Monthly Archives: October 2013

Meet David Smith’s grain sorghum.

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David raises cattle on his farm in central Virginia, but this year, he also gave sorghum a shot.

100_0866 (768x1024)Sorghum—or milo, as some call it—is a summer annual plant that was developed in the Upper Nile region of Sudan. It is quite versatile. Most varieties have been developed for grain harvest, while others are chopped for silage as an alternative to corn. Sorghum-sudangrass hybrids are becoming increasingly popular for hay and forage because they can be grown during the summer months when cool-season grasses like tall fescue hit a slump. Varieties that make up the “sweet” sorghums are valued for the juices that are extracted from the plants’ stalks and turned into sorghum syrup, a homestead specialty that has become rather rare. Furthermore, faculty at Virginia State University and other research centers are developing varieties of sorghum that are suitable for use in biofuel production.

IMG_20130705_094516_927 (1024x577)Sorghum has been grown for grain in many states for a number of years, but many new producers in Virginia and North Carolina, including David, have recently decided to try it thanks to an increase in demand from livestock operations in the state. The rising costs of fuel, labor, and fertilizer in combination with past periods of drought have raised the cost of feeding corn on these operations. Managers are looking for alternate feeds that equal corn in nutritional content, so sorghum has become a good pick. Most grain sorghum produced in the U.S. is used as animal feed, but sorghum is growing increasingly popular as a gluten-free, high antioxidant food in the U.S. Many farmers favor sorghum because it is more drought-tolerant than corn. While corn and sorghum may both curl up during a dry year, sorghum can wait longer for moisture to return and will bounce back readily after a rain. Sorghum also adds flexibility and diversity to a crop rotation, resulting in easier disease and pest control.

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Sorghum plants closely resemble corn during their early growth stages.

David was among many farmers in the state who faced some challenges during the early part of the growing season. Excessive rain washed nutrients out of the soil in high parts of fields, leaving seedlings with shallow roots temporarily deficient in phosphorus. Seedlings in low areas, especially in flat fields in eastern Virginia, faced the risk of drowning. The heavy, constant rains also created a good environment for pressure from seedling disease issues like damping off and root rot. Fortunately, David’s sorghum weathered the late spring and grew out nicely. The same is true for most of the growers across southside and central Virginia. In fact, the middle and late summer moisture was a boon for both corn and sorghum plants in later stages of development.

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This sorghum has developed a head but the gain has not filled yet.

Grain sorghum looks like corn throughout its early growth stages, but rather than developing ears, it grows a head with small, rounded seeds that appear as pyramidal cluster. The grain must be harvested before it becomes dry enough to “shatter” or fall off prematurely before or during harvest. Ideally, it should be harvested between 17 and 20% moisture to prevent losses at harvest. However, grain at these moisture levels will spoil easily during storage, so the harvested grain must be dried so that it reaches a safe storage moisture level of 10-12%.

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The grain shown here is well-developed and almost ready for harvest.

The future of sorghum in the state looks bright. Sorghum grain is not a complete replacement for corn and not all growers have the equipment to grow and dry it or access to an increasing market, but acreages in parts of the state near large buyers are expected to increase. This year, the drought-ready traits of the crop did not have an opportunity to shine. However, in view of the uncertainty of next year’s weather, many sorghum producers will be better equipped to withstand a dry year. Sorghum is not new to everyone, but thanks to new growers like David and expanding markets in and around the state, it is enjoying a resurgence and helping farmers mitigate risk and diversify their operations.

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Additional Resources for Readers:

Sorghum Marketability

Sorghum Variety Data

United Sorghum Checkoff Program Mid Atlantic Production Handbook

Meet the Bowmans, makers of sorghum molasses.

P1070796 (1024x768)Molasses-making has become a rare art, but a few Virginians still carry on the old homesteading practice using sorghum, a plant that came from Africa and is used in various forms for grain, biofuel, and silage. The molasses that shows up on store shelves is made from sugar canes or sugar beets, and technically the thick, sweet product created from the sorghum plant is “sorghum syrup.” However, the traditional title of “sorghum molasses” still stands amongst many producers and the two names are sometimes used interchangeably. “Sweet sorghum” is the moniker used to categorize the unique varieties chosen for molasses-making that have more stalk juice and sugars than the forage or grain sorghum varieties do.

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Grain from the head of the sorghum plant is saved for seed.

