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Quinn, J. and R.L. Myers. 2002. Nigerseed: Specialty grain opportunity for Midwestern US. p. 174–182. In: J. Janick and A. Whipkey (eds.), Trends in new crops and new uses. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

Nigerseed: Specialty Grain Opportunity for Midwestern US

J. Quinn and R.L. Myers*

*The authors thank the following individuals for their cooperation and participation or suggestions related to this project: Ellsworth Christmas and Gebisa Ejeta (Purdue University, Department of Agronomy); Carroll and Marvin Milligan (Clinton, Indiana); and Winthrop Phippen (Western Illinois University, Department of Agriculture).


Nigerseed as an Oilseed Crop

Nigerseed (Guizotia abyssinica, Asteraceae) is native to Africa, from Ethiopia to Malawi, and was probably domesticated in Ethiopia. Early introduction of nigerseed to India was followed by the development of sizeable commercial production (Simmonds 1976) and neighboring Pakistan also cultivates the crop (Weiss 2000). Nigerseed is an important oil crop in Ethiopia and parts of India, where it is grown by peasant farmers, in traditional agriculture systems. In Ethiopia, nigerseed, provides about 50% to 60% of that country’s edible oil, while in India, nigerseed accounts for almost 2% of total oilseeds produced.

India is reported to have total nigerseed production of 200,000 tonnes (t) (440 million lb.), with the vast majority being exported to Europe, Japan, and the US for the birdfeed market (STAT Publishing 2000). Another source (Weiss 2000) reports that the production of India and Ethiopia together is estimated to be 318,000–340,000 tonnes (700 to 750 million lb.).

Niger crop breeding efforts have been limited to Ethiopia and India (FAO 1988; Riley and Belayneh 1989). Ethiopian types are of three maturity groups and tend to be shorter, more branched, and tolerate cooler conditions than the Indian types (FAO 1988). Niger is cultivated in both temperate and tropical climates, being considered a temperate-region plant that has adapted to a semi-tropical environment. It prefers moderate temperatures for growth, from about 19° to 30°C (mid 60°s to 80°s F), and although the seedlings are not frost tolerant, temperatures down to 9°C (48°F) have no effect on growth (Weiss 2000). Yields of nigerseed reported in literature have varied from 250 to 500 kg/ha (224 to 448 lb./acre) (Riley and Belayneh 1989), to 750 kg/ha (672 lb./acre) (Duke 1983), and to over 1,255 kg/ha (1,120 lb./acre) (Weiss 2000). However, Weiss’s statement that “yields of over 1,255 kg/ha (1,120 lb./acre) have been achieved by sowing newer cultivars” seems the most relevant.

Importation of Nigerseed into the US

Nigerseed has been marketed for bird food for about 40 years and is the only major ingredient of wild bird food imported into the US from overseas (Wild Bird Feeding Institute). Nigerseed was recently assigned a commodity number by the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, reflecting the large amount of imported nigerseed. Prior to 1998 there is no verifiable source of import statistics. US imports of nigerseed in 1998 and 1999 were over 27,000 t or 60 million lb. (annually), and for 2000, imports exceeded 32,000 t or 70 million lb. (Table 1). Nigerseed is primarily imported from Ethiopia and India, which along with Myanmar and Nepal, account for over 90% of the nigerseed imported into the US. The wholesale foreign price, before freight and importation costs, averaged $0.53/kg ($0.24/lb.) in 1998 and $0.64/kg ($0.29/lb.) in 1999 and 2000 for US imports and ranged from $0.46 to 0.82/kg ($0.21 to 0.37/lb.), depending on the country of import.

Table 1. Quantity and value of nigerseedz imported in calendar years 1998, 1999, and 2000 by country of origin (US Trade Statistics 2001).

