The first time I encountered the term “emergency crop” was when I studied the 1973 “Cornell Recommends for Field Crops.” I had just begun what would turn out to be a 63-month career assignment as a dairy and field crops Cooperative Extension agent in Central New York. My supervisor told me to become very familiar with that text – which I did.

Emergency Crop: My Millet MindsetIn that booklet was a sub-heading titled “Emergency Crops.” Several species were listed, but I only recall Japanese millet. The text stressed that corn planted for silage would still yield the most forage dry matter per acre up till July 15. We had grown that millet several times on our hillside farm in the Catskills. Our farm’s average altitude was about 2,000 feet, which pretty well ruled out corn in any form. Millet as a “65-day crop” performed quite well.

This crop still shows potential in many regions of the Northeast in a strange growing year like 2023. I would recommend that growers who expect to be forage-deficient next winter consider planting Japanese millet as soon as possible after receiving this paper.

In fact, the most recent issue of Country Folks listed only two hay-for-sale ads; normally this time of year, there are 10 to 15. This means that livestock people shouldn’t just plan on being able to tap into a neighboring crop grower’s forage resources should their own supplies dwindle. Most growers I’ve talked to say that their first cutting hay yields ran about one-third to one-half normal, due to imbalances and/or shortages of inputs like temperature, precipitation, solar radiation and soil fertility. A good place to plant millet would be on a run-out meadow that you were thinking about seeding back or putting corn on next year.

In its favor is the fact that millets (there’s more than just Japanese) belong to a special “country club.” Other members of that club include corn, sorghum, sudangrass, their hybrids and sugarcane. During photosynthesis, most plants create compounds using three-carbon modules, so they’re called C-3s. But these six crops perform their carbon-structuring functions using four-carbon modules – thus botanists collectively call them C-4s.

The C-4 trait is very beneficial, particularly in regions where too much heat combines with too little moisture. This is true because in order for a plant to gather carbon atoms from the air, it opens up its stomas (microscopic openings on its leaves). C-4 plants use their stomas to limit moisture loss and retain acquired carbon; they perform these tasks more efficiently than C-3s.

Here’s how these C-4s rank in terms of moisture retention “skills”: millets, sorghums, sudangrasses, sugarcane and then corn.

A little more background on millet is in order: India is the country which grows the most millet. Ag scientists there determined that millets can be grown on soils less than six inches deep. They don’t require rich soils and fit well in that country’s vast dryland regions. Indian agronomists stress that millet culture relies very little on synthetic fertilizers. Typically, Indian farmers grow millet quite well using just barnyard manures – most of that coming from milking water buffalo. Politicians like this practice because it means that less chemical fertilizer has to be government subsidized.

Millet grown under traditional methods attracts few pests, thus Indian millet farmers basically are quite environmentally friendly. It’s fairly obvious that Northeast sustainable farmers growing millet can have a lot in common with their counterpoints in ancient lands like India.

Mentally leaving droughty conditions behind, we see that when the precipitation pendulum swings the other way, millets fare quite well with moisture surpluses. For example, Japanese millet can be grown in wetlands, depending on the region. It doesn’t grow well in sandy soils but can grow well in flooded soils with standing water, provided that part of the plant remains above the water’s surface. Japanese millet (Echinochloa frumentacia) has limited frost tolerance but can be grown at low and medium altitudes.

The most common millet grown in the Northeast is E. frumentacia, which has coarse leaves and grows up to five feet tall, depend on moisture availability and soil fertility. The seed head is four to eight inches long and dark purplish in color, with no awns. Seeds may be drilled no deeper than one inch or broadcast. Recommended drilling rate is 30 lbs./acre.

When broadcasting millet seed, increase the per acre seeding rate to 25 – 30 lbs. When millet is headed out, harvest it for forage, because it’s already done creating roughage dry matter. In the Northeast, there’s not much likelihood of this millet drying down enough to combine successfully. At most locations in our region, millet can be planted in the last half of July and should be ready by the first day of autumn.

Another plus for millet – should crop people decide to graze its aftermath – is that there’s no prussic (hydrogen cyanide) acid. For grass-fed certified organic farmers, I recommend that they mechanically harvest the stand as soon as one of those dark purplish heads appears. If one red-winged blackbird is seen dining on a millet head, that stand may have already advanced past the stage of grass-fed grain-free organic approval.

When the millet is mature for forage, or fatally frosted (whichever comes first), plant a blend of oats and a winter forage like rye, triticale, wheat or speltz immediately after the millet is harvested. With any luck, growers should be able to harvest that crop as forage in mid- to late- October; leave a stubble at least four inches tall to optimize regrowth. The oats will winter kill, but the winter forage will survive and perk to life sometime the following March, looking beautifully green compared to the tan, still dormant, perennial fields close by.

After the millet forage has been harvested, the oat/winter forage blend – even though part of it is dead – will serve as a great place to apply winter’s manure.