Livestock sector can enhance demand for millets

MILLETS are believed to be among the first crops domesticated by mankind; hence, they are often called the super crops of our ancestors. They include three major (sorghum, pearl, finger) and six minor crops (barnyard, proso, foxtail, kodo, browntop and little). Till about 60 years ago, millets were the major grain grown in India. Before Green Revolution, millets made up around 40 per cent of all cultivated grains (contributing more than wheat and rice).

The changing dietary pattern, coupled with government policies that favoured rice and wheat production to ensure food security, led to a sharp decline in millet acreage and its production. Reportedly, the present area under millets is 50 per cent lower than that during 1960 and the share of millets in the total foodgrain basket is only around 6 per cent.

The deepening climate crisis and environmental stresses have heightened the need for crop diversification by promoting climate-smart crops. Acknowledging the role of millets in responding to nutritional, agrarian and climate challenges, the UN declared 2023 as the International Year of Millets (IYoM).

It is heartening that sincere efforts are being made across the world to raise the demand for millets. Notably, India produces 80 per cent of Asia’s and 20 per cent of the world’s millets. Our millet exports touched $26 million in 2020. Efforts are also being made to educate farmers about better millet-growing techniques and mainstreaming millets in the agricultural production system.

However, there is a long way to go to incentivise the farmers, the majority of whom are resource-poor, to produce millets on their marginal lands. Showcasing health benefits of millets may not be enticing for farmers to take up the nutria-cereals with poor productivity potential (with national average of around 1.2 tonnes per hectare) in place of rice and wheat (yield of around 3.5-4 tonnes/hectare).

Therefore, the creation of additional demand for millets in the livestock sector — a source of livelihood for two-thirds of the rural populace — would be a balanced way to make this crop popular among farmers. This is particularly important for a country like India where feed and fodder deficit has been identified as one of the major constraints in achieving the desired level of livestock production.

The recent reported shortage in green fodder, dry fodder and concentrates is 11.24 per cent, 23.4 per cent and 28.9 per cent, respectively.

Studies show that sorghum is an excellent dual-purpose crop; all plant parts have economic use due to ‘whole plant’ utilisation. Pearl millet is another promising crop for green fodder supply (up to 40-50 tonnes/hectare) especially during the lean period (summer months) of May to July.

The crop has large stem, leaves and heads with a quick-growing aspect. Its fodder is low in hydrocyanic acid and oxalic acid and rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus and other minerals.

Finger millet is nutritionally rich in terms of minerals, proteins and digestible fibres as compared to corn (maize) and hence could be fed to dairy cattle as a supplement to corn. The crop is also a good choice for making hay or silage — preserved form of green fodder. Likewise, proso millet has a nutritive value similar to that of other grains used for livestock feed and therefore can be used for calves, dairy cows and small ruminants without compromising on milk production.

As millets uses less water per unit of forage production and tolerate heat as well as drought, their cultivation is economical in areas where environmental conditions, especially rainfall and temperature, are too harsh to grow other cereals.

The inclusion of millet grains in poultry feed has also gained momentum in recent years. Studies have indicated that the replacement of corn with pearl millet in broiler diet results in significant enhancement of the bird’s growth and feed efficiency.

In addition, feeding pearl millet to laying hens is believed to have additional benefits because the eggs contain higher omega-3 fatty acids and lower omega-6. Likewise, the use of millets as a feed ingredient in preparation of Total Mixed Ration (TMR) — nutritionally balanced diet for animals — economises nutrition management in small ruminant husbandry.

Focus on improving crop-livestock integration through millet product systems, particularly in ecologically fragile rainfed areas, would be crucial for bridging the fodder deficit, enhancing animal nutrition and performance, while ensuring our food and nutritional security.

Strengthening the quality seed chain for dual-purpose varieties, frontline demonstrations on making hay/silage from green biomass and forging market linkage of farmers with the feed industry should also be among the priorities. Promoting start-ups with technical backstopping for preparing millet-based cattle feed can spur the production of these super crops in the long run.

Source: The Tribune