Ask any U.S. dairy or beef producer which grain is the gold standard for feedstuffs, and most will reply "corn" without hesitation. Even so, many livestock producers are trying other feed source options to reduce overhead costs.
Ernest Weaver grows and feeds brown midrib (BMR) forage sorghum hybrids for that reason. He says BMR hybrids offer nutritional benefits comparable to corn and require fewer inputs in the process.
"Cows eat it like candy," says Weaver, whose family owns a cattle company and runs a 150-cow dairy in southern Illinois, near Carbondale.
Weaver feeds a silage ration of 60% corn and 40% sorghum. "The two work well together in the cow’s rumen," he explains.
"When sorghum silage is introduced into a dairy ration, it almost always raises the efficiency of that ration," Weaver adds.
For instance, Weaver says, if he feeds 50 lb. of feed per cow on a dry matter basis, he can add sorghum to the ration and the cow can eat 48 lb. and milk just as well as when she ate 50 lb.
High in energy. That’s because the BMR hybrids are high in energy, protein and digestible fiber, all important to good milk production, according to John Oppelt, business development manager for Advanta Seeds.
"These hybrids have up to 60% less lignin than conventional sorghums while offering similar and oftentimes better nutritive value than corn silage," Oppelt says. BMR hybrids also can be grazed and harvested for hay.
Brent Bean, Texas AgriLife Extension agronomist, says forage sorghum hybrids have lower seed costs and handle heat and drought stress well.
"They require between 30% and 40% less water than corn to produce top yields," says Bean, who tests between 50 and 75 different forage sorghum hybrids each year. That water efficiency is highly valued, he adds, by dairy and beef producers in the Southwest who irrigate their crops.
Forage sorghum is gaining favor with producers in the Midwest as well, according to Weaver.
"There’s definitely a market for forage sorghum here for anyone who’s currently growing corn," he says. "My neighbors would buy it from me if I had extra available."
Weaver says the cost of production for forage sorghum is only 50% to 90% the cost of growing a corn crop. He acknowledges that is a large spread, but says there are many variables that impact the savings.
"I would say a 20% savings is nearly always a safe bet," he notes.
Will it work for you? Producers who want to evaluate whether forage sorghum is a viable option for them need to consider whether they can effectively manage the crop.
"Make sure you pick hybrids containing the qualities you value specifically," Bean says.
For example, some of the BMR sorghum hybrids have a better lodging score than others.
"Guys need to know that the soil must be 60°F and rising when you plant a forage sorghum, so you probably can’t plant the same time as you plant corn," Weaver says.
That can be a benefit, rather than a limiting factor, for those producers who want to spread out their workload, he adds.
The other potential downside is that forage sorghum does not offer the same flexibility of use as corn. "Forage sorghum can only be used as feed," Weaver says.
Bean adds that a timely harvest also is important for optimum results with forage sorghum, though he notes that is true for nearly any crop.