Pearl Millet — a Good Summer Forage for NC

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Pearl millet makes for some really good summer grazing with peak production months of June, July, and August. It can be seeded broadcast at 20 – 25 pounds per acre or drilled at 15 – 20 pounds per acre with a planting depth ranging from ½ inch to 1 inches. Heavier seeding rates work well for hay production, producing fewer tillers and finer stems which helps cut down on hay drying times. The stem size is the problem with pearl millet hay, if you do not have a hay conditioner to crush the stems expect long curing times. The large stems also allow rainwater to run through round bales when stored outside which causes bales to lose quality quickly. To protect quality the bales, will need to be stored under a shelter or tarped.

The best planting dates for Pearl millet in the Coastal Plain are May 1 – May 15, with possible planting dates ranging from April 20 – June 30. Pearl millet is one of the most drought resistant of the summer grain crops and grows best in well-drained soils. A soil test is always the best way to go, but a general fertilizer recommendation is to apply 400 lbs of a complete fertilizer such as 10-10-10 at planting. Then follow up with 40 pounds per acre of Nitrogen after each grazing cycle / haying cycle except for the last. Total nitrogen per acre should not exceed 160 pounds per year. Pearl millet can accumulate toxic nitrate levels when heavily nitrogen-fertilized and under stressful conditions such as drought, and wet pastures during cool cloudy weather. The reason high levels of nitrate in forage and hay should be avoided is because high nitrate levels can interfere with the animal’s bloods ability to carry oxygen. I have grazed horses and cattle on pearl millet for years with no nitrate problems, you just have to remember not to fertilize this grass heavily with Nitrogen, or you can create problems. One big advantage of Pearl Millet is that it does not produce hydrocyanic acids (like sorghums do), so the poisonous prussic acid does not occur in pearl millet, making it safe for livestock and horses to graze.

Pearl millet has good nutritive values (60 – 65 % digestible and 14 – 18% crude protein) if grazed when 12 – 24 inches tall. Pearl millet will produce between 3 – 4 tons of dry forage per acre. Typically animals are turned in to graze when pearl millet has reached a height of 14 – 24 inches and removed when stubble height is 6 – 8 inches. Pearl millets can be classified into three categories: dwarf (less than 4 feet), semi dwarf (4 – 6 feet), and Tall (6 – 8 feet). Dwarf varieties seem to be a better fit for grazing and hay, having smaller stalks and the same number of leaves as taller varieties. For additional information on forages contact the N.C. Cooperative Extension of Harnett County office at 910-893-7530.