Country of origin Quantity imported (t) Value (US$1,000)
1998 1999 2000 1998 1999 2000
Burma 6718 4821 5475 3424 3701 3296
Ethiopia 3560 7276 4807 1938 5798 2975
India 13104 14419 19776 6978 9101 12138
Nepal 2835 998 67 1447 513 41
Singapore 1003 123 1858 744 103 1466
All othersy 22 753 403 62 580 296
Total 27242 28389 32385 14593 19796 20212

zNigerseed HS 10-Digit Number is 1207990010.
yIncludes Brazil, Canada, Peoples Republic of China, Djibouti Afars-Issas, Egypt, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, and Switzerland.

Nigerseed must enter the Port of New York/ New Jersey and be received by one of two companies, either ETO in Linden, New Jersey or Micro Bitrol in Bound Brook, New Jersey (Fax communiqué, USDA APHIS office, St. Ann, Missouri). Nigerseed imported from any country in the world must be heat treated to kill any potential dodder seed, a Federal noxious weed, that may contaminate a shipment (APHIS 2000). Nigerseed brought into the US for research and or other propagation purposes can pass through a quarantine and inspection process to avoid heat treatment damage (APHIS, Entry Status of Seeds for Planting). Niger is not, and has never been, considered a weed or potential weed of any kind in Indiana (M. Ross, Purdue University, Botany Department, pers. commun.).

After heat treatment and shipment to wholesale customers distributed around the US, nigerseed is reported to sell for a wholesale price of $1.10/kg ($0.50/lb.), and frequently more (Scott Pet Products, Rockville, Indiana, pers. commun.). At the retail level, nigerseed often sells for $1.76/kg ($0.80/lb.).

Research or Production Efforts on Niger in the US

Niger was grown in Minnesota for three years in the late 1970s to evaluate its potential (R. Robinson, Univ. of Minnesota, Agronomy Dept.). Robinson suggested that the crop be tried in southern and central US where a longer season should benefit the flowering and seed set. Nigerseed production was tested in Canada, but Weiss (2000) does not state where or when.

The Jefferson Institute obtained seed of two Ethiopian types of niger from The Teff Seed Company (Caldwell, Idaho) in 1999, to trial for agronomic potential in Indiana. The impetus for the trial was due to two farmers (Carroll and Marvin Milligan, Clinton, Indiana) who sold other bird food ingredients to a local bird food company (Scott Pet Products, Rockville, Indiana). Niger was grown in both 1999 and 2000. In 1999, the drought and other factors resulted in little seed. The larvae of a pest was noted which bored into the stalks causing some crop damage. However, in 2000, the production practices and soil type were altered and the resulting change in crop growth was dramatic. The plants flowered by early July, peaked in flowering by late July/ early August and seed was apparent in most flower heads. The small size of the plot, combined with the large combine used to harvest made any yield extrapolation impractical.

Niger as a Specialty Grain Opportunity in the Bird Food Market

The bird food market is surprisingly robust and growing at a 5%–10% annual rate (Isaak 1999). The demand in the US for sunflowers is estimated at 450,000 t (500,000 tons) for 1999/2000 (National Sunflower Association). With the 2000 average sunflower yield of 1,527 kg/ha (1,363 lb./acre), this translates to over 284,000 ha (700,000 acres) of sunflower production, or over 25% of total US sunflower area (USDA 2001). The surprising current level of the nigerseed market, coupled with the high cost of nigerseed ($1.10/kg or $0.50/lb. for nigerseed compared to $0.26/kg or $0.12/lb. for sunflowers), indicates that the market potential is great. Given yields of 900–1,120 kg/ha (800–1000 lb./acre), 28,000–35,000 ha or 70,000–87,000 acres would be required for nigerseed production in the US to supply the current demand.

No study or survey of any kind has been performed with nigerseed to determine the likely price or yield a Midwest farmer might expect to receive from the crop. Any agronomic crop that would yield a gross return of $1,236/ha ($500/acre) or more would be of great interest to Indiana farmers. At $1.10/kg ($0.50/lb.) and 1,120 kg/ha (1,000 lb./acre), nigerseed has the potential. But at lower prices and yields, nigerseed may not provide a reasonable agronomic alternative to traditional crops.

