“In 2023, the increase in sorghum cultivated area was greater than what occurred for corn and soybeans, mainly due to the lower production cost…”
Carlos Juliano Brant Albuquerque is a professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais – UFMG, agronomist, M.Sc. and Ph.D from the Federal University of Lavras.
Why should we cultivate sorghum?
Sorghum has proven to be efficient for use in succession to soybeans or in the summer in semi-arid regions of Brazil. Sorghum is a very versatile plant and can be used in the manufacture of feed (grain sorghum), forage production (silage sorghum or cutting/grazing), bioenergy production (saccharine and biomass), broom manufacturing and handicrafts (broom sorghum), etc. This versatility is a differential.
Sorghum’s ability to be productive even in conditions of high temperatures and severe drought, its lower production cost, the short cycle, the nutritional quality of its grains and fodder, all of this has aroused the interest of farmers and consumers.
Sorghum farming is growing in Brazil
I have been following sorghum cultivation in Brazil since 2002. During this period, as a recently graduated agronomist, son, and grandson of farmers in the semi-arid region of the state of Minas Gerais, we considered sorghum to be the main crop for feeding the dairy herd during the dry period of the year. At that time, sorghum was an important component in the production systems of the Cerrado biome, which involved soybeans in the summer and off-season sorghum in succession to form straw in the no tillage system and generate income from the grains.
In 2023, the increase in sorghum cultivated area was greater than what occurred for corn and soybeans, mainly due to the lower production cost when compared to corn. Currently, the main sorghum production system in Brazil (80%) is characterized by the grain group in areas of the Cerrado biome (soybeans and sorghum in succession).
In addition to the high price of corn seeds, the high incidence of corn leafhoppers and the resulting difficulty in controlling them generated increases in the production costs of this crop. This sparked greater interest on the part of farmers in replacing corn with sorghum.
The lower production cost (seed price and low use of pesticides), the greater appreciation of grains on the domestic market and the stability of production in the face of different climatic conditions made sorghum cultivation more economically attractive.
Sorghum grain is a valuable resource for animal feed. The quality of sorghum forage has been well disseminated and is well accepted by livestock farmers. Very high silage sorghums, with low grain production, fibrous stalks and low panicle/stem + leaves ratio, lose the competition in terms of quality when compared to corn in general, although they have very high dry matter production potential.
The nutritional differences between corn and sorghum of medium size and large grain production are much smaller or non-existent. However, when corn goes through hydric stress, the quality of sorghum silage in the same environment is superior.
Brazil is going through a time of strong energy demands. Energy producing groups seek new biomass-producing crops that fit into the agricultural and industrial panoramas of these enterprises. Sorghums of the saccharine and biomass types are promising for the production of first generation ethanol and energy, respectively. Because they are fast-growing and fully mechanizable, interest in these species has been growing. However, there is still a need to learn about good agricultural practices, aiming for maximum productivity and adjusting the management for each producing region and chosen cultivar.
The national seed industry has met the demand for sorghum cultivars, ensuring the growth of the area planted with this crop. In recent years, national and multinational institutions have entered the sorghum seed market, generating new options for farmers.
The use of sorghum in a consortium to renovate pastures has proven to be interesting to amortize costs and promote the increase of meat and milk production on rural properties. The use of sorghum is highlighted in marginal growing conditions for most cereals. In this case, production systems prevail in semi-arid regions or as an option in Cerrado biome areas, when corn planting is delayed. In both situations, intercropping sorghum with forage crops has proven to be an advantageous practice.
In general, the different species of brachiaria are more suitable for intercropping schemes. After the broadcast seeding of the forage species, sorghum must be sown in the area with the tractor wheels incorporating it. Depending on strategic planning, the farmer can opt for smaller spacings for greater sorghum productivity or larger spacings for greater forage productivity. It is important to respect the plant population established for the culture regardless of the spacing adopted.
In Brazil, the perception is that “sorghum is a rustic crop, resistant to adverse weather conditions, drought, and not very demanding on the use of inputs”. Distorted information like this harms and penalizes culture. The rusticity of sorghum must be understood as the species’ ability to better withstand high temperatures and water deficiency when compared to other crops under the same conditions of technological investment. This means that a sorghum crop, if as well managed as a corn crop, will produce more than corn in the “bad” environment.
Fortunately, most of the farmers already understand the need to apply pesticides to sorghum crops. The biggest problem is the lack of products registered in Brazil. Recently, the crop has benefited from a new option in weed control with the use of a safener [substances that seek to protect plants from the toxic effect caused by herbicides] recommended to protect seeds against the phytotoxic action of the herbicide S-metolachlor.
Until 2021, virtually only atrazine was used to control invasive plants in sorghum crops. Seed treatments and the use of insecticides based on neonocotinoids have provided sorghum protection against attack by aphids (Melanaphis sachari / Melanaphis sorghi), a pest responsible for major losses.
Brazil among the eight largest producers of sorghum grains
Crop production numbers began to appear in official statistics. Today we are among the eight largest producers of sorghum grains in the world. The planted area has evolved positively in the last five years. Even so, our productivity is below experimental results.
Grain sorghum is a crop established in succession to soybeans in the Southeast, Center-West of Brazil. It is reaching the west of the state of Bahia and growing in the state of Tocantins and the south of the state of Piauí. Despite Brazil’s semi-arid regions lacking raw materials for animal feed and dependent on corn imports from other regions, agents involved in supply policies have failed to understand the contribution that sorghum cultivation can offer to regional markets. It is important that there are greater public incentives for farmers in these regions as a way of promoting the insertion of sorghum for greater economic and social development.