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Pearl Millet: A New U.S. Crop?

By Sharon Durham
February 6, 2003

A new pearl millet hybrid that may become an important U.S. grain crop has been developed by Agricultural Research Service scientists. Pearl millet is an important grain crop in its native Africa, but there isn't an established market for it in the United States. That could change, based on research by scientists Wayne Hanna and Jeff Wilson of the ARS Crop Genetics and Breeding Research Unit in Tifton, Georgia.

The hot, sometimes arid summers of the southeastern United States can pose problems for growers of other crops, but pearl millet thrives under these conditions. In Africa, it grows to ten feet, making it difficult to harvest mechanically under U.S. production methods.

Hanna, a retired research leader, and Wilson, a research plant pathologist, developed a new strain that is only four feet tall, flowers earlier at 45 to 48 days and produces higher yields of grain. The new hybrid can be harvested in 80 days--a short growing season that can offer flexibility on southeastern farms. The compact size of the new hybrid allows growers to use standard planting and harvesting equipment.

The protein- and calcium-rich grain may have a market as part of commercial poultry diets. Currently, chickens are fed mostly corn and soy, with corn being the largest component.

Corn is usually shipped to Georgia and other southeastern states from other states at great expense. Pearl millet may allow farmers in the region to supply some of the poultry industry's needs, significantly reducing costs while opening a new market for pearl millet.

And pearl millet's use may not be limited to poultry feed. In Africa, the highly nutritious grain is used only for human consumption. In time, the grain may find a market in the U.S. food processing industry as well.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.