2015 will be a tough year to beat for the sorghum industry.
Farmers planted 8.5 million acres of the grain, which was valued at a near-record high of $1.97 billion, thanks to robust demand from China. The troublesome sugarcane aphid eased up in some geographies and allowed growers to set a record average yield of 76 bushels per acre.
Now slowing Chinese consumption has taken prices down with it and the EPA has pulled a key insecticide for aphid control, but the industry is celebrating some silver linings, industry representatives told DTN at Commodity Classic 2016. Namely, a broader export market is emerging this year, and an exciting new herbicide-tolerant technology is finally hitting fields after a decade-long development period.
Lower prices have made the grain more attractive to a variety of export markets, and sales have been steady and diverse, said Florentino Lopez, the Sorghum Checkoff’s executive director.
USDA predicted 325 million bushels in exports for the 2015-2016 in its February WASDE report, a 28 mb drop from 2014-15. Yet with half the marketing year remaining, the industry is only 75 mb away from beating that estimate, Lopez said.
“We expect exports to be quite favorable this year,” he told DTN. Although China is unlikely to match its 328-mb consumption from last year, sales to the country remain steady, and other markets have opened up, he said.
Namely, Pakistan, Colombia, Venezuela, South Africa, Indonesia and Haiti have joined the sorghum importing club, traditionally dominated by China, Mexico, Japan and Korea. Better price opportunities and the grain’s non-GE status have made it attractive to these markets, Lopez said.
Last year, China took in 76% of U.S. sorghum production. This year, Mexico is likely to play a bigger export role, thanks to lower Chinese demand easing prices, he added.
Lower prices have also made the grain more attractive domestically, Lopez said. “Ethanol got back in the ballgame,” he said. The Sorghum Checkoff estimates that already this year 120 million to 150 million bushels have gone to ethanol plants, an industry which accounted for only 3% of U.S. sorghum demand last year.
FIGHTING FOR TRANSFORM
In 2015, after a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the EPA pulled the registration of Dow’s Transform WG insecticide, one of two insecticides effective against the sugarcane aphid.
The aphid emerged as a major pest of sorghum in Texas in 2013 and has rapidly spread as far north as Kansas and as far east as the Carolinas. Transform was not labeled for sorghum production, but 13 states had been using the insecticide for aphid control under Section 18 emergency use exemptions from the EPA in 2015.
Now this year, growers may have to rely heavily on Bayer’s Sivanto, which will put tremendous pressure on the insecticide and increase the chance of resistance developing, said Tim Lust, chief executive officer for the National Sorghum Producers (NSP).
Multiple states have re-applied for Section 18 emergency use exemptions for Transform, but only Texas’ request has advanced to the comment period stage with the EPA, Lust said. The comment period closed in mid-February and the industry is anxiously awaiting a decision, which will likely set a precedent for the other states’ applications.
Because the insecticide is now effectively banned from use in the U.S., attaining those Section 18 exemptions will be harder than ever, Lust conceded.
“We have told the EPA that we need to be able to rotate chemistries and to do that, we need multiple products available,” he said.
HERBICIDE TOLERANCE HITS FIELDS
Herbicide-tolerant sorghum technology will finally make its way to the field this year, the final step in a decade-long development process by Kansas State University and two companies, DuPont Pioneer and Advanta Seeds.
This spring, Advanta will release one Inzen grain sorghum hybrid under its Alta Seeds brand to 50 to 75 farmers in Kansas and Texas. The news comes after the EPA approved the active ingredient for Zest herbicide, the corresponding ALS herbicide that Inzen hybrids are bred to tolerate.
Inzen was developed with traditional breeding, so growers won’t jeopardize the anti-GE status of sorghum which has made it so attractive to certain international and domestic markets.
The gain of in-season grass weed control in sorghum is also likely to boost its appeal among farmers accustomed to herbicide-tolerant corn and soybean management, said James Born, a farmer from the northern panhandle of Texas and chairman of the NSP’s board of directors.
In particular, Texas and Kansas corn growers with limited irrigation — and thus lower corn yields — may find the herbicide-tolerant sorghum to be an affordable and easy substitute for those corn acres, Born speculated. “In the past they’ve shied away from sorghum without this weed control technology,” he told DTN. “Now I think it will play a huge role in limited irrigation operations.”
Emily Unglesbee can be reached at email@example.com
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