“Feed energy is the biggest cost in livestock production, and right now it costs our hog producers about $10 per animal more in feed cost compared with a producer in the Midwest,” Coffey says.

“When you have that kind of economic disadvantage, solely based on where in the U.S. you are located, you have some real long-term sustainability issues,” he adds.

About two years ago Murhphy-Brown and Smithfield Foods made a commitment to change the dynamics of raising livestock in the Southeast.

To be competitive, they determined they will need at least 50 percent of their feed to be grown in their primary procurement area of North Carolina, northern South Carolina, and southeast Virginia.

The company fed about 80 million bushels of grain to livestock in 2011.

Overall, North Carolina alone has a need for about 300 million bushels of corn and produces on a good year about one-third that much.

Despite efforts by dedicated university researchers like North Carolina State University Corn Specialist Ronnie Heiniger and other industry leaders, the trend line for corn production in the region has gone down over the past 20 years.

Murphy-Brown has stepped up with research dollars to help change that trend, but Coffey says they realize this will be a long-term change and not one livestock producers can wait for, considering the economic disadvantage they have faced for the past 4-5 years.

The company recognized an opportunity to increase grain sorghum in the region by identifying land that is not ideally suited to corn production, is highly susceptible to deer damage, and is good for double-cropping with soybeans.

To sweeten the pot, Murphy-Brown provided the ultimate incentive — money. The company paid growers 95 percent the value of corn for their grain sorghum. For some growers the profit from sorghum was better than corn.

In response to the financial opportunity, according to FSA growers responded by planting more than 70,000 acres of grain sorghum last year.

Some contend North Carolina may top 100,000 acres of grain in 2013 — that remains to be seen.

One hold back among growers is concern over crop insurance for sorghum. Coffey says they have initiated efforts through the National Sorghum Producers and the United Sorghum Check-off Program to update sorghum crop insurance in the region through RMA.

The big question for growers about grain sorghum remains marketability.

Whether Murphy-Brown will offer the same contracts for sorghum in 2013 is an often asked question at grower meetings.