An ancient cereal crop offers market and production potential to growers in semi-arid regions.
Proso millet took root in northern China more than 12,000 years ago and ultimately spread westward and found its way to North America thanks to the early European settlers. The grain is starting to find its way for human consumption while also serving as birdseed and pet food. Proso also has been used as livestock feed.
Lane Stum grows proso near the Colorado-Kansas border at Towner, Colorado, and is a practical believer of it as a dryland crop with its gluten-free properties. His father started growing the crop in 1958 and annually Stum grows about 2,000 to 6,000 acres. Six years ago it became the operation’s primary crop.
“It was one of the few crops we ever grew that we got phone calls or emails on,” Stum said. “It is one of the few crops we set the price on rather than somebody else. There is a range the price can sit in because of markets.”
Ties to corn country
Proso’s current and potential untapped market has captured the eye of two plant biologists who work in a region where corn is king.
Patrick Schnable, a corn geneticist at Iowa State University, and his son, James, a plant biologist and assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy and Horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, are partners in Dryland Genetics, based in Ames, Iowa.
Proso has its genome sequenced and that could open opportunity for yield improvements for the small-seed cereal crop.
Proso is still grown in its original country and in Eastern Europe, Patrick Schnable said. Besides success in eastern Colorado, it has a niche in western Nebraska and South Dakota and other semi-arid regions.
James Schnable said he had little knowledge about proso until about six years ago. He became intrigued and was fascinated by how even in difficult drought conditions the plant still produced a seed and farmers could still raise a crop.
He asked a simple question, “Why can’t they take proso and grow more of it on the High Plains?”
The researchers said the cereal grain crop is able to grow with minimal fertilization application in comparison to other crops. It typically follows winter wheat or sunflowers, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension report that notes inserting proso into a winter wheat/fallow rotation is an excellent way to extend and diversify the rotation to help control winter annual grass weeds in winter wheat and to reduce disease and insect pressure.
The University of Nebraska was the only public sector college working with proso. The Schnables credit Dipak Santra, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center, Scottsbluff, Nebraska, for his ongoing research and promotion of the grain. Santra is an alternative crops breeder who studies cultivar and germplasm development of existing alternative crops and developing new crops for semi-arid High Plains.
“This will have a huge potential impact on the region’s rural economy,” Santra said. “Proso millet’s direct value to (the semi-arid High Plains) is $45 million a year, but considering its benefits to the dryland production systems, the total value of proso millet to the region’s economy could be close to a billion dollars.”
Short season crop
Proso is a short season crop that can be planted in June or July and typically follows wheat as a short season crop, Patrick Schnable said, with a 60- to 80-day growing season and harvest is typically in early September.
A producer who has the equipment to plant and harvest small grains should have capability to grow proso. Stum typically plants with an air seeder, hoe drill or disc drill around June 1 to take advantage of late spring moisture. Proso will finish out in about 80 days.
The harvest process, while not complicated, has enough differences that he goes into detail when talking to inquiring farmers.
“You have to typically swath it. When it starts to ripen you take it into a windrow and then use a pickup head on a combine to thrash it,” Stum said. “The timing of things is somewhat critical at this point. The longer it stays in the field the more grain you lose. We use draper heads. We shift the deck and I use the combine to swath it. When we’re done we put pickup heads on with belts and fingers on it and that picks it up and feeds into the combine.”
Stum said proso’s biggest pest is weeds. Insects for the most part have not been a problem. That does not mean they may not be a problem in the future. Traditionally, the genetics to develop one trait to improve production comes at a cost to another trait.
“Proso millet is one grain crop that will produce the most pounds with the least amount of water,” the Colorado producer said. “Whereas corn will produce the most pounds with the most amount of water.”
His fields only receive an average rainfall of 15 to 17 inches a year.
The potential to grow in dry patches of traditional fields has also caught the eye of Patrick Schnable. Dry spots usually develop because of topography and it is impossible to plant corn or soybeans on those areas. If there is a market opportunity for proso, he reasoned, then it can give a producer additional ways to use that acreage.
Proso averages about 30 to 40 bushels per acre. Stum’s average is in the mid 30s and weighs about 50 pounds a bushel.
“Obviously we want to increase yields,” Patrick Schnable said. “We have been working on it and we’re making progress.”
Improving yields will help farmers and also processors who need a dependable supply so they can expand the market, he said. “We need to find new markets.”
Proso is sold on a per hundredweight basis and for Stum the 13-year average is $8.25 per hundredweight. During the span it sold for as low as $5.50 per hundredweight to as high as $14 per hundredweight.
The price volatility is an inherent risk. Proso is not traded as a futures commodity. As a result the Stums have their own storage center and then it is shipped out accordingly.
“The market moves up and down drastically. In 2012 millet got up into the $40s then the very next year it was $5.50,” Stum said. “If you are not equipped to handle that kind of fluctuation it can be difficult. Some of the advantages over the standard crops it is also a detriment in other ways because it is not traded on board of trade so there is no way to hedge the crop for extra price protection. At the same time that’s what makes it unique. It flies under other market pressures.”
The Stums broker to another company for their market outlet.
“We broker through a company,” Stum said. “It goes to a variety of places. Pet foods, bird seed, human consumption in the U.S. and overseas.”
Growing the base
The researchers at Dryland Genetics and Stum agree that adding acres will stabilize the market and give processors the supply they need to expand proso millet’s domestic and overseas market.
Colorado exports slightly over 60 percent of its crop outside the United States. Other states that grow millet are the Dakotas, western Nebraska, western Kansas with additional inquiries in Oklahoma and Texas.
Stum said most questions he receives are from producers who have limited supplies of groundwater for irrigation and they want to grow a crop that can meet a need in the marketplace.
The long-term growth potential is in human consumption, Stum said.
“Our family is focusing on the value-added side. We are trying to get closer to growing it for human consumption.”
Years ago the primary activity in Colorado was north of Interstate 70 with the exception of the Stums who were the farthest south farm of any production size.
“One of the reasons we started to pursue the value-added side and work with our broker in hopes to expand millet acres going south.”
Towner now has a market hub to ship the proso and that provides an opportunity for additional acres to be grown in western Kansas.
In recent years the High Plains Millet Association was formed so growers “could get a voice and place for people to access information.”
Without an association it also limited the breeding program and he was appreciative of the growing interest in research that he believes will pay off long term.
By being able to deliver a certain grade and quality it will make it attractive to food processors who like the gluten-free aspect that can be put on shelves in grocery stores and meets a need for some consumers. At the same time, proso producers need to provide enough volume to meet the need for the birdseed and pet food markets, he said.
“There is promise,” he said. “That is encouraging to us. Our hope is to grow the market, and grow the companies malting it for food as well as drinks. A gluten-free, non-GMO product is a nice buzzword for our industry.”
Dave Bergmeier can be reached at 620-227-1822 or firstname.lastname@example.org.