P. R. Carter1, D. R. Hicks2, A. R. Kaminski1, J.
D. Doll1, K. A. Kelling1, G. L. Worf1
1Departments of Agronomy, Soil Science and Plant Pathology, College of
Agricultural and Life Sciences and Cooperative Extension Service, University of
Wisconsin-Madison, WI 53706.
2Department of Agronomy and Plant Genetics, University of Minnesota,
St. Paul, MN 55108.
Broomcorn (Sorghum vulgare var. technicum) is a type of sorghum that
is used for making brooms and whiskbrooms. It differs from other sorghums in that
it produces heads with fibrous seed branches that may be as much as 36 in. long.
Although the origin of broomcorn is obscure, sorghum apparently originated in central
Africa. Production of this crop then spread to the Mediterranean, where people used
long-branched sorghum panicles for making brooms in the Dark Ages. Broomcorn may
have evolved as a result of repeated selection of seed from heads that had the longest
panicle branches. The broomcorn plant was first described in Italy in the late 1500s.
Benjamin Franklin is credited with introducing broomcorn to the United States in
the early 1700s. Initially, broomcorn was grown only as a garden crop for use in
the home. By 1834 commercial broomcorn production had spread to several states in
the Northeast and started moving west. Illinois was the leading producer of broomcorn
in the 1860s, but production of the crop in that state virtually ceased in 1967.
Some production has occurred in Wisconsin since 1948.
Domestic broomcorn acreage is low because of the limited demand for the crop and
its vast labor requirements, particularly for harvesting. In the early 1970s, approximately
100,000 acres of broomcorn were harvested in the United States annually, with the
highest acreages in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. It is also produced
in Illinois and Iowa. Half of the domestic needs for broomcorn are imported from
The long fibrous panicle of the broomcorn plant is used for making brooms. A ton
of broomcorn brush makes 80 to 100 dozen brooms. High to quality broomcorn brush
is pea-green in color and free from discolorations. The fibers should be straight,
smooth, pliable, and approximately 20 in. long. Brush that is overripe, reddened,
bleached, crooked, coarse or flat is considered poor quality.
The stalks are of very little value for forage. The mature seed is similar to oat
in feed value.
III. Growth Habits:
Broomcorn is a coarse annual grass that grows 6 to 15 ft tall. It has woody stalks
with dry pith and 8 to 15 nodes and leaves above the ground. The upper internode,
or peduncle, is 8 to 18 in. long and topped by a series of closely compressed panicle
nodes from which the fibers develop. The fibers, usually 12 to 24 in. long, are
branched toward the tip, and the flowers and seeds are borne at the tips of the
small branches. The seeds are brown, broadly boat-shaped and enclosed in tan, reddish
tan or brown, pubescent glumes. The glumes generally remain on the mature seeds,
and 30,000 seeds weigh approximately one pound.
Plants of standard varieties range from 6 to 15 ft in height; dwarf varieties range
from 3 to 7 ft in height. Dwarf varieties usually produce one or more tillers, which
also bear usable brush. Some dwarf varieties develop constrictions near the base
of the peduncle, which provide a ready breaking point when the brush is pulled from
IV. Environmental Requirements:
Broomcorn can be grown in practically every state. It will produce a fair quality
of brush wherever the temperatures are high enough for corn to grow well. Like other
sorghums, it is relatively tolerant of heat, drought and poor culture. The best
brush, however, is produced where the summers are warm and the soils are moist and
fertile. Annual rainfall of 15 to 32 in. is adequate. Poor soils and extremely cool
or dry weather result in inferior brush.
Broomcorn does best in warm, fertile soils. Deep alluvial soils usually produce
brush of higher yield and quality than shallower soils. The crop can be grown on
rich bottom lands or sandy uplands.
V. Cultural Practices:
A. Seedbed Preparation:
In the Midwest, the land is usually plowed, double-disked and then harrowed prior
to planting broomcorn.
B. Seeding Date:
Broomcorn is usually planted between May 1 and June 15.
C. Method and Rate of Seeding:
In humid regions, broomcorn is planted in 36 to 40 in. rows, with plants spaced
3 in. apart. A thinner stand (with plants 6 to 9 in. apart in the rows) is used
in the drier western broomcorn districts. The quantity of seed required ranges from
2 to 4 lb/acre (60,000 to 100,000 seeds/acre).
