Evaluating an under-utilized species for climate resilient forage and cover crop options in North Central Region cropping systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2022: $249,932.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Michigan State University
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Krista Isaacs
Michigan State University


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. annual)


  • Crop Production: multiple cropping
  • Farm Business Management: land access

    Proposal abstract:

    There are many agroecological and nutritional benefits to increasing the diversity of plant species in our food systems. Farming systems that grow diverse food, fiber, and fodder can provide environmental, social, and economic advantages such as the recycling of nutrients, control of micro-climates, regulation of soil resources, dietary diversity, and novel crops for niche markets. Utilizing diverse cover crops and forages are one way that farmers can increase agrobiodiversity on-farm, providing some insurance against environmental shocks such as heavy rainfall events, temporal drought, or disease. As temperatures increase and rainfall becomes more sporadic in the midwest, species that can withstand low-rainfall and thrive in mid-summer may fill an important niche in several types of farming systems. Fonio (Digitaria exilis) is an annual, warm-season and drought tolerant grass used for food and fodder in West Africa. It has potential as a short-season crop in the North Central region, including as a cover crop planted mid- and late- summer on vegetable farms, after winter wheat as a cover and for grazing, as a winter-kill no-till crop, and as a food crop. The project objectives are to test the potential of fonio in these four NCR farming systems through participatory engagement with farmers. Farmer designed and managed field trials will compare fonio with other cover crops and forages in order to assess agronomic performance. These objectives were formulated based on two years of data growing fonio in West Michigan, in collaboration with growers, and building on preliminary feedback from a farmer survey. In the first year of the project, we will collect data on optimal planting dates for the different systems and test fonio in each system. In years two and three, we will expand the on-farm trials to two farmers per system. Partners include organic vegetable farms, conventional corn-soy-wheat farms, immigrant farmers in Detroit, and the Malian Association of Michigan. Co-learning workshops, interviews with growers, and a survey will be used to assess farmer interest, challenges, and willingness to grow fonio. The outcomes of this research will be shared with grower networks and MSU Extension. The results are directly relevant to farmers as the research will provide evidence for the performance and feasibility of fonio in four systems including optimal planting dates, weediness factors, over-wintering, forage quality, and planting methods. This information will inform future steps for fonio production and identifying niche markets for fonio in the United States.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    1. Evaluate fonio as an alternative warm-season forage, cover, and grain in the North Central Region 
    2. Evaluate fonio as a late-season crop following wheat harvest for grazing and as a weed suppressant for no-till organic vegetables
    3. Assess the opportunities and challenges to the utilization of fonio

    Learning and action outcomes: 

    • Determine optimal planting dates, grain and biomass yield, winter-kill, and forage quality of a new warm season climate-resilient grass 
    • Key planting, harvesting, and cleaning methods developed and tested by farmers within their systems
    • Identification of constraints and opportunities for utilization of fonio as a cover crop, forage, and food grain
    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.