New roots for old crop

Millet is quickly making a return as a versatile summertime crop. Picture: Shutterstock 251888_02

By Paul Mcintosh

Time is marching on in this dry springtime and many are itching to plant a summer crop.

For us in Queensland – after a fairly dry summer for many and an average-to-poor winter crop depending where you are in the state – farmers and agribusiness owners are planning a summer crop option whilst hoping for significant rain events.

Cotton is high on the list of options in the usual areas, followed by grain sorghum – fairly traditional thoughts and options.

Many of us will also come to consider a very antient and multi option crop in millet.

This small-seeded, summer-growing grass crop has been the backbone of many Australian farming systems over the last 60 years.

End uses for this very handy plant have been range grazing as a fodder crop, market uses like birdseed, hay baling, future seed crops plus other minor agricultural fits.

Of course, in our current farming systems with emphasis on stubble retention, the stubble from millet crops can rival wheat and barley as kings of fallow stubbles.

After some great research work done by Queensland’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, we now appreciate the millet crop fallow capabilities to increase stored soil moisture even more – so much so, in fact, that there has been a recent innovation of planting and growing a crop of millet for 50 or 60 days before completing a total sprayout with a knockdown herbicide, which can provide a more efficient fallow period and therefore more stored soil water.

So that there is no confusion, the entire tall grassy millet plant as a stubble (or more correctly as a cover crop) is infinitely more effective at efficient moisture storage than a direct harvested, swathed or baled block of millet.

Of course, it does seem rather hard to spray out a perfectly good millet crop before harvesting any grain, just to aid the summer fallow efficiency period for the betterment of the following winter crops – especially a couple of years ago, when record millet grain prices were very strong with markets both domestic and overseas wanting our millet crops.

So what could happen this year with Queensland being a key millet growing area?

My best advice before planting anything is to check your markets for the crop that best suits your current land preparation.

Millet seed is fairly small with 400,000 to 500,000 seeds per kilogram, so it needs a moist seed bed with great top soil tilth and maybe a good old fashioned rolling – post-plant, pre-emergent – to get a good strike.

Consider marketability first – and while you are there, confirm the best variety for these future markets.

By the way, you still need to have some good sub-soil moisture to grow a millet crop, so your reliance on our patchy rainfall patterns is reduced somewhat.

The other aspect I have noticed with millet is its competitive nature with many weed species. We have no pre- or post-emergent herbicides for any grass control in our millet crops, mostly due to the very close relatives of our pesky grass weeds.

Broadleaf control on an incrop, post-emergent basis is very doable, so that is also why a good, even strike of millet will invariably out-compete your local grass weeds.

There are plenty of other agronomy tips about growing millet, however it is pretty cool to see this old crop type still featuring in our 2021 farming systems.