D. Fertility and Lime Requirements:
Nutrient requirements for most sorghums include 60 to 120 lb/acre of nitrogen, depending
on soil organic matter level, and 30 lb/acre each of phosphate (P2O5)
and potash (K2O) at medium soil test levels. Animal manure or a balanced
commercial fertilizer can be applied. A soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5 may result in highest
E. Variety Selection:
The varieties of broomcorn grown in the United States can be divided into three
groups: Standard, Western Dwarf and Whisk Dwarf. Standard broomcorn varieties usually
grow 6 to 15 ft tall. They bear a brush 16 to 36 in. long. The "handle" or stem
of the brush is at least 8 in. long and is cut at harvest. Evergreen, Black Spanish
(Black Jap) and California Golden are varieties of standard broomcorn.
Western Dwarf broomcorn varieties
usually grow 4 to 7 ft. The brush (15 to 24 in. long) is weakly attached to the
stalk and can be pulled or jerked off at harvest time without cutting. About one-half
to two-thirds of the length of the brush is covered by the "boot," or upper leaf
sheath, at harvest. The Western Dwarf broomcorn varieties, including Evergreen Dwarf,
Scarborough and Black Spanish Dwarf, are grown in the semiarid western areas.
Whisk Dwarf broomcorn usually grows
to a height of 22 to 4 ft and produces a fine slender brush about 12 to 18 in. in
length. The stem is easily detached from the stalk, and the brush is harvested by
pulling or jerking. Whisk Dwarf is used for making whisk brooms and for the insides
of floor brooms. The only variety of Whisk Dwarf grown in this country is Jap or
F. Weed Control:
Weeds are controlled by cultivation until the broomcorn plants are large enough
to compete with the weeds.
G. Diseases and Their Control:
All varieties of broomcorn appear to be susceptible to fungal smut (Sphacelotheca
sorghi), which destroys the seed heads. Another disease, Sorghum rust (Puccinia
purpurea), attacks the leaves of broomcorn but does not cause appreciable
damage or loss. Sorghum crops are subject to a number of other diseases that can
be limiting, especially in wet climates. These include fungi that cause foliage
blights and stalk rots. Rotations help reduce their severity and keep them under
H. Insects and Other Predators and Their Control:
No information available.
Broomcorn brush turns from pale yellow to light green before maturity. It should
be harvested when the entire brush is green from the tip down to the base of the
peduncle. The fibers will be weak at the bottom if they are harvested while the
lower ends are still yellow. The brush often begins to redden and become less flexible
about 4 or 5 days after the proper stage for harvesting.
Tall standard broomcorn is "tabled" to allow some drying before it is removed from
the field. The tabler walks backward between two rows and breaks the stalks diagonally
across each other to form a "table" out of the two rows that is 22 to 3 ft high.
The brush is then cut, pulled out of the boot, or leaf sheath, and placed on the
"table" to dry for a short time (less than 24 hours). The the brush is transferred
to a curing shed.
The heads of dwarf varieties are jerked or pulled from the stalks and allowed to
dry for a day in bunches on the ground or between the stalks before they are hauled
from the field.
Broomcorn may be threshed either before or after curing. However, threshing before
curing results in better quality brush because the fine branches are less likely
to be knocked off when the brush is still moist and flexible.
J. Drying and Storage:
The highest quality broomcorn is cured in 4 to 6 in. layers on slats in sheds. Curing
requires 10 to 20 days, after which the broomcorn is baled. Bales weigh about 330
When hauling, curing, threshing and baling, the brush must be handled in small bunches
to keep the fibers straight and untangled. Because of the special care that is required,
the operations of harvesting, curing, threshing and baling may take 90 to 130 man-hours
per ton of shed-cured brush cut from tabled stalks.
VI. Yield Potential and Performance Results:
Normal broomcorn yields range from 300 to 600 lb/acre, or enough to make 150 to
350 brooms/acre. VII. Economics of Production and Markets: There is a very limited
demand for broomcorn. It is advisable to identify a market before planting the crop.
VIII. Information Sources:
Principles of Field Crop Production. 1976. J.H. Martin, W.H. Leonard, and D.L. Stamp.
Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. (pp. 401-404).
Crop Production. 1972. H.D. Hughes and D.S. Metcalfe. Third Edition. Macmillan Publishing
Co., Inc. Chapter 23 (p. 317).
Broomcorn--The Frontiersman's Cash Crop. 1953. J.H. Martin. Econ. Bot. 7:163-181.