The objectives for 2001 were as follows:

  1. screen the available USDA accessions of nigerseed which did not have material transfer agreements at as many locations as possible, looking for commercial production potential;
  2. survey for pest problems, especially the pest encountered in 1999; and
  3. establish a commercial field of niger on which mechanized harvesting could be efficiently conducted and a commercial yield obtained.


Nigerseed was planted at 6 different locations in Indiana (4), Illinois (1), and Missouri (1). Four locations used 16 accessions of nigerseed obtained from the USDA Western Plant Introduction Station and two locations used a source of commercial seed (The Teff Company, Idaho, USA). Planting occurred at six different dates and the planting methods varied considerably. Table 2 summarizes the information. Soil conditions varied between the locations.

Table 2. Seed source, planting location, planting dates, and planting methods for 2001 in Illinois, Indiana, and Missouri.

Planting location Planting
Planting method Seed source Accessions planted
N Central; Pinney-Purdue
Research Farm
May 25 Transplant, June 20, 76 cm rows USDA Plant Intro. Sta. 15
SW Purdue Agricultural
Center Research Farm
May 25 Transplant, June 26, 76 cm rows USDA Plant Intro. Sta. 14
W Central; Milligan
Brothers Farm
May 10 Direct seed, broadcast Commercial 1
June 15 Direct seed, 76 cm rows USDA Plant Intro. Sta. 16
W Central; Western
Illinois Univ.
April 13 Transplant, May 11, 76 cm rows USDA Plant Intro. Sta. 16
May 29 Direct seed, 76 cm rows USDA Plant Intro. Sta. 16
Central; Univ. Missouri
Agronomy Farm
June 13 Direct seed, 76 cm rows Commercial 2

The USDA accessions plots in Indiana received supplemental irrigation. The plantings in Illinois and Missouri did not, but rainfall was, in general, plentiful at these locations. Two USDA accession plantings (Western Illinois University April seeding and Milligan Brothers Farm) received a preventative insecticide treatment of fipronil, out of concern for the stalk boring pest witnessed in 1999.

The 16 nigerseed accessions were PI 508070-508080 (11); PI 422242; PI 509436; PI 511305; W6 18860, and W6 18861. The accessions PI 508070-508080 were all donated by H.F. Rouk (USAID, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia) in February 1964 to the USDA Plant Introduction Program. Accession PI 422242 was donated in December of 1977 by Wagner Brothers Feed Corporation (New York, USA). More detailed information on the four other accessions is presented in Table 3.


Screening of USDA Nigerseed Accessions

All time measurements are presented as days from seeding as nigerseed is readily established by direct seeding. Plantings were excellent at all locations except the two by Purdue University, where a substantial number of transplants perished. Transplants were used in Indiana due to rain delays in field planting and in Illinois to provide a longer growing season. However, enough plants survived in the Purdue University plantings to make observations regarding flowering.

Four out of the 16 nigerseed accessions grew, flowered and matured fairly similar to the commercial field (Fig. 1–4). Flowering begins around 65–70 days (Fig. 2; Table 3), appears to peak about 3 weeks later (86–91 days), and gradually tails off to near completion at 110+ days. These nigerseed accessions and the commercial seed source fail to senesce in a timely fashion. Some plants in a planting will often stay green and continue to flower while the majority of the other plants have turned brown and begun to release their seed (Fig. 4).

Fig. 1. West Central Indiana nigerseed plantings (left) commercial field at 46 days after seeding and (right) USDA accessions 40 days after seeding.
Fig. 2. West Central Indiana nigerseed plantings (left) commercial field at 76 days after seeding and (right) USDA accessions 68 days after seeding. Note beginning of flowering in center of right picture, accessions 18860 &18861.
Fig. 3. (left) West Central Indiana commercial nigerseed field at 100 days after seeding and (right) North Central Indiana USDA accessions 102 days after seeding. Accessions 18860 and 18861 are in foreground.
Fig. 4. (left) West Central Indiana commercial nigerseed field at 134 days after seeding and (right) West Central Illinois at 108 days after seeding. In left picture, note that plants have leaned over to right, but are still upright enough for machine harvesting.

