What You Need to Know About Growing Millet

Millet is a fast-growing late-season crop, is easily adaptable in the kitchen and outstrips many more common grains as a nutritional powerhouse.

Millet

The word “millet” is used to refer to plants in four different families, and can therefore lead to a tremendous amount of confusion.

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In Small-Scale Grain Raising (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2009), author Gene Logsdon proves that anyone who has access to a large garden or small farm can and should think outside the agribusiness box and learn to grow healthy whole grains or beans alongside their fruits and vegetables. This excerpt, from Chapter 8, “Buckwheat and Millet,” provides information about the four kinds of millet and how they can be grown on a small-scale.

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Growing Millet in the United States

Millet is grown in the United States mostly for pasture and hay. Only proso millet is grown seriously for grain. It is used for animal feed, flour for humans, and birdseed mixtures. It is nutritionally superior to many of our common grains, containing more essential amino acids than wheat, oats, rice, barley, and rye. It lacks only lysine, the amino acid buckwheat is high in, making buckwheat and millet a good combination in your diet. Also, while most grains form acids in your stomach, millet, with its high alkaline mineral content, counteracts acids and is more easily digested. Millet, not rice, is the basic carbohydrate food in China, especially northern China. The Hunzas, whose reputation for health and longevity is well known, eat millet regularly.

The word millet is used to refer to plants in four different families, and therefore leads to a tremendous amount of confusion, including mine. Sellers of field seed in the United States talk about Japanese, German, Hungarian, African, common, proso, pearl, browntop, foxtail, and variations thereof. And these terms do not necessarily refer to the same plant in different parts of the country, either. So, armed with my ever-trusty Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening, Horticulture, and Landscape Design, 4th ed., (Riverside Press, 1961) and supported by innumerable phone calls to seedsmen throughout the United States, I shall attempt to identify all the millets and colloquial names thereof. But, mind you, I won’t claim infallibility for my categorization. One man’s colloquialism is another man’s slang.

There are three different families of millets and a fourth kind so-called, which is not really millet at all. Let’s dispatch with this fourth one first. If you are in Texas or surrounding states, you can buy and grow what is called “African millet.” This plant is really a sorghum, a tall form of kafir corn with a proper name of Sorghum unlgare var. caffrorum. It is grown for pasture and/or hay, though not extensively. African millet might also be referred to as mock- orange cane, orange sorghum, or even sumac, in Texas.

Proso Millet

Proso millet, Panicum miliaceum, is the only millet grown for food in the United States. It is sometimes called broomcorn millet because the open heads of the plant resemble small broomcorn heads. That differentiates it from the foxtail- and cattail-shaped heads of other millets. So far as I know, no millet is sold under the name “broomcorn millet” anymore, but interest in proso is increasing as a food grain for the driest parts of the country. This family of millets is the one used from earliest times for grain and flour, especially in India, China, Japan, Manchuria, and Russia. Proso is usually milled for livestock as well as humans because the seed coating is so hard. Chickens can handle it whole. The seeds are about the size of peppercorns, and either red, yellow, or white in color. Newer varieties are white.

Foxtail Millet

“Foxtail” millets, Setaria italica, are grown for emergency hay, silage, and pasture, especially where weather is invariably dry. They make better forage than proso because they are finer-stemmed and not hairy-stemmed. What we in this part of the country call barnyard millet is a foxtail millet that volunteers in midsummer and grows better than other grasses in drought conditions. Once it heads out, which it does rather quickly, the livestock don’t much like it.

So-called browntop and Japanese varieties are not always included with the foxtail millets. That’s where scientific classification and colloquial names really get confusing. So-called Japanese millet grows in the North; browntop in the South. Both may grow to a height of 5 feet and will regrow after cutting, yielding more tonnage of forage than any other millet. These millets are finer- leaved and finer-stemmed than sorghum-Sudan grass and so dry faster for haymaking. Browntop is used in the South for cover and feed for quail and other game birds, but a Georgia farmer I once talked to said he considered it good hay for dairy cows, too.

Pearl Millet

The third group of millets are the pearl millets, botanical name Pennisetum glaucum, or P. americanum. Pearl millet, rather than resembling a small foxtail grass, looks more like a cattail reed head, and is in fact, often called cattail millet in the Southeast. Pearl millet is grown almost totally in the South. It threshes free from the hulls, which might make it more desirable for the garden farmer processing millet for table use. But it is not as desirable for grain or flour as proso.

Planting, Growing and Using Millet

Millet can be planted either by broadcasting or by drill seeding, at the rate of about 35 pounds per acre for all kinds of millet—a little more if broadcast. Don’t worry about getting it a little deep, as it will come up from 4 inches to 5 inches down, I’m told. But 1 inch to 3 inches is a better planting depth. Millet, like buckwheat, can be planted late in the season. In fact, it is often grown as an emergency crop after another grain crop has failed.

Millet won’t compete, pound for pound, as hay or pasture with legumes in nutritional value, but it has other advantages. Thirty days after you plant it you can be using it. No legume can make that claim. It has good insect resistance and is relatively free of disease, which together with its ability to grow on rather poor land makes it a desirable crop for any organic grower not wanting to use commercial fertilizers. As hay it can produce several tons per acre in three months, and as seed, 50 bushels per acre or more. It’s a good emergency forage when things go wrong and you need forage fast. And, of course, the same would be true of the grain. Chickens will do well on it; just toss them the whole stalks and let them peck out the seeds, or let them free-range through the standing millet. And researchers, particularly in the drier parts of the Great Plains, keep up ongoing programs at the land-grant colleges on millet improvement. As one of them told me: “If we ever run out of irrigation water, millet could become a very valuable food source, as it is in other dry regions of the world.”

Nutritionists point out that proso millet is highly adaptable to various recipes, as it has an almost bland taste, with just a slightly nutty flavor. They say that it can easily be used by itself or in combination with other grains in casseroles, breads, stews, soufflés, stuffings, cereals, or eaten plain with butter, gravy, or a vegetable sauce. Brown it first in a skillet with a small amount of oil, then use it as you would any other grain. Browning enhances the nutty flavor.

Millet Recipes

A coworker and one time Organic Living editor at Rodale Press, Ray Wolf, shared this idea with me. “You can prepare a cereal that will serve a dual purpose by adding one part millet, one part sesame seed meal, and five parts water to a baking casserole or a double boiler and cooking it until done, about 45 minutes. This can be eaten as a cereal, or allowed to cool and congeal, at which point it can be sliced or prepared as patties, which can be used as a type of (cornmeal) mush. It can be reheated and served with cheese melted on top.”

Want to make your own homemade bread from millet? Follow this Homemade Millet Bread Recipe to learn how.


This excerpt is adapted from Gene Logsdon’s Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition (April 2009) and is printed with permission from Chelsea Green Publishing.