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Millet can be a cow saver during tough summer grazing months, but you must manage its nitrate load. Here’s what you need to know to avoid nitrate poisoning.

Sierra Day, Field editor

June 7, 2021

3 Min Read
cows in field of millet
MILLET: Millet is the most versatile summer annual; however, producers should be aware of potential nitrate poisoning if the forage isn't managed properly. Courtesy of USDA

Millet is a forage that beef producers may be offering for grazing or baling as hay, but it comes with a warning label: It can become high in nitrates, which can lead to nitrate poisoning.

“A quick Google search will help you find out there are many types of millet, such as Japanese millet and white proso millet, but the most common in the forage world is hybrid pearl millet,” says Doug Hanson, president of the Illinois Forage and Grassland Council. He also is a seed specialist at ProHarvest Seeds and a cattle producer near Danforth, Ill.

Hybrid pearl millet is a summer annual planted when soil temperatures are 65 degrees F or higher. In Illinois, this means planting typically occurs from mid-May through June 1, he says. Producers turn to the versatility of this forage due to fast growth and germination paired with a low concern of prussic acid.

That’s the good news for this most useful summer annual. The bad news is that some factors can create high nitrate levels in the forage.

Planting millet in high nitrate areas or receiving rain after a long period of slow growth can cause nitrogen to move up through the plant, Hanson says. This means nitrogen needs time to disperse before harvesting or allowing cattle to graze. Otherwise, cattle could be exposed to high levels of nitrates.

To be sure millet is safe, the best thing you can do is have it tested by your nutritionist or feed company, he says. All is not lost if the test comes back high in nitrates. Hanson says beef producers can mix it with another forage source or total mixed ration to dilute the amount of nitrates cattle consume.

High levels of nitrates can affect all beef cattle and in different ways based on age and stage of production; typically, by the time an animal displays the physical signs of nitrate poisoning, it’s too late to save it. Therefore, Hanson recommends consulting your local nutritionist to create a feeding program that will allow you to safely feed your cattle millet with high nitrates.

How to control nitrate levels

Hanson shares some advice on how to prevent millet from reaching high nitrate levels:

1. Consider maturity. The more mature a plant is, the less possibility of nitrates. Generally, there are more nitrates in the lower portion of the plant. If you have a concern that your millet may have nitrates, then you can let the forage grow and mature a little longer before harvesting or grazing.

2. Harvest after 45 days. At this point, millet is typically mature at 3 feet tall, which is the optimum tonnage and quality combination for stored feed or hay. With adequate rainfall, millet should be ready to harvest every 30 days with 3 feet of regrowth. Leave 4 to 6 inches after cutting to control nitrate levels in the forage.

3. Graze after 35 days. By this time, millet is 18 to 24 inches tall and safe for cattle to graze. This allows producers to pull cattle off the forage and leave 8 inches to prevent nitrate poisoning and encourage healthy regrowth.

4. Add nitrogen when appropriate. Sometimes producers add up to 120 units of nitrogen to try to maximize tonnage. This exceeds the recommended 40 to 60 units of nitrogen for millet and can increase nitrate levels in the forage. Hanson says you can better control nitrate levels by adding the suggested amount of nitrogen to start with, and then apply more as needed.

Despite the risk, millet is a good forage to use, Hanson says. Manage nitrates right, and millet can be a cow saver through tough summer grazing slumps.                                                                                                                                                      

About the Author(s)

Sierra Day

Field editor, Farm Progress

A 10th-generation agriculturist, Sierra Day grew up alongside the Angus cattle, corn and soybeans on her family’s operation in Cerro Gordo, Ill. Although she spent an equal amount in farm machinery as she did in the cattle barn as a child, Day developed a bigger passion for the cattle side of the things.

An active member of organizations such as 4-H, FFA and the National Junior Angus Association, she was able to show Angus cattle on the local, state and national levels while participating in contests and leadership opportunities that were presented through these programs.

As Day got older, she began to understand the importance of transitioning from a member to a mentor for other youth in the industry. Thus, her professional and career focus is centered around educating agriculture producers and youth to aid in prospering the agriculture industry.

In 2018, she received her associate degree from Lake Land College, where her time was spent as an active member in clubs such as Ag Transfer club and PAS. A December 2020 graduate of Kansas State University in Animal Sciences & Industry and Agricultural Communications & Journalism, Day was active in Block & Bridle and Agriculture Communicators of Tomorrow, while also serving as a communications student worker in the animal science department.

Day currently resides back home where she owns and operates Day Cattle Farm with her younger brother, Chayton. The duo strives to raise functional cattle that are show ring quality and a solid foundation for building anyone’s herd.

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