December 19, 2011

Sweet Sorghum could fill Void between Sugarcane Harvests

After a very disappointing year of sugarcane production, Brazilian sugarcane producers are looking for ways to better utilize their land and equipment during the intra-harvest period, which is between December and March. Researchers in the state of Sao Paulo think that sweet sorghum may be a viable option for producing sugar and ethanol during this period.

Sweet sorghum, which has its origins in Africa, is different that grain sorghum in that it has high levels of sucrose and it can grow three meters tall and be processed into sugar and ethanol. The plant has a growth cycle of 100 to 120 days, so it can be planted in October or November and then be harvested and processed into sugar or ethanol in February or March, when the sugar/ethanol mills are not operating due to a lack of sugarcane.

Sweet sorghum yields can be as high as 50 tons per hectare, which is approximately 70% as much as from sugarcane. The amount of sugar and ethanol that can be produced from sweet sorghum is less than for sugarcane, but the cost of producing sweet sorghum is only one-third that of sugarcane. Sweet sorghum is planted from seeds, which is faster and cheaper than sugarcane which is planted by putting pieces of seed-cane in the ground. Sweet sorghum is planted annually, so the land is not committed to six or seven years of production like it is for sugarcane production. In 2012/13, estimates are that there could be as much as 100,000 hectares of sweet sorghum harvested in southern Brazil.

After the juice is extracted from the stalk, the leftover residue can be used for cattle rations in feedlot operations. Sweet sorghum is also being considered for use in micro distilleries for the production of spirits.