In March 2021, the UN accepted a proposal made by India to declare 2023 as the International Year of Millets. India’s proposal outlined how the millet plant can be a sustainable solution to food insecurity across the globe. As a crop, millet is very climate-resistant. It does not require a lot of water or very fertile soil, both of which are always in short supply anyway. Because of its ability to thrive in harsh climates, it costs less than quinoa to produce and uses less water. This low-carbon option could help feed the growing population with less environmental impact than other more popular cereal crops.
There is an “urgent need to raise awareness of the climate-resilient and nutritional benefits of millets and to advocate for diversified, balanced and healthy diets through the increased sustainable production and consumption of millets,” the UN stated when accepting India’s proposal.
In addition to being relatively easy and cost-effective to grow, millet is very good for you. This important food crop is also gluten-free and whole grain. This nutrient-packed seed provides all but one essential amino acid needed to make it a complete protein, which is more than most grains can say. It is also abundant in fiber and antioxidants, and the finger millet is also an excellent source of calcium.
Besides food for humans, millet is also a more sustainable option for fodder and forage than some of its popular alternatives. In the United States, millet is more viewed as a birdseed option than food grain for people – but that’s gradually changing!
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Quick Care Guide
|Common Name(s)||Millet, broomcorn millet, foxtail millet, Japanese millet, Italian millet, African millet, barnyard millet, great millet, little millet, browntop millet, and many other names|
|Scientific Name||Panicum miliaceum and multiple other botanical names (see below)|
|Days to Harvest||70-90 days|
|Light||Full to partial sun|
|Water||1 inch per week|
|Soil||Well-draining soil (neutral ph, loamy, sandy, clay|
|Pests||Birds, grasshoppers, chinch bugs|
|Diseases||Smut, mildew, bacterial blight|
All About Millet
Millet is a cereal crop from the Poaceae family, with a seed-like appearance. Being a part of the grass family, this grassy plant has a long stalk and is typically harvested for its small edible seeds. Unlike most grain crops that like it cooler in temperature, millet grows best in warmer weather, like rice and corn. Different varieties of millet originated more than 4,000 years ago in parts of Asia and Africa. Although the seed is the main attraction, people grow millet for various reasons. It is an excellent cover crop, great fodder for livestock and domesticated animals, forage for grazing animals, and after harvest season, mixing into your soil for added nutrients. Some even grow it as an ornamental millet because of its beautiful purple foliage.
As discussed earlier, this ancient grain is packed with tons of essential nutrients. In the US, it is typically grown for birdseed. In other parts of the world, millet is a crucial component of the average person’s diet. Depending on how you prepare it, it can be used in a dish as a grain similar to rice or quinoa, or if cooked longer with more liquid, it turns into a porridge. Millet seeds are often in multigrain bread; these grains can also be ground down into flour and used to make flatbread and other dishes with good nutritional value. Millet alone has a slightly nutty flavor but readily transforms to taste like whatever it is cooked in.
In the gardening world, particularly in the US, it is common to plant around June or July and harvest in mid-October. Once seeds are planted directly into the soil, they take 1-2 days to germinate, and once the plant has been established, it begins the tillering process. Next, the panicle, or a cluster of flowers, that will form the seed head begins to grow within a sheath of leaves. As the plant matures, the head emerges from the sheath and turns from green to gold to brown. Millet is typically harvested for the highest yield when the head has turned ⅔ of the way brown.
Types of Millet
While different millet types are similar in taste, they each have unique characteristics that help us understand why they are so popular around different parts of the world. The various millets discussed below are not a comprehensive list but highlight some of the more widely grown millet species. All the millets discussed here have similar growing habits!
- Proso Millet (Panicum miliaceum): Proso is the most commonly-grown millet in the US, and only proso millet is grown as a food crop here. The seed color of proso millet can vary between white, cream, yellow, orange, red, black, and brown. Proso millet is grown in the central and northern Great Plains of the US. It is often considered the most adaptable of the millets as it can grow further north and is more tolerant of higher elevations than foxtail or pearl millet.
