Machinery and Equipment Guide

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Machinery and equipment required for sweet sorghum production will vary depending on the operator’s production system preferences. The following discussion describes basic machinery and equipment needs for producing sweet sorghum, and it approximates costs incurred from operating machinery involved in the production process.

Machinery and Equipment Needs

Sweet sorghum producers have several machinery and equipment options, depending on their selected production methods. Producers may use a conventional production model, or they may choose reduced tillage or no-till operations. The following table outlines basic machinery and equipment requirements for producing sweet sorghum in conventional and no-till models.

For field preparation and planting, traditional equipment will work for sweet sorghum production. Conventional field preparation may include plowing and harrowing prior to planting. Alternatively, producers could use a disk for sweet sorghum tillage. Producers may also consider some tillage, like strip tillage, to encourage soil temperatures in planting furrows to rise more quickly. Such methods may be particularly helpful if a given field has significant residues. Depending on the soil pH level, lime application may be necessary.

To plant sweet sorghum, producers may choose to use grain drills or row-crop planters. A corn planter is a good option. In a minimum-till or no-till system, choosing a planter that can manage the field residue and place seeds in the soil will be important. To manage weed populations, producers should consider applying herbicides after planting yet before the seedlings emerge. Before selecting the preferred row spacing (i.e., 7.5-inch drill or 30-inch row), growers should consider the type of harvesting equipment that will be used to ensure that they match.

Sweet sorghum maintenance involves fertilizer and herbicide application and, in some cases, possibly seed head removal. Because nitrogen may burn sweet sorghum leaves, producers should apply nitrogen using side-dressing. If removing seed heads, then producers have a mechanical option to use high-clearance spray equipment fitted with cutters.

To harvest sweet sorghum, producers have traditionally relied on manual labor, but hiring labor can be expensive. Mechanical harvest is preferred for large production volumes. Producers have several mechanical options, and each method has its advantages and disadvantages. A combine or forage chopper are both options for harvesting sweet sorghum. Forage choppers parse sweet sorghum into many pieces, which are collected in a wagon, but those pieces can be difficult to separate into components such as seed, leaves and stalk. Chopped sweet sorghum has greater bulk density. This can decrease transportation costs per pound and improve the cost-effectiveness of shipping the feedstock longer distances. If using a forage corn harvester, the harvested sweet sorghum must undergo processing soon after harvest. With forage corn harvester use, juice loss and sucrose instability are potential disadvantages.

Harvesting sweet sorghum with a mower conditioner and round baling the cut material is another option, but the challenge with round baling would be devising a system for separating the juice from the other material included in the bales.

Alternatively, producers may use equipment similar to that needed for harvesting sugarcane when harvesting sweet sorghum. Sugarcane harvesters tend to be quite expensive, however. Corn binders are another option. They cut whole stalks, but they’re not commonly used in U.S. agriculture today, so access to them may be limited.

After harvest, producers may use wagons to move sweet sorghum stalks or other plant material from the field to a transportation site, processor or other temporary location.

Equipment and Machinery Needs for Sweet Sorghum Production*

Conventional Production No-Till Production
Tractor X X
Tandem Disk X
Planter X
No-till Planter X
Fertilizer Spreader X X
Sprayer X X
Forage Chopper X X
Hauling X X

* Assumes that operation exclusively grows sweet sorghum for sugar extraction

Owned and Operated Equipment or Custom Hire Services

When considering crop production machinery and equipment needs, producers have the option to used owned equipment or hire a custom service provider. The decision will depend on an operation’s current machinery and equipment inventory, time available for conducting machinery operations and the difference in cost. The following table compares projected costs for the two scenarios. In the first, a grower owns and operates equipment. In the second, a grower hires a custom service provider to carry out equipment-related work. The machinery costs are meant to represent total costs incurred for operating equipment used in sweet sorghum production for biofuel use.

Estimated Machinery Costs and Custom Rates, Per Acre Per Year

Machinery Cost Custom Rate
Tandem Disk $12.60 $12.74
Planter $12.70 $13.71
No-till Planter $15.30 $15.34
Fertilizer Spreader $7.62 $5.34
Sprayer $3.70 $5.98
Forage Chopper $81.40 $180.00
Hauling $39.88 $61.00

* Chopping and hauling rate may vary depending on proximity to ultimate market. These estimates assume 20 miles to market.


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