Drought-tolerant crop is trialled to save water on dairy farms in Texas and New Mexico

US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists are trying to save water in one of the fastest growing dairy regions in the United States by encouraging use of a drought-tolerant crop as cattle feed, the same way it is sometimes used in India.

Dairy production is growing rapidly in the Southern High Plains region of West Texas and New Mexico, where most farmers use corn silage or alfalfa as a key feed component. Corn and alfalfa require more water than other crops. This is stretching the Ogallala Aquifer, the source of water for that region, beyond capacity.

Prasanna Gowda, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) engineer, was aware that dairy cattle in his native India are raised on finger millet (Eleusine coracana). Moreover, milk from finger millet-fed cows there sells for a higher price.

As part of their research, Gowda and his colleagues grew five finger millet varieties in Bushland for 120 days, selecting plants of each variety based on crude protein, fibre content, and other nutritional qualities. They compared the finger millet’s nutritional qualities to those of corn and sorghum from neighboring plots.

Gowda found that finger millet had higher levels of potassium than corn, twice as much calcium, four to five times as much phosphorus, and comparable levels of protein, fibre and total digestible nutrients. (Calcium and phosphorus deficiencies reduce dairy cattle’s appetites and growth and lower milk production.)

Finger millet also used less water than corn and sorghum. The one drawback was that finger millet produced lower yields than corn.

Even so, Gowda says the results showed that finger millet could be a viable feed source for dairy cattle as a supplement to corn and that it could help save water in areas where water is limited.

The ARS is USDA’s principal intramural scientific research agency.

More information about this research can be found in the June 2016 issue of AgResearch magazine.


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