"Farmers have learned at our field days that the time-honored practice of growing winter wheat, then letting land remain fallow, or cropless, is a waste of precious moisture and cuts into their profit margins," says agronomist Randy L. Anderson. "Now, they're discovering that there's enough moisture on the central Great Plains for a crop rotation that includes foxtail millet, along with wheat.
"Best of all, growers net more profit with new crop rotations," he says.
Foxtail millet joins other crops like proso millet and sunflowers in crop rotations that are slowly replacing the older routine of wheat one year, then fallow the next.
The area gets about 16-1/2 inches of precipitation annually, or 33 inches every 2 years. That's more water than a single wheat crop needs during the 2 years. Adding another crop, like millet, before wheat safely harvests the surplus water while leaving enough for a successful wheat crop.
Growers would plant foxtail millet as a forage for livestock. Proso is grown for its grain.
"One foxtail millet variety, Golden German, provides up to 6,100 pounds of dry matter per acre. That compares with about 3,800 pounds from Manta, another variety," says Anderson. He is an Agricultural Research Service agronomist at the Central Great Plains Research Station near Akron, Colorado.
But Manta provides 13 percent total protein versus 10 percent for Golden German and two other varieties, White Wonder and Butte. Manta also matures up to 3 weeks earlier than the other three varieties. An earlier harvest extends the period before the winter wheat is planted. That allows more precipitation to accumulate and thus helps ensure the success of subsequent crops.
Farmers could have their cattle graze foxtail millet that is cut and left in windrows. This would eliminate the cost of baling, handling bales, storing them, and then feeding to livestock.
Anderson cautions farmers that foxtail millet serves as an alternate host for the wheat curl mite, the insect that transmits wheat streak mosaic virus. Wheat streak can cut yields by up to 50 percent. He recommends farmers spray a herbicide or till soil to kill all millet plants after harvest. This eliminates the mites and prevents future virus transmission.—By Dennis Senft, formerly with ARS.
"Foxtail Millet for the Central Plains" was published in the January 1998 issue of Agricultural Research magazine. Click here to see this issue's table of contents.