Producing and Processing Sweet Sorghum in the Upper Midwest

Final report for FNC93-046

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1993: $1,700.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1994
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $7,425.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Richard Wittgreve
Rolling Meadows Livestock Farms
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Project Information


The last 4 years has been a transition for us, from 170 acres of traditional mixed crops and livestock (corn, soybeans, hay, oats, wheat, barley, rye and sweet sorghum with feeder cattle and hogs) to a small diversified farm with a value added approach, allowing us to control our final prices. This years we ran only 45 acres with soybeans, oats and hay being our traditional crops, but putting our emphasis on 8 acres of sweet sorghum, an acre of pumpkins, an acre of sweet corn and an acre of broom corn (to make hand made brooms). We have also started an on farm bakery from which products are sold at our local farmers markets. I have continued to do custom fieldwork, but have also started to do a lot of farm equipment repair. We still buy and feed some dairy beef but are trying to tap into a specialty market there also. It has been our goal to get small to reduce our risk and investment, to find products and services that we could control our final price. In many of our products we are raising a crop and adding value by on-farm processing.

Since, 1989 we have been trying to apply sustainable practices to our farm. We have been raising our crops with minimum purchased fertilizer and we have been controlling weeds through rotary hoeing and cultivating. We have also practiced low input hog production by farrowing and raising pigs on grass. We have been working on alternative crops and producing sorghum for the past ten years.

I involved the producers of the NSSPPA (National Sweet Sorghum Producers and Processors Association) in many aspects of this project: first of all in March of 1994 I handed out a questionnaire to get a feel for what other producers were doing and what suggestions they might have to help northern growers, as the majority of the sweet sorghum production is in the old South, with Tennessee and Kentucky being the heart. I spent much time following up on seed varieties and cultural ideas.

I then tried to identify all producers regardless of size in the state of Wisconsin, with the hope of finding seed varieties and culture practices I could incorporate into this project. I also sent seed samples to several people to evaluate in their operations.

Through working with NSSPPA and growers in Wisconsin I was able to become a hub of a large network of growers across the nation.

I also was able to receive much help from non-sorghum growers who took an interest in what we were trying to do. Richard Scholl (a private soil and crop consultant), from Scholls Span Agri-Services, from Sussex, WI, gave much time, advice, as well as supplied lab tests of soil and leaf analysis. We also worked closely with Earl Mahn, from Mahn Farms, Oak Creek, WI who (as a commercial vegetable grower) gave us much insight into germination of small seeds.

I also was given assistance by Timpken Seeds of Kansas, on varieties and germination requirements. Timpken Seeds are seed producers of sweet sorghum for use as cattle feed. They did not even know anyone was still cooking sweet sorghum nor were they aware of the NSSPPA. I have been amazed at the amount of networking that this grant has allowed me to do.

We worked very closely with Dr Morris Bitzer from the University of Kentucky. He provided additional seed samples and duplicated our test on varieties at two locations in Kentucky. We are also thankful to Dr Fred Miller from Texas A&M for advice and seed samples he sent.

The biggest problem that we have had is that 1/3 of our sorghum crops do not reach maturity before being destroyed by a killing frost. Our goal with this grant was two-fold:
a) To identify shorter season varieties and
b) To evaluate cultural practices which would allow longer season varieties to mature in the shorter season of the upper mid-west.

The first thing I did was to take full advantage of the opportunity the SARE grant gave me to cut barriers that as a small farmer I would have had a hard time to cut through, but being able to state that one was working on a research project gave credibility and often the offer of assistance and samples were freely given.

With this in mind I then started by Networking with the NSSPPA. At their National meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, in March of 1994, with over 300 people in attendance, I handed out a questionnaire to glean from their experiences and listen to their suggestions. I also spent much time in small groups and one on one discussion as to what course our project was to take.

