Blog post by A K Jayalekha, Lead Breeder – Pearl Millet, Bayer BioScience Pvt. Ltd, Hyderabad, India

Pearl millet, the staple cereal in arid and drier semi-arid regions of India is one of the most resilient among the cereals. The nutri-dense pearl millet is the only crop among the millets which can tolerate harsh climatic conditions of high temperature and low moisture. This beautiful annual C4 (Carbon Fixation) crop can give you more with less – the crop is capable of producing a reliable yield under the marginal environments and simultaneously responds to high management conditions.

Pearl millet is the most widely cultivated cereal in India after rice and wheat. Major pearl millet growing states include Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Haryana. Summers in these north-western states of India are hot and dry with daytime temperatures around 40-45 °C. Pearl millet is the only cereal crop that could survive in the summer season due to its unique tolerance to very high temperatures. Due this characteristic, pearl millet has recently emerged as a significant irrigated summer season cereal crop in north-western India. This is a niche market – parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan wherein the farmer has good irrigation facility and due to the climatic conditions no other crop can grow and give economic yields. Summer millets are grown like any other commercial crop.

So what makes the varieties survive in these conditions? Those that perform are the ones that have the capacity to keep their stigma receptive even in the scorching heat and produce viable pollen in abundance. The high temperatures in these areas are coupled with very low humidity. The hot desiccating winds sometimes make it extremely difficult for the plants to complete their reproductive cycle. We find fields of the pearl millet crop where the border plants show partial seed setting due to the scorching hot winds.

Basic issues of summer pearl millet –capability to tolerate high temperature at critical stages of the crop. While tolerance to heat at the seedling stage is important, the most critical stage is the flowering stage which makes the variety sustain in the conditions. Identification of germplasm suitable for high temperature is the key for effective manipulation of the genotypes through conventional Breeding.

Experiments comparing three cereals viz sorghum, maize and pearl millet have shown that pearl millet is the only crop that can survive to complete the life cycle even under temperatures above 45 °C.

Researchers continue to breed for high-temperature tolerance in the pearl millet genotypes to make the crop a highly profitable crop for the farmer in the summer season. CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Cereals through ICRISAT’s Hybrid Parent Research Consortium (HPRC) is playing a major role along with some private sector partners to improve the overall productivity of the summer millet crop building the tolerance to high-temperature tolerance further. Efforts are on to further understand the factors contributing to the heat stress tolerance and the inheritance of the trait.

There is a big opportunity for breeding for summer millet varieties for which tolerance to high temperature would be a critical factor. The tolerance incorporated in the varieties coupled with the high grain yield and fodder yield makes pearl millet a good fit into the intensive cropping. Farmers in the semi-arid regions of Rajasthan and Gujarat to take three crops per year, e.g., Kharif (monsoon) groundnut-rabi (winter) potato – summer millet or Kharif corn- rabi mustard- summer millet.

About the author:

NdiagaMs. AK Jayalekha is a renowned commercial breeder presently working as a Lead breeder – Pearl Millet at Bayer BioScience Pvt. Ltd., (formerly known as Proagro Seed Company Ltd.,) Hyderabad, India. Prior joining at Proagro in 1991, she started her career as a Research Associate in Chickpea breeding at ICRISAT. Since 1991, she is continuing her efforts to meet the requirements of millet farmers’ by breeding the right hybrid for the right market segment. She has contributed to launching eight millet hybrids developed by Bayer/Proagro. Jayalekha is a member of the Dryland Cereals Core team.