Foxtail millet - Management for Supplemental and Emergency Forage

By: David W. Koch,
Extension Agronomy Specialist,
University of Wyoming
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Because of the frequent occurrence of drought, early farmers and ranchers relied heavily on millets for livestock feed. There are a number of millet species; however, the foxtail types (Setaria italica), which include Siberian, Hungarian and German are most important for forage in Wyoming. In warmer climates pearl millet (Pennisetum americanum) is important. Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum) is grown for grain.

Adaptation. Foxtail millets grow rapidly during warm weather and are one of the most water use efficient crops. They produce a ton of forage on as little as 2 ½ inches of moisture, making them one of the most dependable crops under semi-arid conditions. Recognition of these characteristics has led to an increased acreage of this crop in Wyoming in recent years. Many producers grow millet each year as a type of insurance.

The millets have some limitations. Other crops have greater yielding capacity under irrigation. The foxtail millets have very limited regrowth capacity, limiting them to one cutting or one grazing. Also, millet hay is not suited for horses because of the diuretic effect.

Situations in which forage millet may have an economic value are: (1) where drought has reduced growth of perennial native and introduced forages; (2) where fall planted small grains have been lost to winterkill or to hail; (3) where an annual crop is needed to rotate with winter wheat in order to clean up winter annual weeds, such as downy brome; and (4) where there is need of winter cover. Millet is drilled and the stubble following hay harvest or grazing provides excellent winter soil cover and a very desirable situation for stubble seeding of the following crop. Foxtail millet can be seeded as late as mid-July and produce a forage crop. This makes millet an excellent catch crop (crop grown following failure of the main crop). Millets require a soil temperature of 600F or higher for rapid emergence. They generally are not planted until the first of June. This allows time for one or more cultivations to control weeds prior to planting.

Forage production. In 1992, following a very dry period from 1991 through May 1992 and the prospect of severe forage shortages, 54 acres of millet was planted on 8 different fields over a variety of conditions at the Archer Research and Extension Center in 1992 (Table 1). Seedbeds varied from conventional to no-till into stubble and killed sod. Due to the dry conditions, no fertilizer was applied. Millet was drilled 1-inch deep at 13 lb/acre with a double disk drill and 7-inch row spacing. Field 8 was used as a fallow comparison. All other fields had been used to grow a crop in 1991. German millet seed was not available. In subsequent years, German millet has produced yields equivalent to or better than Siberian and Hungarian millets. On July 5, Fields 1-5 were sprayed with 2,4-D at 0.38 lb a.i./acre to control broadleaf weeds.

Seeded into a fallow field, Hungarian and Siberian millet yielded about 650 lb/acre more forage than the same varieties grown on fields with a crop the previous year. Conventional seedbed preparation out-yielded no-till seeding 2695 to 979 lb/acre. Hungarian and Siberian millet yields, averaged over all fields, were similar. Pearl millet yielded less than either Siberian or Hungarian on the one field in which they were compared. Yields would likely have been higher had nitrogen fertilizer been applied, since 3.6 inches of rainfall was received following seeding in late June and July. The difference in fallow and non-fallowed yields could have been due to differences in nitrogen. One of the benefits of fallow is the mineralization of nitrogen during the year without crop. Foxtail millets are warm weather crops and likely suffered some yield loss due to the cool 1992 season. Average temperatures for June, July and August were 1.2, 4.3, and 3.00F below normal. The elevation at the site is 6000 feet. At lower elevations in the state yields as high as 3 ½ tons/acre have been reported.

Over the last 10 years, foxtail millet seeded at Archer R&E has averaged 2 ½ tons/acre (1.5-3 tons/acre) with 40 to 50 lb/acre of N and 2 tons/acre (1 to 2 ½ tons/acre) without N fertilizer.

Ewe lambs grazed the millet in 1992. Despite limited utilization once millet had headed (60% use), lambs gained 0.40 lb/day and 130 lb/acre. Compared with grazed forage, millet hay has been observed to be more palatable and much better utilized.

Recent work with foxtail millet shows that it is a good species for swathing, windrowing and leaving in the field until fall/winter grazing. Forage quality of windrows in November and December is similar to that of baled hay; however, cost is much lower because the operations of baling, hauling, stacking and feeding are eliminated. For the windrow grazing alternative, there is a small cost to fencing and grazing and provisions for water need to be met. Millet left standing, on the other hand, deteriorates badly in forage quality and becomes unpalatable. Crude protein content of baled hay and windrows averaged between 10 and 11%, while standing millet declined to about 8%. Also, animals with access to windrowed forage did not grazing adjacent standing millet. A report on this study appears in the 2001 Univ. of Wyoming Agric. Exp. Sta. Progress Report, pp. 126-128.

Table 1. Previous crop, field preparation, seeding method and varieties of foxtail millet seeded at Archer R&E in 1992.

Field no. Planting date Previous crop Field preparation and seeding method Hay Variety1 yield, 12% lb/acre
1 6-11 Triticale chiseled, rod-weeded,harrowed H,S 3444
2 6-17 Native grass sprayed with glyphosate,no-till seeded S 925
3 6-18 Sudangrass chiseled, disked, harrowed S 2331

H 2872
4 6-18 Millet chiseled, disked, harrowed S 2260
5 6-11 Barley hay glyphosate, followed by stubble planting H 1032
6 6-24 Winter wheat Sudangrass chiseled, disked,harrowed S 2412
7 6-13 Winter barley chiseled, harrowed (winterkilled) H 2412
8 6-22 Fallow chiseled H 3292

S 3407

P 2502

1H=Hungarian; S=Siberian; P=Hybrid Pearl Millet.

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