millet is a warm season annual grass that is best known in the U.S.
as a forage crop. Estimated U.S. area planted to pearl millet for forage
use is 1.5 million acres. New varieties of pearl millet, however, are
being developed for use as a grain crop. These new hybrid types of pearl
millet are shorter in stature for easier combining, and higher in seed
yield. Use of pearl millet grain on a commercial basis only began in
the U.S. in the early 1990s, but has led to production on several thousand
acres in Georgia and Florida. Most of this initial pearl millet production
has been for poultry feed, although the crop shows good feed potential
for other types of livestock as well. Some pearl millet has been grown
was domesticated as a food crop in the tropical region of East Africa
at least 4,000 years ago. Its use as a food grain has grown over the
centuries, with an estimated 64 million acres of pearl millet being
grown in Africa and India (this acreage is equivalent to the total U.S.
corn crop). The crop is used for a variety of food products, and is
even made into a type of beer.
[Pennisetum glaucum (L.) R.Br.] grown for grain has a growth habit similar
to sorghum. Pearl millet is a warm season crop, planted in early summer
when soils have warmed up. In Missouri, it reaches the stage of 50%
flowering in about 60 to 70 days from planting. The flowers and seeds
occur in a spike at the end of the stem or tillers, looking somewhat
like a cattail or bullrush head. Including the grain head, the plant
will typically be about 4 to 5 feet tall in Missouri, although height
can vary from 3 to 6 feet depending on variety and growing conditions.
The crop is primarily cross pollinated, and following pollination, it
takes a flower about 30 more days to develop into a mature seed. Grain
heads will mature a few weeks prior to leaf dry down, but seed shatter
is not usually a problem. When planted around June 1 in Missouri, it
will usually be ready to harvest in late September.
Like any grain crop, pearl millet will yield best on fertile, well drained soils. However, it also performs relatively well on sandy soils under acidic soil conditions, and when available soil moisture and soil fertility are low. This adaptation reflects pearl millets origin in the Sahel region of Africa, where growing conditions are difficult. Pearl millet appears to have relatively fast root development, sending extensive roots both laterally and downward into the soil profile to take advantage of available moisture and nutrients. The crop does best when there are plenty of hot days, although it has been successfully produced in cooler areas such as North Dakota. In general, pearl millet fits in the same areas of adaptation as sorghum (milo), except that it is somewhat more drought tolerant and has a little earlier maturity. It also tolerates low soil pH better than sorghum.
pearl millet was developed as a food crop and is still primarily used
this way in Africa and India, its grain is most likely to be used for
animal feed in the U.S. Several studies have been conducted on its potential
for various types of animals, including poultry, ducks, cows, hogs,
and catfish. In general, it performs comparably to corn in the diet
for these animals, with small advantages in certain situations.
Markets and Economics
commercial market to date for grain-type pearl millet has been the broiler
market. Lack of familiarity with the crop has limited its use in other
livestock feed markets. However, as feed formulators and buyers become
more familiar with the crop, its potential markets will expand. In the
meantime, pearl millet grain can certainly be used on-farm as a feed
for cows, hogs or poultry. A one-to-one substitution of pearl millet
for corn in a feed formulation is usually appropriate.
comparable feed value to corn, pearl millet has been priced based on
corn prices, or sometimes at a slight discount relative to corn. In
situations where pearl millet delivers superior feed value to corn,
it should in the long run receive a premium, but it will take time for
such market value to be realized. However, yields of current pearl millet
are not competitive with corn or even sorghum on good, fertile soils.
Pearl millet has a competitive advantage over corn and sometimes sorghum
on sandier soils in moisture-limited situations.
of grain-type pearl millet are expected to rapidly improve with the
release of new hybrids over the next several years. At this time, 4000
to 4500 pounds per acre would be a reasonable yield on good soils, with
3000 pounds typical on more marginal soils. Thus, gross income based
on these yields will be well under $200 per acre if corn is priced below
$2.50/bushel. Even though production costs on pearl millet are low (comparable
to corn and sorghum), grain yields need to be increased by breeders
to help make the crop competitive on a larger acreage.
potential market for pearl millet is as part of wild birdseed mixes.
Although no research has been done on its use as a birdseed, it has
been repeatedly noted that a number of songbirds, including gold finches
and juncos, enjoy feeding on the seed. Sorghum is often used in birdseed
mixes, but pearl millet may be more attractive to certain songbirds.
The birdseed market could potentially absorb tens of thousands of acres
of pearl millet grain production. In the mid-1990s, a few thousand acres
of pearl millet were sold into the commercial birdseed market. The birdseed
market could generate higher prices for pearl millet than the feed market,
provided the demand is strong enough. Price initially would depend on
whether the pearl millet was substituted for sorghum (low value) or
proso millet (moderate value) in birdseed mixes.
Even though pearl millet is used as a food crop in other countries, it is unlikely to be used as a food in the U.S. in the near future. No research is being conducted in the U.S. on its food use potential, and little is known about its potential for use in industrial products.
