As corn withers, farmers turn to drought-friendly sorghum

Nebraska farmer Donald Bloss in front of one of his sorghum fields. Many farmers are turning to sorghum in drought, because it requires far less water than corn.

(CBS News) - PAWNEE CITY, Neb. - Drought is taking a devastating toll on America's farmland. Hundreds of thousands of acres of corn is withering in the dry heat, pushing prices to near record levels and causing a panic among livestock feeders and ethanol producers.

But some farmers say there may be a solution growing right in front of our eyes.

As Donald Bloss and his son Mark walk through their dying corn fields in Pawnee City, Neb. they see signs of life just rows away.

The corn -- as in much of the Great Plains -- is all dry and dead. But directly adjacent is a lush green crop field -- one that Mark Bloss says isn't even done growing in yet.

The green oasis is a grain called sorghum. It's primarily used as livestock feed and as an alternative to corn in ethanol. Donald Bloss has been growing it for 45 years.

Sorghum is dependable, he said. Rain, shine or drought -- "it's pretty forgiving."

In normal weather conditions, corn can out produce sorghum by nearly 50 percent. But sorghum only needs a third of the water it takes to grow corn. Its roots run deeper. And its leaves help it retain moisture longer. Bloss says 30 percent of his fields are used to grow sorghum.

"A lot of us in this area stopped raising corn," he said. "I needed the income and sorghum was a very solid income."

Because of the lingering drought, the Department of Agriculture predicts farmers will harvest a million and a half more acres of sorghum this year compared to 2011.

Professor Ismail Dweitkat at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln has been working the last 13 years to improve sorghum's harvest potential. He's trying to grow genetic hybrids to be more pesticide resistant so they can produce more grain. He says that will entice more farmers to plant sorghum -- and that it could even surpass corn as a crop.

"Yes it can. Sorghum is more efficient in terms of utilizing the sun, the temperature and the water to produce more grain per unit compared to corn," he said.

Bloss said that without sorghum, he'd be "more nervous" with "more sleepless nights."

His sorghum crop will be ready by mid-September and the Blosses expect to harvest all of it.

  • Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.