CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — With the continuing drought in the state, Iowa State University is looking at the prospects for a new crop to grow.

According to an ISU news release, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets, but these crops are unfamiliar to many Iowa farmers.

Proso millet is a hardy cereal grain that requires about half the water 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 use the same equipment they already use to plant and harvest corn or beans.

This week Iowa State University President, Wendy Wintersteen, gave a presentation to the Iowa Board of Regents regarding proso millet.

“I think there really is opportunity to think differently about a third crop in Iowa,” said Wintersteen. “Especially as we look at growing needs for crops that don’t require as much water. So it will be an interesting thing to watch this particular innovation grow and perhaps take hold in even the midwest, but countries around the world.”

According to ISU the research on proso millet is being driven by an Ames firm called Dryland Genetics.

Patrick Schnable  and James Schnable, are a father-son duo, and are the founders of Dryland Genetics.

The idea that became Dryland Genetics was originally born in 2013 when James was running an experiment with more than a dozen grains. After the test was over, he forgot about the plants, and they were left in the greenhouse with no one to water them. 

Everything died — except for the millet. “It was exciting to see that a crop could tolerate that level of neglect,” James Schnable said. 

Proso millet’s short growing season and late planting date means the crop could mesh well with rotations that include a winter annual crop, such as winter canola, camelina or winter peas. 

Currently, proso millet is often sold in the U.S. as bird seed and in gluten free health foods. It can substitute for most of the uses of corn, including as feed for livestock and ethanol production

Dryland Genetics’ mission is to develop proso millet as the climate conscious choice of farmers and consumers across the world. The company is already seeing significant yield gains. Importantly, the higher yielding varieties remain thrifty water users. 

“Water is going to be a major limiting factor for agriculture in much of the world,” Patrick Schable 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. I strongly believe that proso millet is one of the answers to this serious challenge.” 

For more on Dryland Gentics, click here.