How to Grow Pearl Millet
pearl millet has been researched as a grain crop alternative in the
U.S. for less than a decade, basic production guidelines have been developed.
Several field trials with pearl millet were conducted by the author
at University of Missouri research farms during 1991-1994. In general,
pearl millet management is very similar to growing sorghum. Pearl millet
can be considered a low-input crop, but does respond to
fertile soil conditions and good management practices.Variety Selection
and Seed Sources
Variety Selection and Seed SourcesDevelopment of grain-type pearl millet varieties is currently being done by university and USDA plant breeders, who can then release their cultivars as public varieties or under license to a private company. To date, the only available varieties are HGM 486 and HGM 686. HGM 686 has performed better in Missouri. HGM varieties are available from Crosbyton Seed (800-628-6551), a seed dealer in Texas. A new variety is expected for purchase in 2004. This variety is shorter season than HGM 686 and offers the potential as a double crop in southern Missouri. Pearl millet varieties are hybrids, so new seed much be purchased each year. Producers seeking grain-type pearl millet are cautioned to clarify that the seed they are purchasing is not a forage-type pearl millet. The forage types are much taller (7-8 feet) and have low seed yield.
should be at least 65°F. or warmer before pearl millet is planted.
In Missouri, optimum planting time is early June, with a range of mid-May
to mid-June being appropriate. Pearl millet can potentially be planted
as a double crop after winter wheat or winter canola in the southeastern
part of the state, but it has too long a season for double cropping
elsewhere in the state.
rate is recommended at 4 pounds per acre. An exact seeding rate is not
critical, because pearl millet can partially compensate for a poor stand
by increasing the number of tillers. Seeding depth should be 1/2 to
1 inch deep. No-till seeding is feasible, although the shallower seeding
depth compared to corn or soybeans can make proper control of planter
depth (through surface residue) more challenging.
of row widths are appropriate with grain-type pearl millet. Previous
work with pearl millet in Missouri has been based on 30 inch row widths.
This allows row crop cultivation for weed control. At this row width,
pearl millet will normally have enough leaf development to close
the row. In other states, narrower rows have sometimes given a
yield improvement over wide rows. The narrower rows prevent using a
cultivator for weed control, but ground shading by millet leaves occurs
earlier, helping suppress some weeds. On sandy soils, wider row spacings
may be better since they will allow individual plants to develop more
lateral roots, due to less row-to-row competition.Fertility Management
will respond to good soil fertility, but does not have a high nutrient
demand. It can be considered similar to sorghum in its fertility needs;
rates recommended for sorghum by a soil test lab can be applied to pearl
millet. Millet may need somewhat less nitrogen than sorghum, because
current varieties yield less than sorghum.
production, about 40 to 80 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre should
be applied on most Missouri soils. The lower amount is appropriate if
the millet follows a legume such as soybeans. Since nitrogen needs are
modest, fertilizer nitrogen can be applied sidedress rather than preplant
if appropriate. Nitrogen needs can certainly be met from organic sources,
such as animal manure or a leguminous cover crop.
Phosphorous and potassium needs of pearl millet have not been well studied, but again the rule of thumb is to use rates recommended by a soil test lab for sorghum. Phosphorous response is likely to be improved if the P is banded near the seed. Liming is probably not necessary on most Missouri soils for pearl millet, since it has been reported to be fairly tolerant of low soil pH.
*Pesticides mentioned as being labeled in this publication are based on reference lists published in the Thomson Publications Quick Guide on crop pesticides, 2002 edition. These lists are believed to be accurate, but given the changing nature of pesticide registrations, labels and relevant government pesticide regulations should be checked before applying any herbicide or other pesticide.
Harvesting and Storage
pearl millet varieties produce seeds that are ready for harvest before
the plant is dried down. Although the seeds are not likely to shatter,
it is desirable to harvest as soon after seed maturity as plant dry
down allows, to avoid unnecessary grain loss to birds or storm caused
stem lodging. If pearl millet is planted by early June, leaf dry down
is usually complete by late September, but weather conditions can greatly
affect dry down. The plants will continue to stand after a frost, so
a delayed harvest is possible.
crop or small grain combine header is appropriate for harvesting pearl
millet. Combines must be adjusted to properly thresh the small seed
of pearl millet. A good starting point for the combine settings are
those recommended for sorghum. Air speed may need to be reduced, and
screen sizes may need to be changed on combines that use replaceable
threshing screens. Efficient threshing can help improve the value of
the millet for livestock use, by minimizing chaff and other materials.
Since the grain heads are at least three feet off the ground, cutter
bars can be run above the ground.
More research is needed on appropriate storage methods for pearl millet, but current recommendations are that the grain be stored at a maximum moisture of 12-13%. Since the seed size is smaller than sorghum and corn, it is more difficult to force air through it in a grain drier. When trucking millet long distances, it is prob- ably best to tarp the grain to prevent seed loss.