Table 3. Flowering and seed source information for early flowering USDA nigerseed accessions from Indiana and Illinois plantings in 2001 (see Table 2).

Plantings with
days to
seed set
observed with
seed set
Information on seed donation
Year Country of
PI 509436 4 of 4 73–75 4 of 4 1987 India H. Trivediz Kanke, Bihar
PI 511305 5 of 5 73–75 5 of 5 1987 India Niger Research Project, Dindori, Maharashtra
W6 18860 5 of 5 68–70 5 of 5 1985 Ethiopia The Teff Company, Nampa, Idaho
W6 18861 5 of 5 68–70 4 of 5 1985 Ethiopia The Teff Company, Nampa, Idaho

The uniformity of growth from accessions PI 511305 and W6 18860 was notable at 3 plantings. All the early flowering accessions were shorter than the other accessions. The height of the plants at the different location was not measured, as the height is affected by the plant density, and this factor was not kept constant. However, the early flowering types usually had a height ranging between 60 and 120 cm (2 to 4 feet).

In August the growth and flowering of the early flowering accessions at the West Central Illinois May seeding and the North Central Indiana planting was clearly afflicted with some malady, as was the commercial seed planting in Central Missouri. The symptoms were as follows: the flowers that open are tiny, and the buds seem hesitant to open; the growing tips are frequently twisted; and numerous spots can be found on the buds (Fig. 5). With the onset of cooler weather in September these symptoms became much less noticeable at the Central Missouri and North Central Indiana location. Seed set, in the end, was consistent with flowering for all of the four early flowering accessions, except for Accession 18860, which did not set seed in one planting out of 5 (Table 3).

Fig. 5. (left) Tips of plants display twisted growth, with small flower buds, (center) a flower that does manage to open is small and distorted, and (right) normal foliage and flowers .

The USDA Accessions appeared to flower and mature at a fairly similar rate to the commercial field. Harvest of the commercial field at 125 to 145 days from planting would have been appropriate for this season.

Mechanized Harvesting of a Commercial Nigerseed Field

A 2.84 ha (7 acre) field of niger was successfully established (Fig. 1) and growth was encouraging. Seed set was observed in the commercial field planting in late July (Fig. 2) and by late August (Fig. 3) it became apparent that machine harvesting would be productive. Even though most of the plants senesced by mid-September a scattering of plants remained green, and even continued to have flowers (Fig. 4). For the plants that did senesce, the flower buds given sufficient time would dry completely and then the seed would have a tendency to shatter. However, due to the long flowering cycle, many flower buds were still a little green, even when all the leaves had dropped off the plant or dried up. In this case the plant stems also tended to be green.

On Sept. 26 (133 days) an attempt to combine (platform head) the crop was made, as it appeared the crop would not dry down any better without a chemical aid or a significant frost. A substantial number of flower heads were passing through the combine without releasing their seed and the plant material was not feeding through easily. On Sept. 27, gramaxone was applied to the field at a rate of 2.4 L/ha (2 pints/acre). On Oct. 8 (145 days), the field was combined in its entirety. The flower heads were sufficiently dry on this attempt to release their seed. However, the stems remained “greenish.” This made combining possible only in one direction, going with the direction that the plants had leaned. That way the base of the plants would be cut before the reel would pull the plants into the head. Cutting this direction made harvest possible, but caused the bats on the reel to strike the plant, which were leaning out in front of the head, and a substantial amount of seed fell out before being pulled onto the platform. The harvested material contained quite a few flower heads and green material. It was stored and ventilated in a wagon until cleaning two weeks later. The harvested seed weight averaged 480 kg/ha (429 lb./acre).

