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Mouldy sorghum finds its niche

Smallholder farmers supplying agri-processing industries is nothing new; for some crops like sugar cane and cotton it is the standard practice. But for a low value staple like sorghum, attracting industry to buy surplus from smallholders is surely a rarity. In India, rainy, or kharif season sorghum is somewhere near the bottom of the pile as crops go. Planted in June or July, its harvesting period often coincides with prolonged rains in October and November. Wet heads of sorghum typically suffer mould growth both in the field and later when stored, the red or white 'glumes' turning black, and for humans at least, unappetising. Such an uninspiring crop tends to attract little effort from the grower. Many simply broadcast grain and return after three or four months to see if any yield has been achieved; if the crop fails the field is given over to livestock for grazing.

Surprising then that in the state of Andhra Pradesh, rainy season sorghum may have found a valuable niche in the market. Indeed for India's booming poultry industry the crop could be a saviour. With annual growth in broiler production of around 20%, and egg production rising 10% per year, Indian poultry producers are struggling with feed supply. The shortage is largely due to the poor performance of maize, a major ingredient in commercial poultry feed mixes; nationally maize yields are only increasing at around 3% per year, and are not expected to improve. Could mouldy sorghum fill the gap?

Energising poultry growth
Recent feed trials by a Hyderabad based university suggest it could. In part-for-part replacement trials for broilers, researchers at the Acharya N.G. Ranga Agricultural University have found that sorghum can replace up to 100% of the maize used in feed mixes, with no detrimental effect on bird growth. The scientists also tested the effectiveness of moulded grain and found that using up to 75% moulded sorghum grain in place of normal mould-free grain, made no difference to bird health or growth. Large scale feed trials are now being carried out to test the new feed mixes with layer birds.

Sorghum growing in trial plots at ICRISAT in Andhra PradeshWhile the results are interesting, what impact are they likely to have either on sorghum growers or the feed industry? The answer is encouraging. Over the next two months more than 500 farmers in two districts of Andhra Pradesh will be harvesting their kharif sorghum and bulking it in their villages for supply to seven feed manufacturers. They expect to have good yields to sell, for the sorghum plants they are growing are high yielding hybrids, introduced to 74 farmers in 2003 by scientists from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). The hybrids were found to yield four to five times more than the local varieties, and were enthusiastically adopted by more than 500 farmers in June 2004.

Incentives for partnership
The market link between the sorghum growers and the feed industry has resulted from a coalition of farmers' associations, poultry feed companies and scientists, a coalition that all three groups are set to benefit from. The farmers have been given advice on cultivation and harvesting from the scientists, and have been supplied with improved seed by members of an ICRISAT-private sector consortium. They are expected to have a 15-20% increase in their annual income from the sale of sorghum, and by bulking their grain and selling as groups they have established a good bargaining position with the feed manufacturers. The manufacturers have also benefited, discovering the potential of sorghum as an alternative feed source, and gaining an assured supply, which they can collect at just a few locations. And the scientists have learned more about farmer preferences for sorghum traits, and about poultry feed formulations. A successful coalition based on pooling strengths and sharing benefits.

*This coalition building project has been funded by the UK DFID Crop Post Harvest Programme

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1st November 2004