A graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff is in the midst of an ambitious project that he and his advisor hope will produce a set of modern tools for genetic improvement of proso millet.
Rituraj Khound has been a grad student under the supervision of Dipak Santra, alternative crops breeding specialist at the Panhandle Center, since 2018. He hopes to receive a Ph.D. in plant breeding and genetics in 2022 from UNL’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Proso millet is used in the United States primarily for birdseed but also used for human and pet food and livestock feed. In some parts of the world, it is grown more widely for human consumption.
According to Khound, proso millet is a good fit for farms in the High Plains because it is a short-season crop that converts water into grain more efficiently than other cereal grains (wheat, corn and barley). Some farmers grow millet as part of a crop rotation where winter wheat is their main cash crop. A warm-season grass, millet is typically planted in late May or early June and harvested in September.
Nebraska, South Dakota, and Colorado are the largest producers of proso millet, and some acreage also is grown in adjacent states, according to a Nebraska Extension Publication, “Producing and Marketing Proso Millet in the Great Plains.” Acreage and production vary considerably from one year to the next. Worldwide, other commercial producers besides the United States include Asia (China, Russia, India, Korea, and Japan) and Europe (Ukraine, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Poland, Austria, and Switzerland).
Khound’s goal of adding to the base of knowledge about millet genetics, developing efficient crop-breeding methods, and using these to breed new, high-yielding millet varieties could make the crop easier to produce, and potentially more profitable, for the existing growers and end-users. It would also be one of several steps toward making millet more adaptable to diverse climates and multiple end uses, including on American dinner plates.
Millet grain has important nutrients for human health, with gluten-free, anti-diabetic, and anti-cancer properties. Millet is an ancient grain, an attractive quality for many consumers.
Presently Santra is the only public crop breeder working on millet and doesn’t have the same genomic resources as counterparts who work with major commodity crops such as wheat, corn, and soybean.
Khound’s project is aimed at establishing some of that foundation. It consists of several projects with an overarching goal of developing the modern tools to make proso millet breeding more efficient, precise, and cost-effective.
The first project is understanding the genetic principles behind the important agronomic traits. Khound is working on developing molecular markers, which will allow for mapping important genes that control the desirable traits. They also help in assessing the genetic diversity of proso millet, making it quicker to predict which breeding lines are likeliest to have the desired traits.
Two such traits are resistance to lodging (laying down) and grain shattering. This project is in collaboration with Janes Schnable, computational biologist and associate professor of plant breeding and genetics, based on UNL’s Lincoln campus.
The second project is to study the diversity in genetics and phenotypes (measurable physical characteristics, such as height) in the U.S. proso millet germplasm. Khound is tapping into an extensive U.S. Department of Agriculture collection of hundreds of proso millet genotypes. Last year they planted 450 genotypes in Scottsbluff and Sidney (at the High Plains Ag Lab) and record 15-20 different plant characteristics for each, including agronomic traits. The ultimate goal is to develop a database for plant breeders listing all the agronomic traits in detail.
The third project will check the feasibility of using digital images obtained with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones) as a source of “high-throughput phenotyping.” With assistance from Bijesh Maharjan, the soil and nutrient management specialist at the Panhandle Center, the proso millet plots will be systematically photographed using drones. These images will be correlated to measurements taken in the fields and laboratories, to see whether the drone images can be analyzed to gather the same phenotype data as field and lab observation. If so, using drones would require much less field labor and cost to generate the data.
Khound says developing high-yielding proso millet varieties for diverse climates and multiple end uses could help generate more interest in proso millet research and large-scale commercial production, which in turn would strengthen the economy of rural Nebraska and the High Plains.