Survey for Pest Problems

In two of the seven plantings, a stalk boring larvae was found. Samples of the pest were submitted to the University of Missouri Plant Diagnostic Clinic, and it was confirmed as the same pest as occurred in 1999. The most obvious symptom on the plant is for an entire plant, or a branch, to suddenly wilt (Fig. 6 left). Another indicator, but much less visible, is a hole in the stem near the base of the plant. Upon splitting open a stem a white larvae up to 12 mm (1/2 inch) long with a tan head can frequently be found (Fig. 6 right). The pest was determined to be a weevil (Curculionidae family). Unfortunately all attempts to further identify the pest were not successful. These attempts included efforts to rear larvae to the pupae stage in the laboratory, both in infested plants and in vessels, and using a taxonomic key on the larvae. Fipronil, a systemic corn insecticide effective against stalk boring pests, was applied as a spray to the plants or as a granular at seeding at two of the USDA accession plantings. No plant symptoms indicating larvae infestation were noted at these locations.

Fig. 6. (left) Plant in center foreground displays a typical wilted symptom and (right) the stem upon splitting open reveals the weevil larvae- note white larvae in center of split open stem.

In late August at the North Central Indiana site several plants were found with bumble flower beetles (Euphoria india; Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory, Purdue University) feeding. This beetle is related to the Japanese beetle and commonly feeds on a variety of plants and fruits, but rarely reaches sufficient population to warrant chemical control. Also in late August, Japanese beetles were feeding in sufficient numbers on the West Central Indiana USDA planting such that chemical control was used. A substantial number of lady beetles were observed on both the May seeding in West Central Illinois and the North Central Indiana planting. Aphids were found on plant material from the latter planting (Plant & Pest Diagnostic Laboratory, Purdue University).

Occasional plants at West Central Illinois and North Central Indiana would have growing tips that became necrotic. These tips had a variety of insect activities, which, in addition to all of the beetles discussed above, included striped cucumber beetle and livestock flies.


Several valuable crop responses were learned with the multiple location planting of the USDA nigerseed accessions. First, the estimated 120 to 140 day crop time to harvest of the four early flowering USDA nigerseed accessions in the Central Midwest climate corroborates previous reports of 75 to 150 days in India (Riley and Belayneh 1989; FAO 1988; Weiss 2000) and a 120–130 day crop for short season Ethiopian types (FAO 1988; Weiss 2000). There appeared little long day suppression on this time to harvest, which is encouraging, as nigerseed is a short season plant that flowers earlier in response to a 10 hr day treatment (Abebe et al. 1978) and is cultivated where day length changes minimally. Therefore, how it would perform in the longer days of summer in the Central Midwest was unknown. Second, the early flowering nigerseed accessions successfully set seed in all of the five plantings (Table 3) and seed set in the commercial planting was sufficient to mechanically combine. Previous reports (FAO 1988; Weiss 2000) state that nigerseed growth and flowering are adversely affected by temperatures over 30°C (86°F). Six of the plantings (Table 2) experienced temperatures which frequently reached and exceeded 30°C, being a fairly typical Central Midwest summer. Lastly, breeding efforts utilizing germplasm from two divergent sources, India and Ethiopia, has been suggested as useful in a disruptive selection procedure where improved lines or populations are intermated (Riley and Belayneh 1989). It is worth noting that all the early flowering accessions were submitted more recently (Table 3) than the late or non-flowering accessions, which were all submitted prior to 1980.

Two other plant growth characteristics are worth mentioning. First, niger is reported to require a high amount of rainfall over the growing period, with 100–130 cm (39–51 inches) considered an optimum and 80 cm (31 inches) a recommended minimum (Weiss 2000). The Central Midwest would typically receive only about 3/4 of the minimum. However, niger is often cultivated on poor quality soils, as the better quality soils are needed for the food crops (Weiss 2000). Thus, on a soil with good depth and moisture holding capacity, in addition to a good moisture level prior to planting, the crop would be expected to tolerate much lower rainfall and still attain adequate growth. Although the crop in the various plantings did not appear stressed from lack of moisture, three locations received supplemental irrigation, thus further observation or study in this area may be worth pursuing. Secondly, niger is responsive in its branching to plant density and reports indicate that populations are frequently as high as 333,000 plants/ha (135,000 plants/acre), with each plant then having few branches (Weiss 2000). Records were not kept on plant density at the various plantings, but where the plants were broadcast, and at a fairly low density, estimated at 99,000 plants/ha (40,000/acre), the plants appeared to branch more, thereby staying more compact and short. Shorter and more compact growth was considered by all collaborators as more advantageous, and dwarf plants have been cited as potentially helpful in breeding for mechanical harvesting (Dagne 1994).

