WHAT ARE MILLETS?
Millets are small-seeded grasses that are hardy and grow well in dry zones as rain-fed crops, under marginal conditions of soil fertility and moisture. Millets are one of the oldest foods known to humans and possibly the first cereal grain to be used for domestic purposes.
Millets are also unique due to their short growing season. They can develop from planted seeds to mature, ready to harvest plants in as little as 65 days. This is important in heavily populated areas. When properly stored, whole millets will keep for two or more years.
WHY EAT MILLETS?
They are highly nutritious, non-glutinous and not acid forming foods. Hence they are soothing and easy to digest. They are considered to be the least allergenic and most digestible grains available. Compared to rice, especially polished rice, millets release lesser percentage of glucose and over a longer period of time. This lowers the risk of diabetes (More here).
Millets are particularly high in minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium. Finger millet (Ragi) is the richest in calcium content, about 10 times that of rice or wheat. Click here for the nutrient composition of millets as compared to wheat and rice.
Unlike rice and wheat that require many inputs in terms of soil fertility and water, millets grow well in dry regions as rainfed crops. By eating millets, we will be encouraging farmers in dryland areas to grow crops that are best suited for those regions. This is a step towards sustainable cropping practices where by introducing diversity in our diets, we respect the biodiversity in nature rather than forcefully changing cropping patterns to grow wheat and rice everywhere.
There are many co-operatives of small farmers that are working on providing livelihoods to farmers while at the same time focusing on ecological preservation. In dryland regions, these groups encourage the farmers to produce crops that are local to those regions, that thrive best there – millets. By incorporating millets into our diets, we will be supporting these groups. Learn more about these groups here.
Millets are some of the oldest of cultivated crops. The term millet is applied to various grass crops whose seeds are harvested for food or feed. The five millet species of commercial importance are proso, foxtail, barnyard, browntop and pearl. In China, records of culture for foxtail and proso millet extend back to 2000 to 1000 BC Foxtail millet (Setaria italica L.) probably originated in southern Asia and is the oldest of the cultivated millets. It is also known as Italian or German Millet. Its culture slowly spread westward towards Europe. Foxtail millet was rarely grown in the U.S. during colonial times, but its acreage increased dramatically in the Great Plains after 1850. However, with the introduction of Sudan grass, acreage planted to foxtail millet decreased.
Proso millet (Panicum miliaceum L.) was introduced into the U.S. from Europe during the 18th century. It was first grown along the eastern seaboard and was later introduced into the Dakotas where it later was grown on considerable acreage. In North Dakota acreage has ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 acres while in Minnesota only a few thousand acres have been grown.
Today, foxtail millet is grown primarily in eastern Asia. Proso millet is grown in the Soviet Union, mainland China, India and western Europe. In the United States, both millets are grown principally in the Dakotas, Colorado and Nebraska.
Barnyard or Japanese millet (Echinochloa frumentaceae L.), is a domesticated relative of the seed, barnyard grass. It is grown for grain in Australia, Japan and other Asian countries. In the United States, it is grown primarily as a forage.
Browntop millet (Panicum ramosum) is a native of India and was introduced into the United States in 1915. It is grown in southeastern United States for hay or pasture and bird and quail feed plantings on game preserves. It is sometimes sold to Minnesota sportsmen for this purpose. Seed and forage yields of browntop millet have been low in Minnesota tests and it did not compete well with weeds.
Pearl or cattail millet (Pennisetum glaucum) originated in the African savannah and grown since prehistoric time. It is grown extensively in Africa, Asia, India and Near East as a food grain. It was introduced into the United States at an early date but was seldom grown until 1875. It is primarily grown in southern United States as a temporary pasture. It is preferred over sudangrass as a forage crop in the south. Varieties planted at Rosemount, Minnesota produced very little seed, and their forage yield was low compared to foxtail varieties.
The most commonly grown millets in the midwestern states are proso and foxtail with a limited acreage of barnyard.
The major uses of proso millet are as a component of grain mixes for parakeets, canaries, finches, lovebirds, cockatiels and wild birds and as feed for cattle, sheep, hogs and poultry. Millet for birdfeed purposes is often grown under contract. Large bright or red seed is preferred, and premiums are sometimes paid for superior quality. Two types of bird feed mixes are marketed. One type is for wild birds and the other for caged birds. The cage bird mixes require the better quality proso for which premiums are paid.
Proso millet as livestock feed is similar to oats and barley in feeding value. It is commonly fed in ground form to cattle, sheep, and hogs. Whole seed can be fed to poultry. The protein values compare favorably with sorghum and wheat and are higher than corn. Proso also has considerably higher fiber levels, due to attached hulls. The average composition of proso grain is shown in Table 1. Proso performs best in livestock rations when fed in mixtures with other grains. If the amino acid levels are balanced, the feeding value to hogs is nearly equal to corn. Proso can be cut for hay, but it is not as suitable as foxtail for this purpose.
Foxtail millet is usually grown for hay or silage often as a short-season emergency hay crop. Some seed is used for finch and wild bird feeds. It does not necessarily yield more forage than proso but is free of foliage hairs and is finer stemmed. For forage, foxtail millet is harvested at the late boot to late bloom stage. The composition of foxtail millet relative to other forages is shown in Table 2. Foxtail millet should not be fed to horses as the only source of roughage since it acts as a laxative. If foxtail millet has been severely stressed it may accumulate nitrate at levels toxic for livestock. Several landraces of foxtail millet have been developed over time and include what is called Common, Siberian, Hungarian, and German Foxtail.
AVERAGE COMPOSITION OF PROSO MILLET.
Crude protein 12.0%
Crude fiber 8.0%
Thiamine 3.0% mg/lb
Ether extract (fat) 4.0%
Niacin (nicotinic acid) 24.0 mg/lb
Total Digestible Nutrients 75%
Riboflavin 0.7 mg/lb
Digestible Energy 1500 kcal/lb
Pantothenic acid 3.4 mg/lb
Choline 358.0 mg/lb
Critical Amino acids:
Vitamin D none
Vitamin B12 none
Millets are annual grasses. Proso millet grows to a height of approximately 40 in. and has a hollow stem. Both stems and leaves are curved with short hairs. Proso millet has a large, open panicle inflorescence. When the grain is threshed, most of the seed remains enclosed in the inner hull. Hulls are extremely variable in color and, depending on the variety, may be white, red, yellow, brown or striped.
Foxtail millet has slender, erect leafy stems and may grow up to 50 in. tall. The inflorescence is a dense, bristly panicle resembling the panicles of weedy foxtails. As in proso millet, the seeds are enclosed in the hull and also range in color from creamy white, red, yellow or dark purple. Both proso and foxtail millet are highly self-pollinated but have been known to occasionally outcross.
Proso and foxtail millet are short season crops. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, proso millet will mature in 70 to 90 days from planting, depending on the variety. Foxtail millet requires approximately 60 days to reach the heading stage.