USDA developing cold tolerant sorghum

Reported by: Rebecca Rivers
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Updated: 2/19/2013 8:26 am

Gloria Burow and Chad Hayes are two scientists working at the USDA crop research center here in Lubbock to help develop new and improved seed varieties of sorghum. Creating a sorghum crop that can withstand colder temperatures could have some major advantages according to Burow.

"We can take advantage of the moisture available from the spring season, and at the same time we can have varieties that have longer growing seasons, which is higher yield potential," Burow said. "The other possibility of this is that we can grow early varieties that have a short season and then we can possibly ask farmers to cultivate two growing seasons of sorghum."

Hayes said that they are using sorghum varieties from across the world to select different traits to help sorghum thrive in our West Texas environment.

"Sorghum is primarily a crop that's from Africa, and so it's known for its drought tolerant capabilities," Hayes said. So one of the problems with sorghum is that it does not have very good cold tolerance, and so these sorghums are not originally from Africa, they're from China. So something that can germinate under cool conditions, maybe early April into early May. But then also it will need the other high yielding traits. It will need drought resistance and other drought genes, and so you really need to have the complete package that works for farmers."

But as you can tell from the size of these plants, they need to be much shorter to fit in our programs.

"Here in this greenhouse we are showing one of the populations that we have developed where one of the parents has early season cold tolerance," Burow said.

"We're really interested just in the cold genes from these plants. They're too tall for Texas growing conditions and so what we're doing is using these to map the individual genes for cold tolerance, and then incorporate those genes into short, early season varieties that farmers and other seed companies can use that are more applied to growing conditions on the High Plains," Hayes said.

And with increased talk of higher numbers of sorghum acres being planted here in our future, Burow and Hayes have their work cut out for them. Trying to keep certain traits like plant size and drought tolerance in tact, plus adding cold tolerance and early emergence genes takes a lot of trial and error.

"Sorghum is one of the most perfect fit grain crops to cultivate. It uses relatively 50% of the amount of water needed for other cereal crops," Burow said. "All of our work is supported by the United States Sorghum Checkoff Program and the National Sorghum Producers, and I would like to acknowledge them for that."

One of the major advantages of the state of the art USDA research facility is their ability to grow sorghum and other crops year round. This speeds up the breeding process and allows them to make progress quicker creating new and improved crop varieties.

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