Commercial mechanical harvesting of nigerseed will present challenges for the Midwest growing climate. Traditionally nigerseed is manually harvested, with a 20 day period considered the time when the most seeds are mature, and still held in the flower head. The plants are cut and dried in the field, and then bundled for hand thrashing, with shattering still considered problematic and often leading to a 25% loss of seed (Weiss 2000). Swathing the plants when they are still green to aid in drying the plants would seem ideal in this situation, however, the unpredictability of rain, and heavy dews in the fall made this method very risky. Furthermore, already mature seed shattered easily when touched by the reel, and this process would happen twice when including swathing in the harvest. Another prospect would be waiting for a frost to kill the plants and aid in drying. Here the unpredictability is compounded by the needed severity of the frost to impact tough semi-green stems.

Use of a chemical harvest aid was determined to be the only reliable method. Gramaxone was a logical choice as it is widely used for this purpose. Although it dried out the flower heads sufficiently, the stems still retained some moisture, which complicated the direction which the crop could be harvested, and caused the plant material to thrash marginally. A method used with cotton, that may provide a good approach for nigerseed, is the use of glyphosate when 60% or more of bolls are open (Warrick 2001). This would need to be done when the crop is beginning to senesce, at about 105 days from planting. If this failed to dry out the flower heads, then a gramaxone application could be administered, a week or two after the glyphosate application. A cultural method practiced for red clover seed production in the Midwest, that may warrant experimentation, is cutting back the crop in late June or July to force the crop growth, flowering, and seed set into a narrower time frame.

Future work with nigerseed should include scouting for the weevil, which is damaging the plants with the stem boring activity of their larvae. The weevil family includes destructive pests to a wide range of crops. Specific to oilseed Compositae crops, sunflower is attacked by both the sunflower headclipping weevil and the sunflower stem weevil, the latter damaging the crop with its stem boring larvae. By identifying and then understanding the pest and its life cycle, pesticide applications may be reduced or eliminated. However, for smaller plantings, even minor pest pressures can be damaging. This was especially apparent with the flowering observed in late August. Two plantings that should have been in full flower, instead had the symptoms discussed in Fig. 5, while the West Central Indiana planting, which had received preventative insecticide treatments, grew and flowered normally. It is possible that the abnormal growth was related to environmental conditions, such as shortening days or higher daily mean temperatures, but pest pressure appears the most likely.


This year’s growing experience with a commercial field and the USDA accessions demonstrated that:

  1. nigerseed can be planted and mechanically harvested with typical agronomic equipment;
  2. germplasm available for development, breeding, or propagation currently exist from two distinct sources (India and Ethiopia), both which flower and set seed in Indiana and Illinois; and
  3. these earlier flowering types would probably be considered a 120–140 day crop in the southern half of the Midwest.

Nigerseed is an exciting opportunity due to its well-established market, which is of significant size and attractive price. Economic production of nigerseed has a number of challenges to overcome, including:

  1. a source of commercial seed, of sufficient quantity and with reasonable plant uniformity, for farmers to plant;
  2. finding a way to get the crop to mature in a uniform and timely fashion in order to augment mechanical harvest. Chemical, cultural, or breeding methods or some combination of the three could accomplish this;
  3. determining whether the stalk boring weevil larvae is a significant pest, and if it is, determining how to economically control it (conclusively identifying the weevil is the most important first step); and
  4. obtaining consistent and sufficient yields to warrant farmer interest in production beyond a trial basis. This yield would probably need to be in excess of 784 kg/ha (700 lb./acre), and preferably in the 1121 to 1682 kg/ha (1000 to 1500 lb./acre) range, in order to be competitive with land which currently supports consistent and favorable yields of corn and soybeans.