Sustainable Production and Niche Marketing of Pearl Millet

Final Report for FS08-228

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2008: $9,911.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
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Project Information


Project Activities
The objectives of this S.A.R.E. project have been 1) to develop conservation tillage practices for pearl millet and 2) to develop niche markets with improved profitability for the pearl millet.

Pearl millet was chosen as a possible summer crop because it is a drought tolerant crop, will grow reasonably free of diseases and insects, has a growing season matching the available crop growth window, can be managed with equipment and operations already in place for rye grain seed production and could satisfy a potentially growing niche market.

During the past two years, pearl millet has been grown and harvested on 40 acres of the crop land on our farm, with approximately 24 acres dedicated to this S.A.R.E. project. In order to lower the net cost of production in comparison with growing an expensive hybrid variety of pearl millet, an open-pollinated variety “2304” was drilled under various row spacings and fertilized at various nitrogen levels all under conservation tillage. Results have been assessed in terms of marketable yield.

Nitrogen Application: Two-acre plots of pearl millet “2304” was drilled at 13 lb. / acre in 7 inch rows, using an International Harvester 7 inch grain drill. A consistent base fertilizer of phosphorus and potassium was applied as recommended by the Cooperative Extension Service. Treatment levels of nitrogen: zero, one and two bags per acre or zero, 17 and 34 lb nitrogen / acre, were applied, with two replications of each treatment.

Row Spacing: Pearl millet
“2304” was sown in treatments of 7, 14, and 21 in row spacing using an International Harvester grain drill with coulters blocked according to required row spacings. The drill was calibrated so as to apply 13 lb. / acre of seed regardless of row spacing. Plots were two acres in area, with two replications of each treatment. Fertilizer application included a base fertilizer of phosphorus and potassium according to Cooperative Extension Service recommendations along with 34 lb. of nitrogen.

All treatment plots were sprayed with herbicide for weed control using a pre-emergent herbicide of Calisto to control grass weeds and a post emergence application of 2, 4-D amine to control broadleaf weeds. Plots were harvested using a John Deere 4400 combine. Biomass yield samples were taken after harvesting to assess the benefits of the pearl millet residue remaining after harvest. Grain was weighed and sampled for moisture, according to treatment. Grain was dried, cleaned, and bagged before marketing. All first grade clean grain was offered to the human food market and all second grade grain screenings were fed to livestock. Nothing was discarded.

Samples were submitted to the Georgia Department of Agriculture Seed Laboratory at Tifton, Georgia, to assess grain viability and seed quality in terms of impurities. The value of the seed for on-farm use was assessed by stand establishment and costs compared with those of hybrid seed. Records were kept of each operation including the estimated cost, time spent on the operation and the realized sensibility of the operation. Sustainability of the enterprise from aspects of production economics, agronomic conservation practices and niche marketing possibilities were determined following the two year project.

Niche Markets: In order to obtain a higher price than for livestock feed commodity prices, three small-scale specialty markets were targeted: ethnic food markets, seed markets and bobwhite quail rations. As an ethnic food, whole-grain pearl millet is eaten in flat-breads. It is gluten-free and is also recommended for the diets of diabetic patients. A commercial ethnic market has been found for the pearl millet once it is ground into flour. However a market has not been secured for whole grain “2304” because the golden-brown color is not recognized as being acceptable by those ethnic groups that prefer a grey grain color. Efforts to market in traditional food circles have not been successful following leads from one ethnic group to another. Although interest in the potential for seed for organic and wildlife settings, have been expressed, no sales have been secured. Markets for bobwhite quail rations and supplemental feed were not identified.
Thus far, two markets have been successfully used. The first has been for the ethnic food market for whole-grain pearl millet flour, thus avoiding the marketing disadvantages from the color of “2304”. The second has been for livestock in the way of whole grain intake. Grain used for the livestock market has been that which would not meet the quality standards set for the human food market. Laying hens can eat and digest unprocessed pearl millet saving the cost of processing. Value has been obtained by feeding pearl millet to laying hens and selling eggs. Thus far, a value-added approach has been adopted on our own farm since no willing cooperator has been found, nor are quantities sufficient to deserve a change in the operations of a large broiler or egg laying farmer.

