Livestock producers in North Carolina and other mid-Atlantic states are sharing some high-tech tools to fix a big, expensive food disparity.

The problem is quickly evident in North Carolina. Farmers statewide produce about 100 million bushels of corn and other animal feed ever year. But North Carolina’s pork and poultry producers feed at least three times that amount.

And it’s a problem throughout the mid-Atlantic region, where producers have for years been bridging the feed gap by transporting grain from the Midwest — and sometimes from as far away as Brazil.

That’s obviously expensive. Train transportation has become an increasing headache because it’s being used to transport oil. As a result, mid-Atlantic meat animal producers are paying premiums of more than $1 a bushel to transport their feed. Since feed costs are a major portion of their expenses, the transportation burden is cutting margins drastically. Some industry leaders say the disparity could even threaten the sustainability of the livestock industry in the region.

Also, mid-Atlantic producers have problems controlling quality, because Midwestern growers tend to sell their best-quality grain to nearby markets.

Consortium changing ingrained system

All that’s beginning to change, however, thanks to the Mid Atlantic Feed Grains Project — the first of what may be several undertaken by a North Carolina Biotechnology Center initiative called the Biotechnology Crop Commercialization Center. The Mid Atlantic project — and the Crop Commercialization Center activities — are funded by the North Carolina Pork Council, the Golden LEAF Foundation and pork producer Murphy-Brown LLC.

This collaborative venture is challenging academic research and industry experts in North and South Carolina, Virginia and Maryland to put their heads together and find ways to produce at least 50 percent more animal feed grain from crops especially well-suited to conditions in the mid-Atlantic region. It’s turning the region into a unique partnership zone for sharing commercialization ideas and research lab and field discoveries.

That means moving beyond the traditional crops of corn and soybeans for animal feed, and evaluating other crops that might offer a higher regional payback. Even fruit and vegetable crops may be considered for use as livestock feed.

Grain sorghum, also known as milo, is seen as the best option to begin with, however. Field trials have already begun on target varieties of the milo most likely to succeed in the relatively mild and humid mid-Atlantic conditions. As a result, the United Sorghum Checkoff Program (USCP) and other stakeholders have also thrown in support.

NCBiotech’s Ulanch leads Crop Commercialization Center

The Golden LEAF funding enabled NCBiotech to hire Paul Ulanch, Ph.D., MBA, to serve as executive director of the Biotechnology Crop Commercialization Center. The nearly $100,000 grant from the USCP is leveraging the Crop Commercialization Center at NCBiotech, which administers the Consortium program. The Pork Council and Murphy-Brown funding specifically targets research support.

The Consortium members hope they’ll be able to glean additional research funding from USCP, the United States Department of Agriculture and other entities.

High Plains drought takes toll, even on sorghum

Most U.S. grain sorghum is now grown in Kansas and the High Plains area of Texas, where it’s dry, said Ulanch. “Sorghum doesn’t need as much water as corn. But the High Plains area is having drought problems that even affect sorghum yields. On the other hand, we tend to have quite a bit more moisture, so we need to have sorghum varieties for the mid-Atlantic that can resist fungal pests.”

Now, the Biotechnology Crop Commercialization Center is making numerous short- and long-term investments in sorghum research projects to optimize production:

  • Clemson University is working on sorghum germplasm development, to find the varieties that grow best in each agricultural area of each of the four states;
  • The Crop Commercialization Center is funding small-plot Official Variety Trials at North Carolina State, Clemson and Virginia Tech universities and at the University of Maryland, testing some 55 different varieties of commercially developed seed;
  • The Crop Commercialization Center is also evaluating the possibility of studying fungal-resistant varieties and fungicides in a collaboration between NC State and Virginia Tech universities;
  • And the Crop Commercialization Center is actively seeking funding for feed grain logistics research at NC State, to work out ways to store and transport increased local grain production most efficiently.

Though these projects are largely driven by the swine industry, producing more local feed grain will also benefit the region’s poultry and other livestock producers.

Push lifts milo from zero to 120,000 acres in region

Since the sorghum push began in 2011 in North Carolina, primarily along the I-95 corridor in the eastern part of the state, the biggest planting was in 2013 on more than 120,000 acres across the mid-Atlantic region. The 2014 acreage dropped in unison with plummeting corn prices, so farmers understandably chased profits by planting more soybeans.

By the time the region’s farmers start planting the 2015 sorghum crop in early June, Ulanch said, he hopes the Crop Commercialization Center will be able to find funding to help expand the available data on the value of sorghum as a go-to rotation crop for mid-Atlantic farmers.

Sorghum is less volatile in yields than is corn, he noted. “So even though the price of sorghum is pegged at 95 percent of corn’s price, sorghum promises to give farmers more year-to-year income stability than corn, between wet and dry growing seasons.”

Farmer Thomas Pritcher sees ‘a hidden gem’

Farmer Thomas Pritcher agrees.

“I believe there’s a hidden gem in sorghum,” said Pritcher, who along with his partner, Tim Shelton, farm approximately 800 acres in Wilson and Greene Counties, near the small Wilson County town of Saratoga.

Pritcher and Shelton grow tobacco, corn, soybeans, wheat, a few cattle, and now sorghum. They’ve grown sorghum each year since 2012, even though they’ve had mixed results. “It was good the first year, not so good the second, and good the third,” said Pritcher. But he remains convinced grain sorghum has an important place in North Carolina’s agricultural future.

“Like anything, planting grain is a risk-reward deal,” he explained. “You risk a lot more with corn. It probably takes about $500 to plant an acre of corn. And if all things go right, in the last two weeks of June and in early July, if all things fall in line, you get a high reward with corn. But in North Carolina, rarely do we get all those things to line up, especially at the tail end of June.

‘It’s all about managing risk.’

“Sorghum is a more basic crop,” Pritcher added. “It’ll wait for water – not forever, but it will wait. It broadens the window of opportunity. It also costs less to plant – in ballpark numbers about $300 to $350 an acre, versus $500 for corn. So even though the reward isn’t likely to be as great, it’s all about managing risk. We can plant corn, with higher risk, and still have something a little less risky in the field.”

Pritcher said sorghum represents a special kind of bonus for eastern North Carolina. “That frankly is not corn land,” he said. “We’ve traditionally planted beans after beans, so sorghum is a valuable rotational tool, for several reasons. Probably one of the most important ones is that it allows us to use different herbicides, which fights the development of resistant weeds that can come over the years from only using Roundup.”

The young mid-Atlantic sorghum market still needs time to become established. “A lot of people jumped into sorghum in 2013,” said Pritcher. “But sorghum doesn’t like wet feet, so these growers didn’t get good results that year because it was a wet one. So now people ask how it can be profitable.” He’s convinced it can – and will.

Transportation costs, weather, commodity prices and a lot of factors can challenge farmers everywhere. But now, expanding partnerships throughout the mid-Atlantic region are ramping up sorghum in the quest for more locally grown animal feed.

Lots more.

Editor’s note: Veteran journalist Jim Shamp is director of public relations for the N.C. Biotechnology Center.

(C) NC Biotech Center