Pasture Cropping Pearl Millet

We did something new this week:  planted five acres of pearl millet.  For years I’ve been hearing about the work Colin Seis has been doing in popularizing pasture cropping, and the idea is intriguing in many aspects.  The basic premises of pasture cropping are:

  1. Plant an annual crop into a perennial pasture during a period of dormancy.
  2. Harvest the annual crop (either as a forage or as a grain).
  3. Allow the perennial pasture to regenerate partially under the canopy of the annual  crop and then to fully regenerate after the annual crop is removed (either by mechanical means or by grazing).

In Australia where Colin lives, the opportunities for this sort of farming are tremendous since the dramatic seasonal fluctuations are ideal for sharing fields with both perennial grasses and annual cereal grain crops.  Here in Upstate NY the conditions are far different; during our dormant season the ground is frozen solid and usually covered in snow.  Our summers are rarely droughty and our highest temperatures aren’t usually intense enough to cause a significant dormancy in cool season grasses.

But I’m giving it a try on a small scale to see how it might work to plant Pearl Millet for a late summer/early fall grazing grass.  My plan is to let it grow until late August or early September and then to turn in the cattle while the plants are in their grassy phase before they develop grain.  I guess the worst case scenario is that nothing will grow, in which case I’ll just regraze this field later in the fall.  The second-worst case would be if the millet heads out early and sets grain (then I wouldn’t be able to graze it with grassfed cattle).  If that occurs then I might get some utility from the millet seeds as grain for the pigs and/or the chickens.  Millet has better protein than corn and about the same energy by weight.

We had a small hayfield cut the last week of June (I’d like to get the hay cut in mid June but it is usually a wet month not conducive to first cuttings).  A week later I brought the cattle back and set them to stun.  Normally I wouldn’t do this; I’d leave the grass alone for a few months to regrow before cutting or grazing it, but in this situation I wanted them to regraze the grass to stunt it, thereby simulating dormant season conditions.  My hope is that the combination of mowing followed by tight grazing and aided by warmer summer weather will cause the grass regrowth to slow just enough to give the millet a chance to germinate and get ahead in the competition for sunlight.

NoTill Drill

Ten foot wide planter with seven inch row spacing.  Overall it was a good machine: easy to pull, pretty straightforward mechanically, and it seemed to be accurate in seeding at the rate I dialed in.  The only mechanical problem was that the downpressure cylinder had a worn seal internally causing it to loosen up gradually.  I had to keep one hand on the hydraulic remote handle to give it extra juice every 15 seconds or so, otherwise the coulters would creep up out of the ground without making the necessary furrow.

 

I rented a ten foot wide no till drill from the Soil and Water Conservation District and planted about 90 pounds of Pearl Millet on five acres of pasture.  Buying a small quantity of seed that nobody around here uses meant that it needed to be special ordered and shipping was half the cost of each bag, so that totalled $225.  The seed drill costs $15 per acre, plus the SWCD rental agreement requires the purchase of a separate insurance rider to cover the damage liability ($50 from my farm insurance provider, kind of extortionate compared to the rental rate).  Fuel consumption was less than two gallons, so my total out of pocket expenses finished around $70 per acre.  By rights labor should be factored in, but since over the last few years I’ve consistently lost around $9 for every hour I worked on the farm, I am going to pretend that I can ignore labor costs in this calculation.

Planter tracks

Depending on the aspect of the field compared to the sunlight or tree shadows, sometimes the planted section was obvious, but sometimes it was hard to see where I had been.  As a consequence (and also because I did some dry runs with the machine before adding the seed) the meter showed that I actually ran the machine for six acres in the five acre field.

I’ll update the blog with the status of this project.  I’ll need to measure success in a few ways:

  1. How well does the millet germinate and compete with the existing grasses?
  2. How many days of grazing does this give me compared to the adjacent hayfield that I’ve left alone?
  3. How much extra grass does this allow me to stockpile in my other hayfields and pastures?
  4. What seeding rate worked best?
  5. What does the millet do for the body condition of the cattle?
  6. How does the underlying grass perform next year?

If this is successful, I have future experiments in mind.  Could I plant the millet at a lower density to save seed costs?  Could I plant a more palatable annual like sorghum sudangrass?  What about polyculture plantings, say with millet, sorghum, rape, and vetch?  If I could get the grass off earlier as baleage, could I get multiple grazings?  Could I do this same thing in late August to plant winter wheat for early spring grazing?  What would happen to the yields if I lightly grazed the annuals and then allowed the plants to mature to reap a grain harvest?  There is much to consider.  But I first I need the millet to grow…

9 Comments on “Pasture Cropping Pearl Millet

  1. Pingback: More on Annual Forages | Wrong Direction Farm

  2. Pingback: Annuals | Cairncrest Farm

  3. Pingback: Crop Failure Etiology | Wrong Direction Farm

  4. Dave, Very interesting experiment. Keep us updated.
    If it germinates, you could also add in a perennial legume like alfalfa or clover that maybe would live and end up adding production to your hay field next year?

    • Absolutely. I didn’t know that the drill also has a legume box attachment until I got it, but if I knew that ahead of time I would have added some legumes. This field has a fair red and white clover population and a surprising amount of vetch, so alfalfa, trefoil, or sweet clover would probably be the appropriate legumes to add.

  5. You’re running one of the experiments I want to try. I’m excited to see your results.

    Quorum treatment?

    Did you go with millet in part to reduce the risk of prussic acid toxicity?

    This summer I broadcast some sorghum-sudan grass where my pigs tilled and it’s actually germinated better than I expected. I think the pigeons found a lot of it or I’d have even more of it coming up. Despite beating my low expectations I’m pretty sure the germination rate was too low to justify the cost of the seed. If only I could drill it in without having to smooth the pig hummocks first…

    • No I didn’t put any seed treatment in place, although that would be another aspect to experiment with.
      I did go with millet over sorghum variants for a few reasons: (1) it is more drought resistant so I wanted to play it safe since this summer has been dryer than average, (2) I’m sure I could manage the prussic acid aspect, but for my first go-round I didn’t want to have to add that to my list of things to watch for, and (3) I wanted to section off a small area to let the millet mature to understand what might be involved with harvesting grain for our own use or as chicken/pig feed. Sorghum would probably make a better forage crop.

  6. Check out Will Harris White oak Pastures( In Georgia) Also Joel Salatin,polyface farm.The later has written a couple books.From reading some of your blogs I am certain you have done a lot of research and have become knowledgeable in your trade.Knowledge is power but with farming it appears your ” math equations” always have shifting variables.Peace Paul Heller

    • Yes Paul I’m certainly indebted to Will and Joel, both for the information they’ve shared and for the roles they have played in making the public aware of the alternatives in agriculture. And you are right about the variables shifting…

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