Changes: While production practices followed the timetable as described in the project proposal, the marketing of pearl millet underwent a steep learning curve. Though a small quantity of 300 lb of pearl millet was sold for use as wild life feed, information could not be from the user concerning the end-use application. No other cooperating bobwhite quail outlet was found that would monitor the use and give feedback of the benefits thereof let alone give a fair price for harvested grain. As a substitute, the use of pearl millet as a commercial livestock production feed was introduced in the form of poultry and goats on our own farm, with quantities of pearl millet being fed to the livestock as recommended by an animal nutritionist based upon feed analyses conducted by a certified laboratory in New York. Pearl millet for livestock feed has the advantage over other grains in that it does not need grinding or cracking and that both poultry and ruminants can digest the grain eaten as a whole grain, thus saving the expense of processing.

The resulting trends of applying a top dressing of nitrogen during the early growth stage of the plant were somewhat similar from year to year. An increase in yield was observed, though the actual increase was greater in the second year for the 34 lb. N / acre than for the first year. Data of both years, averaged over replications are presented. Weather, soil conditions, and pest pressures amongst many other factors may have contributed to the variation between years. The results of the nitrogen study are important for enabling a yield increase, which would provide greater increase in return from the crop. Though after the first year, from the data the increase in yield was diminishing with a further increase in nitrogen application beyond 34 lb. N / acre, after the second year that understanding was left for further investigation.

See attached graph

The resulting trends of drilling pearl millet in the various row spacings conflict from one year to the next. Once again individual yearly data is presented averaged over replications. It can be understood that two years are insufficient for gaining the insight necessary as to most appropriate row spacing. However, with narrower row spacing, a discussion of influential factors would include stand establishment with a more uniform spatial distribution of plants for better nutrient use, increased ground shading for better weed control, and a more uniform presentation of heads to the combine, reducing the number of heads that roll forwards and onto the ground. Once again, as in nitrogen application, yields were higher during the second year over the first year and once again weather, soil conditions and pest pressures amongst many other factors may have contributed to the variation between years.

Average biomass accumulations of pearl millet mulch amounted to 3903, 2992 and 3432 lb. / acre for the 7, 14 and 21 in. row spacing plots respectively. Biomass residue was monitored to provide information on the amount of dry matter available for building the soil organic matter in the conservation tillage system being used on the farm. As a comparison, cotton biomass residue was measured from various farms across Georgia (both conservation tillage and conventional tillage). The average dry matter residue available from cotton stalks was found to be 2200 lb. / acre (high of 2800 and low of 1969). This indicates that the amount of biomass available from the pearl millet residue eclipses that of cotton stalks. This additional residue returned to the soil has the dual benefit of providing both a cover to reduce soil erosion and a source of organic matter. The millet residue also helps with increase infiltration of water in to the soil, a very important aspect of conservation tillage on non-irrigated land.

Future Work
Research for the production and marketing of pearl millet will continue on our farm according to challenges that appear. Appropriate rate of nitrogen application must still be determined with 34 lb. N / acres currently being most acceptable. The most appropriate row spacing has yet to be determined while considering factors other that yield. Control of grass weeds, specifically Texas panicum in pearl millet and annual ryegrass in the rye crop, has posed a challenge and requires immediate attention, possibly through rotation research. Though yield increases can be obtained by application of fertilizer at the prescribed rates, the yield potential of the open-pollinated variety “2304” must be improved to be more competitive with a hybrid variety, in spite of its lower seed costs.

The S.A.R.E. project brought attention to deficiencies within the currently used “2304” pearl millet germplasm. Because of this project, breeding priorities by Wilson is currently targeting specific new traits (panicle length, bristles, free-threshing, and light colored grain) that should improve performance and marketability. Increasing the length of panicles would increase the seed bearing area of each panicle. Breeding bristles onto each grain may present a physical barrier to egg laying moths and impede the feeding of Lepidopteran larvae on the grain heads. Free-threshing grain would allow easy separation of the grain from its florets, eliminating as much as a 20% marketable yield loss that currently occurs at combine harvesting and subsequent cleaning operations. Light-colored grain is desired for satisfying the ethnic market for whole grain. As new germplasm is developed by Wilson’s program, additional research on the performance and market acceptability of the new germplasm would be warranted.