- Foxtail Millet (Setaria italica): Foxtail millet is also known as Italian, German, or hay millet. Foxtail is the oldest type of millet, and its origins have been traced back to southeast Asia. It is the second most-produced millet globally and typically the most economically valuable. Foxtail millet’s importance in world agriculture can not be overstated. More than 90 million people in the world depend on it as a significant food source. Although foxtail is very popular in warm and temperate climates and are important crops in India, it is typically grown as a catch crop for fodder and birdseed mixes in the US.
- Pearl Millet (Pennisetum glaucum): Pearl millet is grown primarily as a food crop in Africa. They are significant crops in less fertile agriculture regions in Africa and Southeast Asia because it reliably produces in poor, droughty, and infertile soils than most other types of cereal grain. However, Pennisetum glaucum is a highly adaptable crop that grows in fertile soil with more moisture too. Pearl millet grows best in light, well-drained loamy or sandy soils. Pearl millet is also known as cattail millet, and some of its varieties are used as ornamental millet. Often, ornamental millet grows in beautiful shades of purple, the most popular among these being the Purple Majesty. Pearl millet is also the tallest growing millet, with heights ranging from 5 to 8 feet, making it the best for ornamental millet. Most other millets grow to be about 2-4 feet tall.
- Finger Millet (Eleusine coracana): Finger millet is another type of millet grown in India and Africa. It was named finger millet because of its finger-like seed heads. Often referred to as Ragi in India, this is an extremely common crop used in flours, bread, alcoholic beverages, and malts. This important crop is an excellent source of calcium and, like pearl millet, is very drought resistant with the ability to be grown year-round in adequate climates.
- Fonio (Digitaria exilis): Fonio is a millet known as acha or Hungry Rice. With the growing popularity in West Africa, this millet thrives in desert conditions and is often planted in sandy or stony soils. Fonio has two different species, white and black, with white being the more popular. Fonio is the smallest of the millets, and harvesting is often more labor-intensive because of this.
After selecting what type of millet to plant, it is time to prepare. Millet can be grown in containers, on the ground, or in raised garden beds, with slightly varying planting and care techniques. Make sure to till your soil in the spring for best results and roll before planting. Millet should be planted well after the last frost when the soil temperature has reached about 65°F. Make sure you select an area where millet will be able to get a full day’s worth of sun. Millet can cross-pollinate, so it is best not to plant different types next to each other if you plan to save seed to sow next year.
When planting, it can be broadcast sown and then lightly packed or with a push seeder. When buried 1-3 inches deep, millet seeds do best but can still come back if planted 4-5 inches deep. Ideally, they should be planted 2 inches apart from each other.
If you have planted in the right location, caring for millets shouldn’t be too much work. One of the reasons it is so popular is that it is a low-maintenance cereal crop that doesn’t need a lot of attention or resources. Following these guidelines will help you maximize your yield and ensure your plant is thriving.
Sun and Temperature
Millet thrives in full sun. If you are growing ornamental millet, make sure you have chosen a place where they will receive full sun to turn that beautiful deep purple color.
This plant requires a warm temperature for germination and is very frost-sensitive. Plant when soil temperatures reach 65, as that is the minimum temperature that soil should be throughout the growing season. Temperatures of 40 to 50° F can severely hinder millet’s growth to the point that they may not recover.
Water and Humidity
Being very drought-tolerant, millet does not need a lot of water. Proso specifically has the lowest water requirement of any grain crop. Millets are a shallow-root crop and extract most of their water from the first three feet of soil. Often it receives the majority of its water from rainfall throughout the growing season. If you live in a place that doesn’t rain much, or you just want a more controlled environment, this plant relies on about 1 inch of water a week. Make sure the soil has started to dry before watering again; millet does not do well when water-logged.
It is best to water with a drip system and water early in the day to make sure the millet has time to dry off before night when temperatures drop.
Less is more when it comes to quality soil for millet. In parts of Africa and Asia, when soil conditions became too poor to plant rice, farmers would begin planting millet. Because it is a crop that produces rather quickly, in a suitable climate, growers could plant it back to back to back up to three times a year. Millet does best in well-draining warm sandy or loamy soils. It prefers a neutral ph range for optimal growth. Most importantly, make sure you are not planting millet in soil prone to waterlogging.
Millet is often grown in less fertile soil, so fertilizing is optional. If you do want to fertilize millet, focusing on products with a high amount of nitrogen, like feather meal, is your best option. This plant can be sensitive to fertilizer burn, so do not apply directly to the seed. Fertilizer should be used at the planting time and then again four weeks later.