Next, I employed the services of Richard Scholl, a well known Sustainable Ag Consultant, to look at our soils and cultural practices. About the same time, Earl Mahn, who runs a large truck farm and is a fellow member of the “Wisconsin Farm Market Association” took an interest in our problems and offered his services and experience. The three of us spent part of a day looking at raising sorghum as a specialty vegetable crop, versus raising it as a traditional corn or soybean crop as I had been doing. As we brain stormed and analyzed our problem with the sorghum not maturing, we realized that the frost killing our crop in the fall might not be the real problem (the concept of the sorghum being too long seasoned) but the start in the spring may be a greater problem. My experience using modified corn planters to plant sorghum had often given very poor germination (often as long as 4-6 weeks with 5-10% survival rates being common). If we were getting poor germination in the spring it was then showing up in the fall as an immature crop. Earl Mahn stated that he would never try to plat a seed as small as a sorghum seed with a corn planter.

I also spent considerable time trying to locate growers in Wisconsin and other specialists in the nation that were not associated with the NSSPPA. In contacts with people like Dr. Fred Miller, Texas A&M, who is a leader in grain sorghum breeding and Steve Pechanez, from Timken, seeds in Kimken, Kansas, we were assisted in advice and seed varieties for our tests.

A special thanks is due to Dr. Morris Bitzer from the University of Kentucky, who not only assisted in ideas but came back suggesting a sample exchange so that he could duplicate the relative maturity of between 30 and 40 varieties of sweet sorghum at different locations.

Through this grant, we were able to make contact with many people across the nations and work together to try and reach a common goal.

In the meetings with Richard Scholl, Earl Mahn, and myself we listed several problems we felt maybe causing poor germination, thus giving us a poor start in the spring. They were:
1) Planter depth control
2) Soil fertility and starter fertilizer
3) Crust control
4) Soil temperature
5) Seed coatings

In response to these problem areas, we made the following changes on all general production and test plots that we planted in 1994:
1) We switched to a “Planter Jr” instead of a “290” J.D. corn planter to better control seed depth.
2) Richard Scholl advised a fertilization program as follows:
a. Preplant broadcast, then work in 125-150 lbs/acre of 0-0-50 potassium sulfate (this was to make the roots spread and to raise sugar levels).
b. Starter fertilizer was then to be put on with our 4 row J.D. 495A corn planter, 2 inches down and 2 inches over from final seed position. We only laid out rows and applied starter in this operation after which we planted in the row marks with a planter Jr.
c. Crust was controlled by shallow ¾ inch planting with Planter Jr. units. We did not pack soil over seed, so we ended up with moist loose soil for the germinating seed to emerge through.
d. Soil temperature we believed was very important. We wanted a minimum of 60 degrees F in the top 1-2 inches. Although we had a hotter and dryer spring than normal, we found that soil temperature rose slowly. We normally would have planted between May 10th and 20th, trying to get a longer season, but may have waited 4-6 weeks to get a poorly germinated stand. This year after 5 days of 80-95 degree days we reach 60 degrees at 3” depth on May 22. However, we waited as we still had frost at nights, as was shown on May 27, when 28 degrees and white frost left soil temperature at 40 degrees. We did set out transplants on May 27, and did start direct planting on May 28, which was actually 8-18 days later than normal.
e. This year all seeds were coated with a seed coating to improve vigor of seed and seeding.

Applying the above guidelines we were able to obtain excellent germination with plants in the field being 1 inch tall in 7 to 10 days after planting. One must note that this is the same results that we had under green house conditions where we grew our transplants.

