How an Essex farmer grew a crop of mammoth millet

Millet has proved to be a profitable and low-risk addition to Essex grower Christy Willett’s rotation, being easy to grow while also commanding a good price.

After making the decision to reduce the area of oilseed rape on her 475ha arable farm near Chelmsford due to problems with slugs and cabbage stem flea beetle, Ms Willett was on the look-out for good options for break crops.

Two season ago, she decided to give 50ha of mammoth millet a try after seeing contracts advertised for UK birdseed.

See also: Spring beans outperform oilseed rape on heavy Essex land

“We knew people who had grown millet for game cover; they said how well it grows and that gave us confidence to give it a try,” she says.

After performing well for two seasons, millet has now booked a consistent place within the farm’s rotation of winter wheat, winter rye, spring oats and soya beans.

Her success with the niche crop has also spurred her on to try other uncommon options, with borage being grown after millet this season.

Grassweeds

Not needing to be drilled until May means millet is an ideal spring option on parts of the farm that are plagued by ryegrass, allowing plenty of time to tackle the grassweed before drilling.

“We started growing it because of the ryegrass; it’s something else. Like your lawn, if you spray it with glyphosate it will just come back.”

Close-up of millet growing

Millet likes to be drilled into warm soil with some moisture © Tim Scrivener

Late drilling also fits in well with the strip-till establishment approach used on farm, as the heavy soil makes it harder to get on early in the spring.

Following an application of glyphosate to take out grassweeds, Ms Willett drills her crop using her Mzuri drill.

Ideally, the millet seed should be drilled in the first or second week of May into warm soil that has some moisture, as it doesn’t want to be drilled too early.

Like so many spring crops with a short growing window, last year Ms Willett’s millet yields suffered due to the hot and dry conditions soon after drilling.

Millet: pros and cons

Advantages

  • Late drilling gives full opportunity to tackle grassweeds
  • Low-risk crop with few inputs, but is easy to grow
  • Drought tolerant
  • Contracts available at £70-90/t above feed wheat price

Disadvantages

  • Doesn’t provide a proper break crop from cereals
  • Risk of lodging on heavier soils
  • Doesn’t fix nitrogen like a break crop of peas or beans would
  • Niche market

The first year she tried growing the crop, some areas achieved 4t/ha, but the dry conditions last season held yields back by 0.5t/ha, bringing the average yield down to 3t/ha.

The only chemical input given to the millet is a post-emergence herbicide consisting of Peak (prosulfuron) and Butryflow (bromoxynil), both of which have extension of authorisation for minor use in millet for broad-leaved weeds.

Lodging risk

Despite the crop being birdseed, birds are not a problem during the growing season as they cannot land on the plant because the stem is not supportive enough.

However, there are big losses during harvest, which does attract a “biblical” number of pigeons to the field to mop up the seed.

Before harvesting in September, the crop must be desiccated using glyphosate, as mature heads form on a green plant, making it difficult to combine without desiccation.

Christy and her tractor

© Jason Bye

“Last season the millet crop lodged, but while barley and wheat fall sideways, millet crumples in on itself too, making it slower to combine and also meaning we had to use lifters,” says Ms Willett.

For this reason the crop is not really suited to heavy land, and being drought tolerant, is better grown on lighter soils.

Harvest comes quite late in the year, which is a bit of a concern, she admits, but storing the crop should be easy for any growers with experience of OSR.

However, drying the crop to the target moisture of 14% can be harder than it is for rapeseed and can take a long time.

Market opportunities

The UK market for birdseed is a growing, with 25,000t of millet being imported for bird and pet food each year, with just 500ha grown domestically.

Full import substitution is unlikely as UK-grown millet cannot compete with the very best white colour achieved in crops grown in France, but Ms Willett has been very pleased with the quality of her crops so far, which have been accepted by the same end market as the French supply.

At a contract price of £240/t, last year’s yield of 3t/ha achieved a gross margin of £500/ha, but at the new contract price of £320/t secured for this season for her 30ha crop, the margins should be even higher.

Millet keeps ryegrass under control

Christy Willett has taken advantage of the large window available to tackle grassweeds ahead of drilling by growing her millet crop on fields with a bad ryegrass problem.

The problem was so bad that the field had not made any money for a few years, but after just a year in millet, both Ms Willett and her agronomist are really pleased with the reduction in ryegrass levels.

She plans to keep the affected area in spring cropping by growing borage this season, but is unsure whether to return the field to winter cropping after this.

“A spring crop again there could be prudent. We may only have spring crops there until we get rid of it,” she says.

“We have to take a long-term view of it – we can’t put it back into winter wheat yet. We could get back into trouble really easily by going to oilseed rape or wheat.”