No ongoing pruning of millet plants is necessary. It does not produce a second harvest, but potential regrowth for a forage crop varies among the different types. Once you harvest foxtail millets, the stalks can be used for silage or hay. If you are raising millet for grazing purposes, pearl millet is best to regrow after grazing. Grazing can begin once the plant has grown 12-18 inches and should not be grazed lower than 6 inches.
Millet can only be grown from seed.
Harvesting and Storing
Within no time, you will find that it’s time to harvest, as it is one of the fastest-growing grains. While growing millet is relatively effortless, you want to make sure you harvest it at the right time, so your seeds don’t go to waste.
When to harvest millet all depends on why it’s being grown. If you intend to use it for forage, harvesting can begin 45-60 days after being planted. To get the most nutritious hay, millet should be harvested at the boot stage, meaning the head has developed and grown in size but is still enclosed within its sheath. At this point, they are windrowed to maximize yield and quality hay.
If harvesting for seed for either food or as a wildlife planting, the millet plant is typically ready 70-90 days after planting. An obvious sign that it’s time to harvest is when the top half of the head has turned brown, and the lower portion is no longer green. Waiting too long to harvest will cause shattering, and you will likely lose more seeds this way than if you had harvested too early. Cut the seed head off from the rest of the plant with a pair of garden shears and allow heads to dry for several days in a cool dark place. Once they have dried, it should be easier to separate the seed from the head by rubbing them off with your hands. The seed should then again be dried for several days before storing.
Each seed must be dehulled before human consumption, and methods vary depending on the type of millet. Pros and pearl millet have easily removable hulls that can be separated by rubbing them off or winnowing them with a fan or breeze. For foxtail millet, the hull is thicker and needs to be removed with a hand mill.
After millet has been dehulled, it can be ground into flour or stored as-is. Make sure to store whole millet in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry place. If you keep millet long-term, make sure to put your container in the freezer for a week to kill off any bacteria. Whole millet can be stored for up to a year, and millet flour can be stored for up to 6 months. Once you cook millet, it will last in the refrigerator for 3-5 days.
Even though millet is a low-maintenance crop, it isn’t perfect. Taking precautions can help protect your plants from pests and disease. The first step is knowing what to beware of.
Because millet seed is often used to make birdseed mixtures, birds can be a major problem when growing millet. Birds are known to eat the millet seed-heads and any planted seeds that haven’t had the chance to germinate yet. Precaution can be taken to stop birds from eating newly sown seeds by soaking millet seeds overnight and then letting them dry out. Seeds germinate faster this way, which shortens the window birds have to find and eat them. Once the crop has been sown, covering the broadcast seed with soil so that birds cannot see them is a great precaution. Depending on your scale of production nets covering your crop could be a good option but are not realistic for those producing large quantities. Making sure to harvest millet before its heads start to deteriorate will minimize the number of birds your crop attracts.
In addition, some insects are minor pests. Grasshoppers, armyworms, chinch bugs, and false chinch bugs are all something to look out for when growing millet. For fall armyworms, spinosad and neem oil are proven to be very effective. Armyworms and grasshoppers can also be treated with BT spray, a liquid form of Bacillus thuringiensis. Chinch bugs can be treated using pyrethrin or a spray form of Beauvaria bassiana, a natural fungus that wipes them out.
Diseases among millet can vary depending on the type, but none are extremely prevalent. Some to watch out for are powdery mildew, bacterial blight, head and kernel smut, and leaf spots like alternaria leaf spot. Powdery mildew responds well to neem oil treatment, and both powdery mildew and leaf spots can be treated with copper fungicides. Different types of smut and bacterial blight are hard to treat; the smut is fungal in origin so may respond to early pre-treatment via copper fungicide, but bacterial diseases are often spread by pests and may be fatal to the plant.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: What is millet plant used for?
A: Millet plant can be used for human food, to make flour, for birdseed, livestock feed, domesticated animal feed, as a hay crop, forage for grazing, cover crop, and on occasion, ornamental millet is grown for decorative purposes.
Q: Is millet an annual or perennial?
A: Annual, its seeds can be harvested and planted again next year.
Q: What type of plant is millet?
A: It is a type of grass, part of the large family of cereal crops.