So far the discussion has centered on direct field planting, but I also wanted to try to start sorghum in an ideal green house environment and then transplant for three reasons.
1) To try to get a jump on the season
2) To know your final stand at planting
3) To allow immediate cultivation to control weeds

We went to “Kentucky Burley Moldings” from Mackville, Kentucky, which had started to market supplies for growing tobacco transplants on a water float system. We brought 10 styrofoam trays each with 200 cells, a bag of medium and a small bag of water soluble fertilizer. I next built a frame of 2x10’s large enough to hold 10 trays. This frame was then lined with black plastic and a thin 1” layer of styrofoam beads was poured in. next a 1’x2’ piece of plywood with a water bed heater was laid upon the beads. A second layer of black plastic was laid upon the preceding to form a water tight bed 8” deep; this was then filled within 2” of the top with a water-fertilizer mix. The water bed heater was set at 65 degrees to maintain the water temperature. The 10 trays were then filled with a dampened planting medium and each cell was planted with 3 seeds at approximately ½”. The trays were then placed on the water. Each cell is open at the bottom allowing the water to maintain the medium damp. This bed was then covered with typar on PVC tubing to make a small green house. Under these conditions we had 1” tall plants in 7-10 days and 8” plants in 21 days. We started our first transplants on May 3, and transplanted them on May 27. Part of this planting was harvested on August 13 and 14 for a stem show demonstration. These transplants were hit by frost on June 2, which did stunt them for approximately 2 weeks. Our second transplants were started on May 17, and set out on June 9, they did not get a frost. I did not water them as I did the first ones, so when I turned hot and dry, the turned brown and I thought they were dead, but they jumped back from the main shoot and did very well.

The results of the five major changes in our direct plantings and our experiments with transplanting were very educational and will be very useful in directing our production and research during the next year. In summary, we planted approximately 8 acres of sorghum, harvested less than 4 acres with a total production of 475 gallons of sorghum and on average of around 120 gallons per acre. We were unable to harvest the other 2 acres as it was not mature enough even though we had an exceptionally long and mild fall. This was due to a fox-tail (grass) problem that stunted and slowed down the normal growth.

Our test this year has shown that if coated seed is planted in the right fertility soil at the proper depth and with proper temperature on should obtain fast germination and seedling growth. This fast start in the spring is a must to reach maturity in the fall.

Transplanting on a limited scale looks very promising and will be pursued on 4 of 8 acres projected for 1995. I like the possibility of August harvest and the ability to cultivate 8” plants only day after planting.

The most obvious discovery I made this year has to do with weed pressures mainly foxtail. Even with the super germination I had this year I lost $7200 gross profit (4 acres, 120 gal/acre, $15/gal) due to the inability to control the foxtail mechanically. I’ve seen the band of foxtail in the row fight head to head from germination to waist high. I’ve also noted a fine line between survival and stagnation that grasses have made on sorghum. To refresh your mind there are no chemicals registered for use on sweet sorghum – although I have found many producers using chemicals. Rotary hoes will rip out the small sorghum seedlings, so this option that is so efficient in controlling foxtail in corn or soybeans can not be used without greatly reducing our sorghum stand. We do use disc hillers on our cultravator and cultravate several times, but are unable to control foxtail in the row space, when it is the same height as the sorghum plant.

Through working with Richard Scholl we have found that our foxtail problem is a result of soil compaction caused by poor rotation and a calcium deficiency in the soil, preventing the soil from flocculating. These packed soils are good for foxtail growth. We will be working on rotation and adding calcium to overcome this problem.

