Japanese millet, or Echinochloa esculenta, is a fast-growing annual grass that is grown throughout southeast Asia, where it is consumed by both humans and animals and is also used to control soil erosion. A very nutritious crop, it is grown in the northeastern United States as well, where it known as barnyard millet since it is used mainly for animal food. Japanese millet will grow nearly anywhere, even in poor or heavy soil that will not sustain many other crops, and is frequently used as a cover crop.
This forage crop grows to 4 feet (1.2 meters) tall or more and produces clusters of tiny red seeds above its large, broad leaves. Japanese millet grows well in cooler weather and is considered superior to other varieties because it will tolerate both dry and soggy soils. It can also be sown earlier than most other types of millet and is ready for harvesting in as little as 45 days. The extensive root system of this plant helps to prevent soil from washing away during heavy rain. It is also planted in wetlands as a food supplement for the waterfowl and other birds that live in those areas.
Japanese millet is sometimes called duck millet due to this bird's fondness for its seeds. It is often planted over several acres to attract them as they migrate. The millet is planted on dry land and then flooded, as ducks are naturally attracted to the water. Doves and quail also eat the seeds and deer will also frequent millet fields to forage on the leaves.
When used as a cover crop, it is important to plant high quality seed to ensure that it is free from weed seeds. Any planting equipment used should also be clean and weed-free to help to control the spread of weeds. Japanese millet should be planted in narrow rows with little spacing between, and should be planted in a different spot every few years, if possible. Broadleaf weeds and grasses are the biggest problems in millet fields, and, since millet is eaten, there are not many safe weed killers that can be used to eliminate them.
In addition to weeds, Japanese millet frequently suffers from significant insect damage. Armyworms and grasshoppers are most likely to infest this plant, but cinch bugs can also be a problem in some areas. Diseases are not very common, but a fungal disease called smut can sometimes infect this type of millet.
While Japanese millet in commonly eaten in Asian countries, it has recently become more popular in other areas. This is largely due to a trend toward healthier foods, and eating millet is a good way to add a whole grain to the diet. It can be substituted for rice or buckwheat and is added to breads and muffins for crunch as well as nutritional value. Millet is high in protein, B vitamins, and several minerals.