Most, if not all, feed rations for livestock are based around the same grains: corn and wheat. There’s an upstart in that community though that may benefit those raising animals, and specifically, those raising chickens.

A recent webinar titled “Exploring the benefits of U.S. sorghum in poultry feed” sponsored by the United Sorghum Checkoff delved into the details surrounding ongoing research of feeding sorghum to chickens.

Sorghum, also known as broomcorn, is either cultivated in warmer climates or naturalized in open plains. In 2021, the world production of sorghum was 61 million tons, with the U.S. being the leading grower. It is rich in protein, dietary fiber, B vitamins and minerals.

The benefits of American sorghum are being felt worldwide. Kicking things off in this discussion was Dag Henning Edvardsen, the R&D manager of poultry feed for Norgesfor AS in Norway. He explained that United Sorghum Checkoff sent Norway 96 tons of sorghum for test production, on which they did a complete nutrition analysis. They found a full amino acid profile in the grain, and that it’s low in tannins.

Edvardsen’s team wanted to look at using whole seed vs. ground sorghum for poultry feed, as whole seed feed requires less processing. The whole grains were successful in their trials and there was good durability with pellets, even with 40% whole sorghum (which was mixed with ground wheat).

Broiler diets in Norway are typically wheat/soy based. Farmers there tested 10%, 20% and 30% sorghum totals in feed rations, which mainly replaced imported corn and wheat. Compared to previous diet results in the same coops, there was no feed rejection and normal rates of growth were observed, according to Edvardsen. He did note, however, that sorghum has lower protein but higher energy than wheat.

Serving up sorghum to chickens

The heads of grain sorghum plants growing on a field at Rocky Ford in Colorado. Photo courtesy of Howard F. Schwartz, Colorado State,

Presenting research from America were Mireille Arguelles-Ramos, Ph.D., and Ahmed Ali, DVM, Ph.D., both of Clemson University.

Poultry nutrition research is ongoing at Clemson, where they are testing the effectiveness of novel sorghum varieties in the control of enteric diseases in broilers; studying changes in the intestinal microbiome of broilers when they are fed sorghum-based diets compared to corn; and determining the amino acid digestibility of American sorghum varieties in broilers.

Arguelles-Ramos noted that the protozoan Eimeria maxima (EM) and bacterium Clostridium perfringens (CP) can lead to necrotic enteritis in chicks one to 28 days old. To see if diet could help control them, they fed chicks four diets (of corn, red/bronze sorghum, white/tan sorghum and U.S. #2 sorghum) to see if the different feed would have any benefits.

“This study demonstrated improved gut health and minimal impact on growth and efficiency of broilers fed select sorghum varieties when challenged with EM/CP,” she reported.

In another nod to the global appeal of the grain, Arguelles-Ramos noted a study in Kenya which found no statistical differences in body weight, body weight gain, average daily gain, food intake, feed efficiency or mortality for broilers fed sorghum-based diets.

“Effects of replacing corn with sorghum in laying hen diet on their performance, behavior and welfare” was the work discussed by Ali. The objective of the study was to determine the impact of partial replacement of corn with U.S. #2 high protein sorghum or U.S. #2 sorghum, either with or without the supplementation of commercial canthaxanthin-like substances on laying hens. (Canthaxanthin is a keto-carotenoid pigment widely distributed in nature which makes things orange in color. In this case, it would be added to chicken diets to create more boldly colored yolks.)

“Although replacing corn with sorghum impacted yolk color, the inclusion of canthaxanthin-like pigment improved the color,” Ali said, adding that yolk color is not as important in the U.S. as it can be in other markets.

Brent Crafton, director of Feed Ingredient Utilization at United Sorghum Checkoff, noted that all U.S. sorghum is currently non-GMO and tannin-free. Ali said that first fact could be useful for egg producers.

“Think about the value-added market – you could have non-GMO eggs,” he said. “And think of the perspective of the health of the laying hens too.”

The conclusion of Ali’s study was similar to others: Birds fed either low- or high-protein sorghum-based diets (up to 50% replacement of dietary corn content) showed similar performance parameters, better internal egg quality in terms of albumen weight, higher blood proteins and antioxidant levels and better bone health when compared to birds fed corn-based diets across the lay phase (17 – 40 weeks of age).

As growing seasons change and certain regions of the U.S. become warmer, more farmers may be able to successfully grow and sell their sorghum. Those raising chickens, either for meat or for eggs, may then in turn be able to take advantage of a different grain for feed.

by Courtney Llewellyn