Search Site   
Current News Stories
Butter exports, domestic usage down in February
Heavy rain stalls 2024 spring planting season for Midwest
Obituary: Guy Dean Jackson
Painted Mail Pouch barns going, going, but not gone
Versatile tractor harvests a $232,000 bid at Wendt
US farms increasingly reliant on contract workers 
Tomahawk throwing added to Ladies’ Sports Day in Ohio
Jepsen and Sonnenbert honored for being Ohio Master Farmers
High oleic soybeans can provide fat, protein to dairy cows
PSR and SGD enter into an agreement 
Fish & wildlife plans stream trout opener
News Articles
Search News  
Plant breeders look to improve drought tolerant proso millet
Iowa Correspondent

AMES, Iowa – A father and son team of plant breeders have started a company in Iowa that’s working to improve yields of proso millet, with the goal of using the drought-tolerant crop for many of the same applications as corn.
Patrick Schnable, is the Iowa Corn Endowed Chair in Genetics and director of Iowa State University’s Plant Sciences Institute. His son, James Schnable, is University of Nebraska-Lincoln Charles O. Gardner professor of agronomy.
The idea for growing proso millet came about when Dryland Genetics was originally born in 2013 when James was running an experiment with more than a dozen grains.
After the test was over, James had forgotten about the plants, and they were left in the greenhouse with no one to water them; everything died except for the proso millet.
The Schnables were then inspired to create a start-up company, Dryland Genetics in Ames. In the decade since, they have been using their expertise to improve proso millet yields through genotyping and breeding. They have been testing the plant’s viability under different growing conditions, and building markets for the best performing varieties.
As founders of Dryland Genetics and plant scientists with extensive expertise in corn genetics, they both had an interest in other promising crops.
“Both of us have had a lot of experience working with all the innovation and new technologies that have been developed to continuing improving the productivity of corn hybrids,” James told Farm World.  “We were also conscious of the fact that breeding has made much less – or essentially no – progress in reducing the amount of water required to produce a bushel of corn.
“So when we learned about proso millet, a crop that produced approximately twice as much grain from the same amount of water as corn, but hadn’t yet benefited from the advances in modern breeding,” he added. “We were really excited about the potential to increase its yields, using all the lessons learned from corn breeding.”
Proso millet is a hardy cereal grain that requires about half the water that corn needs per bushel of grain produced; its management is similar to corn, although it can be grown in the Midwest without the need to apply expensive nitrogen fertilizer.
Farmers can also use the same equipment they already use to plant and harvest corn or beans; proso millet’s short growing season and late planting date also means the crop could mesh well with rotations that include a winter annual crop, such as winter canola, camelina, or winter peas.
“Critically, proso millet also wasn’t a new crop,” James said. “It was one farmers in Nebraska and Colorado were already growing and harvesting, using mechanized high throughput (the amount of material or items passing through a system or process) agriculture, so planting it in Iowa didn’t require either buying expensive new farm equipment, or a lot of human labor.
“We could plant and harvest it with existing planters and combines,” he added.
Earlier this year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets – although these crops are unfamiliar to many farmers.
“Proso millet’s great advantage out west is its water efficiency,” James said. “Here in Iowa, its advantage relative to corn is two-fold.
“First, because a proso millet crop requires less nitrogen than a corn crop, it is not necessary to provide supplemental nitrogen fertilizer for millet. Nitrogen fertilizer is a significant input cost for corn production in Iowa; typically, the biggest or second biggest (after seed) variable cost of production for farmers,” he said.
“Second, millet is planted after corn and soybeans have been planted, and is often harvested before corn and soybeans are harvested,” he added. “The timing of planting and harvesting means the same amount of farm equipment – and the same number of people – can plant and harvest more acres, growing a mix of corn, soybeans, and proso millet, than growing only corn and soybeans.”
Currently, proso millet is often sold in the U.S. as bird seed and in gluten-free health foods, and can substitute for most of the uses of corn, including as feed for livestock and ethanol production.
Patrick Schnable, James’ father, said proso millet is already grown on thousands of acres in the U.S., yet it hasn’t become widely popular; for comparison, corn is grown on about 90 million acres each year.
“In large part, that’s because there has been little work to improve millet, which has not historically been a highly-productive plant per acre,” he said. “It has taken huge investments, and almost 100 years of breeding to make corn the crop so many across the globe depend on today.
“Yet as corn yields rise, so do its water demands,” he added. “As access to water becomes more limited in the future, we expect demand for a water-thrifty crop like proso millet to increase.”
When asked how much research went into testing millet in Iowa, James said he and his father, Patrick, started out growing small, hand-planted test plots near their breeding facility.
“After seeing how well proso millet performed in Iowa, where it has access to far more water – and nutrients from rich Iowa soils, even without any supplemental fertilizer – we started scaling up to larger-scale production on, first, a few acres, then dozens, and now hundreds,” he said.
Patrick said Dryland Genetics is already seeing significant yield gains, with the higher-yielding varieties remaining thrifty water users.
“Water is going to be a major limiting factor for agriculture in much of the world,” he said. “Even here in this country, water supplies are drying up. This is a matter of food security and rural prosperity.
“We need ways to supplement corn and other crops that are heavy water users,” he added. “I strongly believe that proso millet is one of the answers to this serious challenge.”