In our nation’s West, lack of precipitation, combined with wildfires intensified by that moisture shortage, gets a lot of headline coverage. Much of that moisture misbehavior get blamed on a climatological phenomenon called La Niña. To date, most of that too hot/too dry aggravation hasn’t made it much farther east than Kansas City. That said, there’s still no reason for growers in the Northeast to be sloppy about managing water resources. A major factor intensifying drought in already water-deficient areas is loss of soil organic matter (OM). Classic USDA data show that for every 1% loss of OM, the soil’s water reservoir benefit has been reduced by about 16,000 gallons/acre. It’s particularly important that wherever moisture is so limited to have abundant soil OM to hang onto what little rainfall growers do receive. The increasingly common corn/soy non-rotation (absent autumn cover crops/winter forages) slowly but surely dissipates soil OM. These two crops lack the fibrous root system so necessary to form abundant soil OM.
Regarding moisture management, it’s good to tap into the wisdom of University of Texas agronomists. These UT researchers tell us that when rainfall is deficient, a given quantity of precipitation supports twice as much forage dry matter growth from sorghum and/or sudangrass as from whole plant forage corn. From North Dakota State University (a state with average rainfall of 17 inches), we learn from agronomists that millets are even more efficient at converting water to forage dry matter. With the idea that millets need even less water than sorghum, I recommend planting millets on soils with less than 4% OM. Plant sorghums or sudangrasses (or their hybrids) with OMs in the 4% – 6% range; hopefully, the latter are available in gene-6 varieties. With sod OMs exceeding 5%, the moisture reserve situation should be adequate to support short season silage corn hybrids. Growers do well to plant such corn varieties on fields where first-cut hay crops have just been harvested.
Further support for millets comes from Purdue University agronomists, who say that millets can be grown in a wide range of environmental conditions; this is because they’re better adapted than most crops to hot, dry regions. Because of their short growing season (about 65 – 70 days), they fit well into semi-arid, higher altitude regions. They’re also some of the earliest crops to be cultivated in prehistoric times, being a staple food in China, India and Siberia as well as Europe and parts of Africa. All millets are blessed with the C-4 photosynthetic trait. In the Northeast, the most common millets are Japanese and pearl.
Corn, sorghum, sudangrass, their hybrids, millets and even sugarcane are classified as C-4 crops. During photosynthesis, most plants create compounds using three-carbon modules (C-3s). But the six crops just listed perform their carbon-structuring function using four carbon modules (C-4s). The C-4 trait is very advantageous, particularly in regions where too much heat combines with too little water. Let me explain why: In order for a plant to gather carbon atoms from the air, it opens up its stoma – microscopic openings on its leaves. C-4 group members use their stoma to limit water loss as well as retain acquired carbon – and they do so more efficiently than C-3s. Here’s how these crops rank in terms of moisture retention “skills”: millets, sorghums, sudangrasses, sugarcane, then corn.
Here’s some online research, drawn from India (the country which grows the most millet). The involved scientists determined that millets can be grown on soils less than six inches deep. They do not require rich soils to survive and fit well into that country’s vast dryland regions. Indian agronomists stress that millet culture relies on synthetic fertilizers. Most Indian farmers growing millet get by quite well with barnyard manures coming from milking water buffalo. Let me quote some of these agronomists: “In recent times, household-produced bio-fertilisers (sic) significantly reduce the huge burden of fertiliser subsidy borne by the government. Grown under traditional methods, no millet attracts any pest. Therefore, their [millets’] need for pesticides is close to nil. Thus, they are a great boon to the agricultural environment.”
It’s evident that Northeast sustainable farmers growing millet can have a lot in common with their counterparts in ancient lands.
We’ve discussed drought conditions, but when the precipitation pendulum swings the other way, millets fare quite well with moisture surpluses too. Japanese millet can be grown in wetlands, depending on the region. It doesn’t grow well in sandy soils but grows well in flooded soils and standing water provided part of the plant remains above the water surface. Japanese millet has a limited frost tolerance but can be grown at low and medium altitudes.
The most common variety in the Northeast is Japanese millet, which has coarse leaves and grows up to five feet tall, depending on moisture availability and fertility. The seed head is four to eight inches long and dark-purplish in color with no awns. Seed may be drilled (no deeper than one inch) or broadcast. The recommended drilled seeding rate is 20 lbs./acre. Bump that up to 25 – 30 lbs./acre when broadcast. 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 it drying down enough to combine successfully. At most locations in our region, millet can be planted up to July 15 and should be ready to harvest by the first day of autumn. Another plus for millet – should you decide to graze its aftermath regrowth – is there’s no prussic acid. For grass-fed certified farmers, my recommendation is to mechanically harvest the stand as soon as one of those dark-purplish heads appears. If a red-wing blackbird is seen dining on a millet head, the stand has likely advanced past the stage of grass-fed regulation approval.