The biggest hitch to teff, a summer-annual grass, has been getting dairy and beef producers to try it, says a Stockton, CA, grower.
“But once they feed it, they really like it,” says Nick Mussi. He and his family, who own L & R Mussi Farms, grew 850 acres of the warm-season grass last year and plan to increase that acreage to 1,200 acres this coming season.
They first planted 80 acres of teff grass – a fast-growing, high-yielding crop largely used by horse owners – three years ago. The next year, they increased to 250 acres.
“It’s a good double crop,” Mussi says. “We’ll harvest the wheat and double-crop after that, and there’s not another warm-season grass that works in our area other than sudangrass. But sudan is hard to cure in our area, exporters aren’t paying for it, and dairies don’t like sudan.
“You have more options with teff,” he adds. It can be fed to horses, dairy or beef. Cuttings with good green color can be put up as small bales and more bleached-out hay can be harvested as large bales – each sold to different markets.
His first teff grass harvests were priced comparable to what oat hay was going for. “But there’s more value in teff. Oat hay is probably 9% protein and teff’s about 13%. If you throw teff out there, a horse or cow will clean it up. With oats, if it’s coarse, they’ll leave the stems and just pick the grain out.”
Mussi baled half of last year’s teff into small squares and the rest into large squares. But he wishes he’d produced more small square bales. “The horse market was really good, and you can get a premium compared to the big bales.
“Some of our neighbors tried it last year, and I think, this year, a lot more will.”
His goal is to plant the grass by early July. “Some I’ll plant after oats and get it in in June. But if I go for grain on the wheat, then I try to get it planted before the Fourth of July. I’ll harvest probably 30-40 days after planting and every 28 days after that.” Three to four cuttings are taken depending on planting date, and total yield is about 4 tons/acre.
It’s not an easy crop to cut, he found. Mussi and his brother, Nathan, and cousin, Garrett, also own Triple M Custom Farming and had a selection of sicklebar and rotary disc mowers to choose from. But those machines weren’t cutting the teff clean enough. After being persuaded to test a Krone Big M 420 mower-conditioner, they decided it worked too well on the teff not to buy it.
Teff can be hard to establish, too, say Mussi and Mark Marsalis, New Mexico State University (NMSU) Extension forage specialist. Growers who know how to plant alfalfa, however, should have little problem with the small-seeded teff. It needs to be sown into a firm seedbed at less than half an inch deep, Marsalis says.
Most of the interest in teff in New Mexico has been from small-acreage alfalfa growers in the Middle Rio Grande Valley area, south of Albuquerque. They use flood irrigation from the Rio Grande River to produce small square bales for the horse-hay market.
“Teff fits well in a system as a rotational crop between alfalfa stands” to help avoid autotoxicity problems and provide quality hay, he says.
“It can also utilize residual nitrogen in the soil and is a relatively drought-hardy crop. Return of forage per inch of water appears to be very good.”
Producers who need beef-cow hay should consider rotating to sorghum-sudangrass, because it produces more – 6 tons/acre or more – and costs less than teff, Marsalis says.
“But if you want to stay in the horse market, teff is a better option,” he adds. “Teff may also be a more palatable and nutritious option for the dairies that have been reluctant to incorporate much sorghum into their rations.”
Currently, NMSU is interested in researching optimum planting dates for teff.
“We’ve observed that it’s pretty slow to start emergence and early growth. If the soil temperature is too cold – below 65°F – it won’t start very fast.” Last year’s late-spring freezes hit before and after teff was planted, around May 8, but before emergence. Even though the soil temperatures were around 60° or slightly higher, emergence “was delayed and the plants were slow getting going,” he says.
“A mid-May window is probably on the early side for our part of the world in some years. So we’re looking at the first of June or mid-June as being an optimal time.” Even June 1 provides 3.5- to 4-ton yields for the season, but more planting-date studies need to be done, he cautions.
“Multiple years of plot work and commercial hay production show that the 3- to 4-ton window is a realistic yield goal for the year. This could be increased with the longer growing seasons in the southern part of the state,” he says.
On the east side of New Mexico, where irrigation water has to be pumped from depleted aquifers or lakes, teff could serve as a water-conserving alternative crop. So says Leonard Lauriault, NMSU forage research agronomist.
“Once it’s established, if it’s on an irrigation system, it will produce equally well with about half the water you would apply to alfalfa,” he says.
He sees teff as following a crop that comes off in June, like spring oats. If planted next to alfalfa, the teff could “share” irrigation water with the legume.
“Alfalfa is much more water-use efficient in the spring,” Lauriault explains. The first half of the growing season is when growers should fully irrigate the legume. Around mid-June, they could redirect the irrigation system to teff to produce about the same yield as alfalfa would, but with half the water.
Marsalis says that this strategy could also work in the Middle Rio Grande Valley where water supplies from irrigation districts may be reduced late in the season due to water storage shortages.
“A short irrigation season has been predicted this year as a result of low snowpack and low reservoir levels. Teff gives hay producers an option to produce more with less water,” he says.