Proso millet continues to define its niche on the Plains

Out here on the wide-open prairie at Towner, Colorado, drought-suffering farmer Chris Stum has carved out a unique market.

Stum and his family were tired of fighting the lack of rainfall and the dried-up wheat crop year after year. But one thing that seemed to always produce—no matter how little moisture fell from the sky—was proso millet.

“It wasn’t a zero,” said Stum, who sat atop his combine seat on Labor Day—trying to find a dry patch of millet to harvest. “We found that we could get something out of it.”

In an age of climate change, proso millet is a grain that can endure the scorching summer heat and drought. That’s why Stum went from planting mostly wheat and corn to putting over half of his acres to millet and finding markets to sell it.

Yet, the ancient grain, while as modern as gluten-free diets, is often dismissed as just birdseed. It hasn’t gotten much traction—or research investment—over the years, except from a few loyal growers like Stum, who tout its qualities.

That is, until now.

Father and son team Pat and James Schnable, both university professors, are leading the charge to change proso millet’s future—reviving a crop that long had been relegated to the sidelines. Pat is director of Iowa State University’s Plant Sciences Institute, and James is an associate professor of agronomy and horticulture at the University of Nebraska. They have spent nearly a decade researching proso, sequencing its genome and working to boost yields.

Now, their efforts will see a significant boost after their company, Dryland Genetics, secured $3.8 million in venture financing earlier this year—a step that could bring proso millet out of the shadows of wheat and sorghum.

Among the backers is Harry Stine—the Iowa farm boy turned billionaire seed-genetics savant who made his fortune licensing corn and soybean genetics to companies like Monsanto and Syngenta. Proso millet piqued Stine’s interest after visiting with Pat Schnable during a speaking engagement at Iowa State. Schnable invited him to see their research plots.

“I knew absolutely nothing about it,” Stine said, but added that little-known crops like proso millet “have always been an interest of mine. They typically don’t get much funding or research, but because of Pat and his son’s genetic interest in the crop, I thought it would be fun to be involved with them.”

Accidental discovery

James Schnable said he didn’t have much knowledge about proso millet, either, until 2013. He left some proso in the university greenhouse and had forgotten to throw it away. While no one had watered it, the crop still managed to complete its entire lifecycle.

He became intrigued and went home for Christmas and told his dad about his accidental discovery, wondering why such a crop that needs little management could not help High Plains farmers.

That began the start of nearly eight years of research, working to increase yields and planted acres among High Plains farmers. Three years ago, the Schnables were part of an international team of researchers who sequenced proso’s genetic code. With that information, they have been using conventional breeding technology to increase yields and other traits in an effort to boost the crop’s popularity.

So far, their varieties have exhibited yield increases of 10% to 40% over multiple years in both company trials and in farmers’ fields. Meanwhile, James Schnable added, farmers can harvest and plant it with the same equipment used for wheat.

“It is not going to replace corn across the Corn Belt,” James Schnable said. “But it could be competitive with dryland corn, especially in a lot of these places where there is less irrigation water available. It can go into cattle feed, pig feed and you can grow it even after the irrigation water goes away. If we don’t develop crops like this, we will see these communities dry up and blow away, and we’d prefer to avoid that.”

Water-saving properties

In areas of the United States, including High Plains where the Ogallala Aquifer has been rapidly declining for decades, Pat Schnable sees proso millet as a viable alternative to water-hungry crops like corn.

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In the western Great Plains and other arid areas of the world, proso can produce twice as much grain per gallon of water as corn. Meanwhile, Schnable said, a recent study by the University of Nebraska shows proso can replace up to 100% of the corn used in feed for finishing pigs without reducing the average daily gain. A single pig raised on proso-based feed could save as much as 24,000 gallons of water compared to a pig finishing on dryland corn.

The same is true in chickens, said Pat Schnable.

“If Tyson, for example, were to replace the corn in its chicken rations with proso, they could save 2% of the entire annual river flow of the Missouri River,” he said.

Yet, the Schnables see proso as more than just bird food and hog feed. Ultimately, with proso’s gluten-free qualities, they would like to increase its share in the human consumption market.

If the market grows, Pat Schnable predicts proso’s growth rate to be comparable to crops like canola, which have spiked in acres and production in recent years thanks to increased research and funding. He sees proso’s acres increasing tenfold, going from a half-million acres largely planted in Colorado to nearly 5 million in the next decade.

“People are willing to pay more for food that is sustainable,” he said.


Funding from investors like Stine and Next Level Ventures of Des Moines, Iowa, will help propel proso’s market share, plus allow the Schnables to maintain their breeding program—working to increase yields and other traits, like standability.

Pat Schnable said they are hiring a chief operating officer to produce seed for farmers and a chief commercial officer, who will work to build relationships and create a pipeline for proso from the farm gate into the marketplace.

Stine said he sees the crop taking off in an area of limited moisture, as well as a potential second crop in some areas due to its short growing season. Proso can be planted in June into wheat stubble and harvested by September.

“Because of the scope of (the Schnables’) breeding program, they should be able to develop a significantly better variety,” he said, adding the crop will take off once there is “higher-yielding material that would be very competitive to other crops grown in dryland areas.

“It is an amazing crop,” Stine said. “I put some of (the seed) in a birdfeeder and some of them grew 4 or 5 inches tall and were setting seed. It will grow in adverse conditions.”

Promoting proso

Colorado farmer Stum said his grandfather first started growing millet in the 1970s to replace wheat crops that failed in the spring—giving him something to harvest while keeping the ground from blowing.

It was the 2002 drought that really made the family trust more in proso.

“Amid the drought, we found that millet would grow when other stuff wouldn’t,” Stum said. “Now we plant more acres to millet than anything else.”

He sees it growing in acres, especially thanks to the Schnables’ research. Over the past few years, he’s fielded numerous calls from interested farmers, largely from western Kansas where the Ogallala Aquifer depletion has made it tough to irrigate.

“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “If we can grow the market on the human consumption side, that means a more reliable market and a better price.

“If human consumption increases, I know producers will get on board.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at [email protected].