UNL CropWatch April 16, 2010: UNL Alternative Crops Breeder Seeks New Options for Western Nebraska

UNL CropWatch April 16, 2010: UNL Alternative Crops Breeder Seeks New Options for Western Nebraska

April 16, 2010

Continuing to develop improved varieties of proso millet and looking for new uses for the crop, such as making ethanol, are among the top priorities of the alternative crops breeding specialist at the University of Nebraska Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

But it’s also important to keep looking for other alternative crops that will fit in farmers’ rotations in the northern High Plains, according to Dr. Dipak Santra, who has been at the Panhandle Center about 1 ½ years.

Photo - Canola in April, Scottsbluff

Canola is one potential alternative crop for western Nebraska. This April photo shows winter canola that was planted in the fall at the UNL Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

Santra describes his mission as developing and establishing alternative crops for rain-fed and limited irrigation ecosystems of the northern High Plains, including western Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Colorado and Kansas.

Alternative crops could include millet-type small grains, such as proso millet, teff and others; oilseed crops such as sunflower, canola and camelina; livestock forages; feed; and others.

Proso Millet

Currently, proso millet is the most important alternative crop, and Santra said much of his work will focus on the small grain, which is used for bird seed. Development of proso varieties started in 1968, and has involved several crop breeders prior to Santra’s arrival at the Panhandle Research and Extension Center.

Proso millet is the best-suited alternative dry crop in the region, he said. About 400,000 acres are grown in the region for bird seed. The value of the crop ranges from $26.5 million to $79 million.

Major proso millet-producing states include Colorado, at $24.7 million in total production, followed by Nebraska with $15.5 million, and South Dakota, with $11.7 million in production. They are followed by Kansas and North Dakota with very limited production.

Santra said there is a dynamic market for proso as bird seed, but there are other potential uses for the crop, such as ethanol or food.

Millet breeding factors include high grain yield, early maturity, uniform maturity (for direct combine harvest), and resistance to lodging. But there are other special traits that could be sought as well, he said.

Santra is evaluating proso millet germplasm. He obtained 140 lines from the North Central Regional Plant Introduction Station at Ames, Iowa, part of the National Plant Germplasm System operated by USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). He is observing agronomic traits of these lines.

In evaluating proso millet’s potential for ethanol production, Santra has looked at its chemical properties: starch, crude protein, fat, crude fiber and ash content; fermentation efficiency and yield. In some properties, proso millet is not as suitable as corn. In others, it is comparable or more suitable. Santra said it would be possible to make ethanol from proso millet.

Another question is the composition of the dry distillers grain solids left over from making ethanol. Santra said the byproducts from proso millet are higher than corn in starch, protein and crude fat content. He believes the proso byproducts would work as cattle feed, but it would take feeding trials to make sure.

“So maybe proso would work for ethanol,” Santra said.

A number of alternative crops that would be new to the area are worthy of evaluation, according to Santra.


One possibility is fenugreek (Greek hay), an annual spring legume that is adapted to dryland agriculture, but also responds to irrigation. Its nutritional qualities are similar to alfalfa. Last year Santra planted 176 lines of fenugreek obtained from the USDA-ARS Western Regional Plant Introduction Station at Pullman, Wash. This year he plans to focus on several promising varieties.

Forage Soybean and Teff

Another potential alternative crop is forage soybean. Eight varieties were planted in 2009.

A grain crop that could have some potential is teff, a tiny grain that is a main food staple in Ethiopia. It is adapted to a wide variety of altitudes, temperatures, soils, and precipitation levels. It is nutritious, gluten-free, and rich in protein and minerals. Santra is testing a number of varieties at Scottsbluff.

A Diversified Future

As for the future focus of alternative crops breeding, Santra said he could envision a bio-based economy in the Great Plains in which numerous types of oil seed crops and, potentially, biomass are grown. The harvested products are run through various biochemical and chemical processes to produce fuels, such as gas, diesel and jet fuel; chemicals, such as plastics and fibers; and livestock

Poor-quality lands that aren’t as suitable for food production might be well-suited to raise some of these products, he said.

David Ostdiek, Communications Specialist
Panhandle REC, Scottsbluff