The practices investigated will continue to be used since they are the basis for production and marketing at this time. Since the growth of pearl millet under conservation tillage is new to the farming population, challenges will be met as they occur. Weed control will more than likely be addressed by crop rotation, introducing a broadleaf crop into rotation with pearl millet and thus introducing a different herbicide spectrum to manage grass weeds, especially Texas panicum and annual ryegrass. However the use of conservation tillage is encouraging and will continue since it controls soil erosion and minimizes compaction through requiring only minimal cultural operations. Such operations are conducted using a light, low fuel-use 40 hp. tractor. A grain drill, roller, sprayer, fertilizer applicator and mower are each powered by the tractor. Harvesting is undertaken with the aid of a small combine harvester. The cutting bar and combine head have been modified to improve the pearl millet harvest. Some attempt is made to controlled traffic operations using a global positioning system.

A poster “Sustainable Production and Niche Marketing of Pearl Millet” by B. Maw and J.P. Wilson was prepared and displayed at the Sustainable Agriculture Summit, Focus on the Future, held at Fort Valley State University, Georgia, June 12, 2008. This event brought together people from all over the region with an interest in Sustainable agriculture. Pearl millet was promoted both for the ethnic community and, since goats are reared at Fort Valley University, as a feed for ruminants was explored.
Two power point presentations, “Improving Conservation Tillage Practices for Pearl Millet” were given at the 2008 Annual Conservation Production Systems School/Southern Conservation Agricultural Systems Conference July 29-31, Tifton, Georgia. The presentations drew special attention to the challenges of growing pearl millet under conservation tillage. Of special note for benefits of germination is the need to have good soil seed contact at the time of drilling using a press roller behind the drill if necessary and the need for good ground cover for weed control.
A booth was created and displayed at the Georgia Grown Food Show held at the Farmer’s Market in Atlanta, during August of 2008. In the presence of the Commissioner of Agriculture for Georgia and filmed by The Georgia Farm Monitor to be aired on television at a later date, photographs of pearl millet being grown on our farm and hand-out grain samples were given to attendees with a special interest in food supply or catering. Several farms were in attendance displaying their wares. From that occasion and subsequent conversations, numerous enquiries have been fielded and the Georgia Grown Emblem certification was received from the Georgia Department of Agriculture. This certification along with an emblem for display is especially important for the production of pearl millet in Georgia since importation of pearl millet to the United States has occurred from sources unknown in violation of import regulations, leading to suspicions of origin and quality.
A power point presentation was given at the Pearl Millet Consortium held at Fort Valley State University in February, 2009. The presentation showed progress on the SARE project with special questions being answered with regards to the agronomic aspects of pearl millet production under conservation tillage as for example the need to periodically subsoil or paratil. In attendance were workers in the field of pearl millet research and extension.
A field day was held on our farm in September 4, 2009, prior to harvesting the pearl millet crop. Preparation for the field day included refreshments, a trailer for transport of attendees around the farm, speakers at stations along the farm route and a walk through the crop to view treatments and maturity variations according to treatments. The day was well attended and was later reported in Upper Suwannee News, a publication of the Southern Georgia Regional Commission, 327 West Savannah Avenue, Valdosta, GA 31601. The article emphasized the gluten-free benefits of eating pearl millet either as a flour or whole grain.
Information obtained from this SARE project is being used during the development of a supplemental fact sheet being incorporated into the AGrain Pearl Millet@ information package developed by the USDA-ARS and the University of Georgia. This package of bulletins and fact sheets has been distributed to more than 500 growers and interested parties during the past 3 years. The package will continue to be distributed in presentations given to Georgia Young Farmers groups, County Extension meetings, the Sunbelt Agricultural Exposition, annual Pearl Millet Working Group meetings, field days, and through personal transactions as the need arises.

The purpose of S.A.R.E. producer grant project FS08-228 has been to develop conservation tillage practices for pearl millet and to develop niche markets for pearl millet with the intention of improving profitability. Treatments were established each of two years of nitrogen applications (0, 17 and 34 lb. / acre) on two acre plots with two replications and of row spacing (7, 14, and 21 in.) on two acre plots with two replications. Efforts were made to establish niche markets over the two years according to outreach enquiries, following leads and establishing relationships with potential customers. The resulting trends of applying a top dressing of nitrogen during the early growth stage of the plant were somewhat similar from year to year with an increase in yield towards the 34 lb. N / acre although it is not known how much more fertilizer would be beneficial. The resulting trends of drilling pearl millet in the various row spacings were conflicting from one year to the next. Two markets were established during the life of the project, high-quality grain was used in whole-grain flour for ethnic Asian-Indian markets, and second quality grain was used in livestock feed rations.


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  • Dr. Gary Hawkins
  • Dr. Jeff Wilson


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.