Why are small millets receiving renewed attention?
Millets are a group of small grained cereals having nutritionally rich grains cultivated under poor soil fertility conditions and are low input demanding crops. They are staple crops in the semi-arid tropics and largely found in low rainfall receiving areas, and consequently assume larger position in sustainable agriculture and nutritional security in the drylands. Most of the millets complete their life cycle in 60 to 120 days, acclimatizing to the brief cropping periods that endure unpredicted climatic vagaries and shifting. The broader classification of millets puts these crops into two groups – major and minor millets. The minor or small millets comprise finger millet, little millet, kodo millet, barnyard millet, foxtail millet, proso millet and brown top millet in the order of decreasing acreage. Presently these crops are receiving renewed attention owing to their short duration, and distinctive capacity to yield even under poor and marginal soils where other crops usually fail to produce any economic yield. They offer better crops under drylands especially in tribal agriculture contributing to food, fodder and nutritional security. Because of superior nutritional qualities, the millets are now called as nutri-cereals. Owing to the wider adaptation of small millets, major consideration is being extended in the country and at global level towards the research efforts on these crops.
Small millets are climate resilient
Small millets are cultivated from mean sea level to more than 2000 meter above mean sea level proving their ability to grow under diverse climate and soil conditions. They are seen from south (Tamil Nadu) to Northern Himalayan regions (Uttarakhand) and from west (Gujarat) to Northeast hills regions (Arunachal Pradesh) in the country showing their vast adaptability under diverse agro-ecosystems. Small millets require less water compared to rice and wheat and hence considered as drought tolerant crops. Small millets are widely divergent for thermo and photoperiods and hence are known for their climatic resilience, and are relatively less prone to biotic stress factors. Small millets play vital role in hill and tribal agriculture. Through crop improvement efforts, a number of high yielding cultivars have been developed, but the meagre attention given towards inputs, water and technology backup resulted in low productivity of these crop cultivars in addition to being recognised as dryland crops where, water and soil factors majorly decide the crop yields.
Different small millets can adapt well to the climatic conditions prevailing in a geographic location. For example, Proso millet can complete its life cycle in 60–80 days while Foxtail millet can mature in 70–90 days. Little millet and barnyard millet generally mature in 75–100 days while, Kodo millet and Finger millets take slightly longer duration of 95–130 days. Because of earliness compared to other crops, these are highly suitable for contingency crop planning and cropping system, and have the exceptional feature of faster recovery and growth after alleviation of stress specially in finger millet and kodo millet. Area under small millets during the last six decades has significantly shrunk, which is mainly ascribed to their confinement to poor and marginal growing conditions, lower access to quality seed and technical backing. With the threat of climate change over crop production systems, there is urgent need to adopt climate resilient crops and small millets are the best option available to farmers.
Small millets are eco-friendly
Millets are often designated as eco-friendly crops as they require less water, chemical and other crop production inputs. Besides these, some millets can be seen in marginal lands and harsh weather conditions where all other crops fail to establish. Even with limited resources, small millet farmers realize a minimum quantity of grain and fodder as these crops give assured yields despite many production risks. Fodder being the significant derivative of millet cultivation which is been the key source of roughage for domestic animals in dryland ecosystem, millets guarantee a sustainable income for resource poor and marginal farmers. It is also a common practice under traditional agriculture where millets are sown in few rows separating leguminous crops as an integral part of pest and disease management. The millets have high agronomical advantages, hence called as good contingent crops for withstanding fairly long dry spells, and recovering faster after delayed rain. Since these crops are C4 plants, they are more environment friendly and have higher use efficiency.
Production of Small millets
Small millets are majorly grown as rain-fed crops and often associated with monsoon dependent cropping systems. They respond very well to irrigation, fertilizers and other crop management inputs. Inorganic and organic means of nutrients in small millets would increase yield, yet this was not regularly practiced earlier as these crops were grown wherever other crops fail due to all production constraints. The biotic constraints like diseases and pests are not much of concern compared to other crops. Hence, the grain yield is significant with use of minimal energy components in relation to the more traditional crops. The kharif period is witnessing larger millet cultivation during south-west monsoon and areas which receive more than 800 mm rainfall coupled with effective distribution produce more grains. Millets can also be grown as early post monsoon and early winter crops. Millets can also be raised as rabi crops in areas receiving north-east monsoon and in black soils drawing on residual moisture and dew precipitation. In India, Finger millet and other small millets are cultivated in an area of 10.48 and 5.45 lakh hectares (2016-20) with a production of 16.37 and 3.95 lakh tonnes, respectively. In spite of drastic decline in the area in the last six decades, the total production is maintained to some extent due to enhanced productivity over the years.
Small millets are gaining massive status due to their nutritional advantages and gluten free nature. These crops are also eco-friendly, low cost and low input consuming crops with greater tolerance to pests and diseases. More importantly, these are crops of drylands where uncertain rainfall, shorter length of growing period (LGP), limited soil moisture, lower soil fertility and poor socio-economic conditions are often seen. Small millets are diverse crops and adapted to diverse climates and cropping systems. These are also most dependable food crops for the mankind, specifically for the resource poor dryland farmers as they are having resilience to climate change and assure sustainable grain production with minimum inputs. They are also the potential feedstocks for biofuel, a source of renewable and environment friendly raw material for fuel, which could make their cultivation profitable, ensuring the genuine place for millets in drylands.
Source: Good_Agronomic_Practices_2022.pdf (millets.res.in) – Publication by Indian Institute of Millets Research (IIMR)