Ceres, Syngenta continue sweet sorghum work in Brazil

By Susanne Retka Schill | October 29, 2013

Ceres Inc. and Syngenta AG have extended their joint market development agreement in Brazil, where Ceres has been introducing its sweet and high-biomass sorghum varieties at Brazilian ethanol mills. The two companies will continue to collaborate on field evaluations with mills. Syngenta will evaluate its portfolio of crop protection products alongside Ceres hybrids, while Ceres will provide both seed and research support.

Syngenta indicated that it plans to move forward with its evaluations aimed at registering additional crop protection products for sorghum. "We see sweet sorghum as a potential complement to sugarcane in ethanol production and we are working together with Ceres to identify the best protocols to fully protect and amplify the inherent potential of this crop," said Adriano Vilas Boas, global marketing director for sugarcane at Syngenta.

"We are pleased to be working with such a well-established leader to provide our mutual customers with more choices of crop protection products for sorghum," said Andre Franco, general manager of Ceres' local subsidiary, Ceres Sementes do Brasil Ltda. "Working together with Syngenta we have made important progress in fine-tuning crop management practices that can enhance yields through greater protection against pests, diseases and weeds."

Brazil’s ethanol industry is far more consolidated and vertically integrated than the U.S. corn ethanol industry, explained Gary Koppenjan, Ceres spokesman. The first industrial evaluations in 2010-11 demonstrated processing sweet sorghum requires no plant retrofits.  Since sugarcane cannot be stored, the mills operate about 200 days a year during the sugarcane harvest season when sugar content is highest. “We are developing and marketing our sweet sorghum hybrids as a drop in feedstock that can extend the season by up to 60 days,” he said.

This past season, sweet sorghum was planted on more than 3,000 hectares (6,000 acres) by more than 30 mills. The new crop in the region is targeted to fill a niche in the sugarcane production cycle. The perennial sugarcane crop is planted using stem cuttings and generally harvested for five years with yields dropping about 45 percent from year one to five, before the canes are removed and the crop replanted. “This renewal area,” Koppenjan explained, “represents about 15 percent of the hectares on any given year, about a million hectare market.” 

While sweet sorghum requires a seed planter, other equipment used for the two crops is the same. However, since sweet sorghum grows in as few as 90 to 120 days, it requires less water and inputs than sugarcane and production costs run about half, Koppenjan reported. “Sweet sorghum yields last season reached a high of 3,600 liters per hectare (385 gallons per acre), but showed greater variability than we were looking for,” he added.

“Our goal as a seed company is to continually develop new, improved hybrids each season,” Koppenjan said. “By raising the yield potential of our products, we can provide the mills with a larger buffer for when growing conditions or crop management execution fall short.  Since the first season of industrial trials in 2011, we have doubled yields per hectare of fermentable sugars, and expect to continue to make large gains with each generation of products.”

Ceres is also working with its high biomass sorghums in Brazil for use as a supplemental feedstock for power generation at Brazil mills that experience bagasse shortages at various times of year, or that are looking to extend their operations.