A multi-year collaborative study has resulted in the official release of a new high-yielding, early-maturing and stress-tolerant variety of pearl millet in Uzbekistan.
Like in other Central Asian countries, intensive irrigation is leading to soil erosion, loss of organic matter, salinization and waterlogging in large parts of Uzbekistan. And this puts at risk not only sustainability of agriculture but also the long-term welfare and income of rural communities. Poor quality of soil and lack of water also cause shortages of forage in arid and semiarid regions. Researchers point to the need for diversification of the production system to tackle these problems. In marginal lands with different levels of water and soil salinity, it is more practical to use alternative salt- and drought-tolerant crops to replace or alternate with traditional crops, which are difficult or impossible to grow in such conditions. Salt-tolerant species like sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) and pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum) are a case in point. Both crops need little water and are highly tolerant of drought, heat and soil salinity. They can also help to deal with two problems at once. First, a stable system of grain production and fodder supply can be set up. Second, their cultivation will help to prevent erosion and improve soil productivity. These features make sorghum and pearl millet especially suitable for saline and drought-prone areas.
Together with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and national partners in Uzbekistan, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) have been assessing ways and benefits of integrating pearl millet and sorghum into local crop-livestock feeding and farming production systems in different agro-ecological zones. ICBA and ICRISAT have supplied a set of improved lines and high-yielding accessions of pearl millet and sorghum in recent years. And following screening of more than 50 improved lines of pearl millet through on-station and participatory on-farm trials using different field management practices, researchers have identified 'Sudan Pop III', 'Guerinian-4', 'IP 6104', 'IP 6112', 'IP 131150', 'IP 19586', 'HHVBC Tall', 'Raj171', 'ICMV 7704' and 'MC 94 C2' as the most salt- and drought-tolerant and highly productive varieties for food, grain and forage production. They yield 30% more dry fodder and 25% more seed compared with local varieties. Pearl millet lines from ICRISAT produced from 38 to 96 t/ha of green biomass under different agro-ecological conditions in Uzbekistan. Most importantly, on-station and multi-location evaluation helped to identify promising dual-purpose varieties that produce grain for food and feed for poultry and livestock.
Several years (2008-2013) of experiments at the Corn Station of the Uzbek Scientific Production Center for Agriculture in Tashkent Region resulted in the release of a new variety of pearl millet 'Hashaki 1'. This variety has been approved recently by the State Variety Testing Commission of Uzbekistan and released after successful evaluation in different agro-ecological zones of the country with different levels of soil salinity. 'Hashaki 1' yields up to 30% more compared with local proso millet. The average yield of green biomass after two cuts is around 45 t/ha. Grain yield varies between 2.28 and 2.96 t/ha. It also matures earlier than other tested varieties, within 64-78 days, and can be used as forage for all kinds of animals. It can be grown as the main crop in early spring or a second crop in pure stands or mixed with different salt-tolerant legumes after winter wheat harvest or in rice rotation systems. Plant density observations indicated that 'Hashaki 1' grows and produces viable seeds on medium saline soils. But it can also thrive on highly saline soils (sulfate-chloride type soils), as found in experiments in the Syr Darya river basin areas and on Shortanbay farm in Karakalpakstan. Furthermore, as experiments with small ruminant animals showed, it has fairly good digestibility and palatability. Thus, for example, the variety can be grown on degraded pastureland in the Kyzylkum desert. Research results in central Kyzylkum showed that 'Hashaki 1' produced good quality grain, which was successfully used in the region for small ruminants during lactation and lambing, as well as for poultry.
Next steps to ensure wide adoption of the new variety include seed multiplication and supply. At the moment seed production is in early stages. The Uzbek Scientific Production Center for Agriculture is involving interested farmers in this process at one of its experimental stations in Tashkent Region. In future, seeds can be produced by individual or cluster farms of nearby villages. It is hoped that 'Hashaki 1' will play a significant role in filling gaps in the crop-livestock feeding systems in the dryland areas of Central Asian countries. However, since it is a relatively new grain crop in the region, there are no readily available markets. Therefore, although the grain is well-suited to both human and animal consumption, producers should secure a market prior to large-scale cultivation.