So far I have concentrated on the cultural practices that were changed to improve our germination rate to improve our weed control without using chemicals. I would now like to further discuss our search for varieties with maturities that are suitable for syrup production in the upper-Midwest. As noted several times already, we had seed variety samples from Wisconsin, Texas, Kentucky, and Kansas through the networking that we were to establish. Using the best cultural practices and equipment available to us, we set up a test plot to compare relative maturities of our various samples. Our test in Wisconsin consisted of 31 varieties in one test plot. We set the test plot up on the end of a field so that we had as uniform of soil conditions as possible. This test plot as well as all of our sorghum fields was set off with a border of oats, thus allowing early harvest of the oats to open up the fields. 10 grams of seed was found to be enough to plant two 50’ rows, this was the size of the samples that Dr. Fred Miller had sent us. We decided to plant tow rows to a variety and two rows of Simon (our old standby) between each variety, to do this we set up the Planter Jr. one box with Simon the other with a test variety, so that as we made our rounds we always had like rows together, but only had to change the seed in one box each variety. Throughout the season we made observations and as they matured we tried to identify the date at which they were 100% headed. We did have some problems with Foxtail and learned that some varieties had greater ability to withstand this pressure. Dr. Morris Bitzer set up his test at two locations in Kentucky, his tests consisted of 36 varieties. Dr. Bitzer also recorded data pertaining to disease and lodging. The results of these tests will be found in the attached sheets. 1994 Sweet Sorghum Field Trial Results, WI, KY  The results of the other growers who may have tested certain varieties are not recorded, although their results do help give reinforcement to our findings. I would like to make a few comments about our season versus Kentucky. Looking at growing degree days for corn, Wisconsin has 2100 to Kentucky’s 3500. This year for us started out hot, but by the end of August we were right on target of a five year average, our average first frost is October 8th this year it was on October 11th. In general producers in the South figure about 30 days from full heads to harvest, but in Wisconsin we normally do not have this much time. I have a rule of thumb that I can harvest 30 days from the start of heading, which is 7 to 10 days earlier. I have determined this by checking the sugar content and not watching the maturity of the seed head. With this in mind I should be able to look at our charts and pick varieties with projected harvest dates that would be before killing frost.

I believe we have identified and solved several of out barriers in producing sweet sorghum syrup in the upper-Midwest. Those problems we still have have been better identified. I also believe with the networking we have been able to establish, we will now have many people working on the possible solutions. I know for a fact that I was able to do more about improving growth and production in this one year, than I have been able to do in any other one year. As coordinator of the EWSFN (Eastern Wisconsin Sustainable Farmers Network), I have often had the opportunity to talk about sweet sorghum production as it relates sustainability on the family farm and I know what I learned will be passed on to others that they too can succeed. In the last 8 years I have watched the NSSPPA grow from 80 to 300 plus members and if more could be grown in the upper Midwest this number would increase even more.

A visual report in the form of slides is also included with this report to allow you to see and better understand what we have done this year.

The outreach for this project has taken many forms. First of all I needed the networking of sorghum growers and processors from across the United States. With this in mind I asked for and received a spot on the national program of the NSSPPA in March of 1994 in Nashville, Tennessee. I took this opportunity to hand out a questionnaire to evaluate possible varieties and cultural practices that others thought could be helpful in the upper-Midwest, to overcome our limited growing season.

Secondly I needed to identify sorghum growers in the state of Wisconsin with hopes of finding varieties that may have become regionally adapted. I was able to identify approximately a dozen growers, most of which were experiencing similar problems and glad to network and learn from each other. I did locate and incorporate seed from several Wisconsin growers into our test.

Thirdly we had an open house on the third Saturday in September, with the general public being invited as well as people form the Wisconsin DATCP, Sustainable Ag Program and EWSFN. Our attendance for the day was approximately 300 people. We also had 4 school tours and a tour bus come in during the fall to learn about sorghum and how it is grown and processed.

Fourthly as coordinator of EWSFN (Eastern Wisconsin Sustainable Farmers Network) I have had many opportunities to talk about sweet sorghum syrup production and how it relates to sustainability and the family farm.

Fifthly I have asked for and received a program spot on the NSSPPA’s national program in Nashville, Tennessee, in March of 1995, to report back on our project and findings, these meetings have an attendance of over 300 producers, many of which have had similar problems in sorghum production. An identical slide presentation to the one included in this report other than some of the processing slides will be shown at the national meeting of the NSSPPA in Nashville, Tennessee, in March of this year.


Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

5 Consultations
1 On-farm demonstrations
5 Tours
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

300 Farmers participated
3 Ag professionals participated
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.