Sorghum looks similar to corn when it begins to grow. Sweet sorghum varieties grow particularly tall. The plants develop heads containing seeds, which are cut off prior to harvest so that the stalk juices remain high in sugar. Sugar content in the stalks drops as the seed heads become more and more mature. Some seed heads are saved for the next years’ crop. Seed-saving is important because certain sweet sorghum seeds have become rather rare and some growers have to cross state lines to seek out particular varieties.

P1070789 - Copy (1024x768)Once the stalks have grown up and the plant is mature enough to cut, the molasses-making crowd must assemble. Molasses-making tends to be a community affair, after all, and the more hands to cut, haul, carry, and stir the molasses, the better. The harvest must take place before a fall frost hits because sorghum, like corn, is a summer crop that does not tolerate cold weather. This year, Don and Betty Bowman of central Virginia invited friends and neighbors to their sorghum harvest as they have done for many years in the past. There is usually so much sorghum to cut that the family gets started in the field the evening before molasses-making day, and this year was no exception. The next day, volunteers finish cutting down the last of the stalks and loading them onto a wagon that carries them to the mill site. An early start is key because the sorghum takes nearly all day to complete. The 2013 effort was already in full swing by 8:00 AM on molasses day.P1070675 (1024x768)

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P1070730 (1024x768)Once the wagonloads of sorghum are driven back to the molasses-making site, the extraction process begins. In the past, the Bowmans fed the stalks into a horse-drawn mill, and then they made a technological leap by powering the mill with a lawn tractor. Mrs. Bowman humorously recalls having to sit on the ground to feed stalks into the mill while it was running so that it would not hit her in the head each time it circled around.  According to Mrs. Bowman, this method still required upwards of three hours to complete, so the family came up with an even better solution and began to power their mill with a belt running off a stationary tractor.

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P1070707 - Copy (1024x768)As the canes are crushed in the rollers, juice is screened and collected into a bucket which connects to a tube that transports the juice downhill to the vat station. Here, the juice does not immediately enter the vat. First, it travels through another series of screens that prevent fibers and plant particles from staying in the juice as it fills the vat. The vat that the Bowmans use is a batch-type system that cooks one large pan of juice at once. Some producers use a “continuous flow” system that gradually creates molasses as juice travels through a series of compartments. P1070688 - Copy (1024x768)

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P1070715 (768x1024)P1070719 (1024x768)Boiling does not begin until all the stalks have been fed through the mill and extraction is complete. The vat is set over a fire pit that is lit and monitored closely to ensure that the temperatures are appropriate. Volunteers keep the fire hot so that the juice will begin to boil. At this time, someone must stir the vat and agitate the bottom so that the sorghum does not burn. Once the juice reaches a full boil, people take turns skimming proteins and coagulated components off the top surface of the juice. If the fire gets too hot, the juice boils too high and overflows.

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These tools were fashioned for skimming juice in the vat.

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P1070752 (1024x768)The boiling and skimming step is the longest part of the process. It can take nearly all day, and sometimes can last into the night. The fire continues to keep the vat boiling which kills bacteria and cooks more and more water out of the juice. When the sorghum nears the right temperature and density, the fire is cut back and the final skimming continues. The Bowmans have found that overcooking or undercooking leads to a lower-quality product, so they occasionally put their finished product back on the fire pit for more boiling or they add water and reboil the vat to thin molasses that has gotten too thick. The finished vat cools a bit, and then the Bowmans transfer the molasses to a metal tank with a shutoff valve that allows them to bottle it more easily.P1070768 (768x1024)

This year’s quarter-acre sorghum plot yielded about nine gallons of finished molasses. Typically it takes 6-12 gallons of raw juice to cook into one gallon of sorghum molasses. What happens to the crushed, discarded sorghum plant material? The Bowmans let their cattle access the pile, and the cows eat the stalks with enthusiasm.

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P1070771 - Copy (1024x768)Finished sorghum molasses has a golden-brown hue and is enjoyed as a sweetener on biscuits and desserts. Virginia’s sorghum molasses makers might be scattered across the state, but the families who continue the practice seem to universally enjoy a rich tradition of sharing and fellowship with the many friends and neighbors who visit year after year to help.

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P1070763 - Copy (1024x768) Spike the helper dog thinks that supervising molasses making is hard work.

Additional Resources for Readers:

Processing Sweet Sorghum for Syrup

Sweet Sorghum for Syrup

National Sweet Sorghum Producers & Processors Association Webpage