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New Crops News, Spring 1992, vol. 2 no. 1

Pearl Millet: Double Crop for Northern Indiana

Soybeans have never been a reliable double-crop after wheat for the northern third of Indiana, north of a line drawn between Lafayette and Richmond. Now, John Axtell, Robert Nielsen, and Greg Brown, Purdue University agronomists, are ready to try pearl millet as a possible new crop to fill this void under grants from Purdue's Crossroad '90 program and Purdue's New Crop Center, the latter supported by the Indiana Business Modernization and Technology Corporation. Axtell is convinced that millet has potentials as a double crop for over 200,000 acres in northern Indiana. Pearl millet has good drought tolerance, so it could withstand some of the late summer droughts in Indiana. More important, it requires a short growing season. It is possible to harvest a mature crop 60 to 65 days after it has been planted.

Germplasm has been obtained from millet breeding programs in Kansas and Nebraska, and a hybrid has been tested at the Purdue Agronomy Farm that yielded 2,000 to 4,000 lb. per acre when planted the second week in July and harvesting at the end of September.

Hybrid seed is planned for production in Mexico during the 1991-1992 winter for trials in northern Indiana field trials. Some of these trials will be in farmers' fields, and some will be on Purdue’s research farms. It shouldn't take too long to determine if pearl millet has potential for Indiana farms. Others are becoming aware of pearl millet’s potential; Pioneer recently employed a millet breeder from India to initiate a breeding program in the United States. Feeding trials with chickens and cattle in Kansas and Nebraska have been promising.

One of the present problems is that elevator operators are not set up to handle millet, so growers will have to be prepared to feed it in their own operation. Pearl millet has good digestibility and a relatively high protein content and has great potential for monogastric species such as hogs. Pearl millet, of course, is a preferred human food in Africa. In Niger, two-thirds of the population prefer pearl millet to any other grain. Most Nigerians will consume pearl millet porridge before they'll accept rice, wheat, or other cereals. Thus the acceptance of pearl millet for human food is a matter of developing new products with food processors. One drawback to pearl millet it that is is relatively high in lipid content, making it subject to rancidity; oil content is between 5 and 6% as compared to 4 to 5% for other cereals. This means that pearl millet has a very high energy content. It could be particularly useful as an early feed source for hogs in the fall before corn is harvested.

It appears that pearl millet can be handled and fertilized much like sorghlum and other grain crops. One problem may be herbicide damage. Millet is more susceptible to atrazine carry-over than grain sorghum.

So far, pearl millet does not appear to have any specific insect or disease problems. However, as in any new crop, problems can develop. No specific disease or insect problems have developed during the first three or four years of trials in Indiana.

Axtell is convinced that millet deserves a good hard look. If it can provide additional income for wheat farmers in the northern third of the state it should be a welcome addition to Indiana's crops. Plans are to grow it in 15 inch rows, at least for the first couple of years. Research will be carried out to develop a herbicide strategy. The feeling is strong that the deep loam soils in northern Indiana are too valuable to lie idle after a wheat crop has been harvested. Once it can be demonstrated that pearl millet has an agronomic future, agricultural economists will be handed numbers to crunch to determine how it fits into the farm economy. Purdue animal scientist are ready to start feeding trials with ducks. Present plans are to produce enough grain in the fall of 1991-92 winter nurseries to make all this possible.

Carl Eiche
Indiana Prarie Farmer