Posted on Feb 20, 2019
Have you ever wondered how sorghum is grown? Sorghum is actually part of a larger group of plant types, which include grain, sweet, biomass and forage sorghum. Grain sorghum is primarily utilized in livestock feed and ethanol production in the U.S. but is expanding into the consumer food industry as well as other emerging markets. Farmers who grow grain sorghum for food consumption do so because it’s a nutritious whole grain that can be eaten in a variety of creative recipes and products.
Grain sorghum is truly stellar to see growing in the field. The leafy green stalks and distinctive grain heads create a sea of vibrant color. The grain heads can take on many shapes and sizes ranging from a tight-headed, round panicle to an open, droopy panicle that can be short or long. While white or tan sorghum is traditionally what we consume in food products, sorghum can actually be grown in a number of varieties, such as red, orange, bronze and black. These colorful sorghum varieties are making their way into new food products due to consumer demand and their beneficial qualities, such as high levels of antioxidants. Sorghum is an incredibly unique plant — let’s take a peek into the 120-day journey it takes to grow this super grain.
Sorghum’s journey begins with planting. Seeds are planted within a window between February and July, depending on the location of the farm. In the U.S., sorghum is traditionally grown in the Sorghum Belt, a span of land from South Dakota to southern Texas. Planting typically first occurs in the southernmost states and moves north depending on weather patterns. Learn more about the Sorghum Belt here.
Following planting, young sorghum plants will begin to emerge from the soil in approximately five days. As the plants grow and mature, the stalks grow taller and form more leaves. At the height of growth, the plant will reach 3-5 feet tall and contain approximately 15-18 leaves. The flag leaf is the last to form on the plant, allowing for the next phase of growth.
Once the tip of the flag leaf becomes visible, the sorghum head, also known as apanicle, will begin to emerge within 7-10 days.After 100 percent of the head has grown above the flag leaf, the hundreds of small flowers will begin flowering starting at the top of the head moving downward over a 3-7 day period. This step is crucial, as it initiates the growth of the grain.
Grain will eventually cover the entire sorghum head. As is matures, the grain kernels will transform from a soft grain with a light green color to a hard grain with its final color, which can be white, tan, bronze or red. This process can take approximately 30 days.
When sorghum plants reach full maturity, farmers will begin harvesting the grain utilizing a combine from July to late October, depending on the location of the farm. As farmers harvest their fields, the combine separates the grain from the stalks andcollects the grain where it is then transferred to trucks and stored. Grain destined for your kitchen is then taken to a manufacturer who prepares the sorghum for use as either a whole ingredient or in packaged and ready-to-eat products. While we typically only consume the grain from sorghum plants, left in the field does not go to waste. Sorghum stalks and leaves are often utilized for grazing or feeding livestock. Stalks can also provide cover to protect wildlife and help enhance soil health as part of good conservation practices.