me.”
O’Rear previously worked in grains and forages and said a lot of headway in grain hybrids and forage hybrids has been made. Thus, NexSteppe is concentrating on segments of this sorghum germplasm that don’t exist in a normal sorghum-breeding program.
“That’s what’s amazing about this crop is it does exist out there to develop these types of crop hybrids,” O’Rear said.
Ben Beyer, the U.S. sorghum breeder for Advanta, welcomed visitors to a sorghum plot near Hereford, Texas. The company has breeding locations in other parts of the world as well as Texas, and a corporate office in Amarillo. Foundation seed breeding is located near Crosbyton, Texas. The research and seed processing plant is located in Hereford and production in the Dumas area.
“So we like to think we have a big impact on west Texas, and I feel that we do,” Beyer said.
Advanta has 19 different testing locations ranging from the east and west coasts, across the Midwest, High Plains, Texas and Kansas. There’s a mix of irrigated and dryland testing locations.
“There’s a mix of irrigated and dryland once again to make sure that we have product that will grow in a variety of conditions and can meet peoples needs,” Beyer said.
At the location tour visitors viewed, it was limited irrigation, with pre-watering occurring prior to planting.
“We caught some beneficial rains, and this was irrigated about 10 days ago,” Beyer said. “Right next to us we actually have a dryland site that allows us to compare yields between dryland and limited irrigation at Advanta.”
The side-by-side comparisons serve a number of purposes, but it is of importance to do so.
“Whether it’s Alta or one of our private label customers, we want to make sure that we provide a product that yields and has grain quality because that’s what matters to the producers,” Beyer said. “And we want to make sure that we’re constantly meeting those needs.”
One technology Advanta is working on involves a forage hybrid. The trait gives the plant very short internodes, but keeps it very leafy, helping it compete with corn silage. A lot of the Advanta forage hybrids have a BMR 6 trait, Beyer said, which reduces lignin in the plant. The reduced lignin helps to increase feeding efficiency in silage, but it also makes the plant more likely to fall over and lodge. Researchers have found the trait and with the plant being shorter it’s less likely to fall over and lodge.
“I know that in some instances I’ve heard that tillering is a bad thing with sorghum especially in production areas like west Texas, but in this case it’s important that we make up our yields,” Beyer said. “You get the tillers so you get the increased biomass. This hybrid once you get canopy cover you need one more irrigation and that’s enough, and because it does tiller need less seed.”
It can be grown pretty much anywhere sorghum silage can be grown, without getting too far north, and is a late maturing hybrid. They are working on earlier maturing varieties in order to move farther north.
“I’ve talked to the companies that are interested in carrying this product in the eastern United States there’s a company from the Carolinas that are feeding this to cattle and using it in a corn rotation because it can compete with corn and they don’t have any irrigation at their site,” Beyer said. “The yields are competitive with corn in that instance, but they’re growing it for less money. So it’s increasing their profitability.”
The product does very well in west and other parts of Texas, and it’s becoming very big out in California. Dairies in the San Joaquin valley for example are switching from corn to sorghum.
“We’re very proud of this product, and something exclusive to Advanta,” Beyer said. “Great thing about it is its still sorghum, and can be grown with less water. What that means is right now you can grow half circle corn silage, now maybe you can grow a fill circle of sorghum silage.”
In the remainder of the tour, which will be covered in part two in an upcoming issue of High Plains Journal and Midwest Ag Journal, visitors toured the Pioneer plant in Plainview, Texas; the USDA-ARS in Lubbock, Texas; and the Chromatin nursery in Idalou, Texas.
The United Sorghum Checkoff Program is a producer-funded organization that is dedicated to improving the sorghum industry through research, promotion and education. For more information about the USCP and other research projects please visit www.sorghumcheckoff.com.
Kylene Scott can be reached by phone at 620-227-1804, or by email at email@example.com.