If you're looking for a good one-year forage crop to work into an alfalfa rotation, the ancient and somewhat exotic grass called teff may be worth a look.

Originating in Ethiopia around 1000 B.C., the crop has more of a history as a source of gluten-free grain for flour than as a forage. But it's grown on a limited basis for livestock in other parts of Africa, as well as in India, Australia and South America.

Researchers at Oregon State University's southern experiment station near Klamath Falls have planted test plots of the fine wheat-like crop the past two years. They've been impressed with what they've seen and later heard from horse owners who bought the baled grass.

“It's a fast-emerging crop that likes the heat,” says station superintendent and retired crop scientist Ken Rykbost. “The first year, in 2003, we planted the crop at the end of May with a grain drill and it was up within a few days. We were a little concerned about handling such tiny seeds — they were smaller than those of timothy. But the grain drill seemed to work fine for seeding at a rate of between 8 and 9 lbs per acre.”

A warm June and regular irrigation resulted in a heavy first cutting at the end of July, he says.

“At about 3 tons an acre, it was all our little square baler could do to get through that field. We were also pleased with the crop's 13-14% protein level.”

After that cutting, the teff was fertilized with ammonium sulfate and irrigated again. The second cutting, taken six weeks later, produced nearly 3 tons/acre again.

“All of our crop was sold to local horse owners who all said their horses really liked the teff and always cleaned it up,” Rykbost reports.

“I think there is real opportunity for local farmers to sell a crop like this into the California horse market,” he notes. “Good-quality timothy sells for $180-200 a ton there, and this crop seems to be every bit as good as timothy.”

He says many farmers showed interest in teff at the research station's field day last summer.

“We waited to take the first cutting until just after the field day in early August, and it lodged a bit and started to head out. But several farmers were impressed with the quality of the grass, and came back to look at the field again before our second cutting.”

Fairly low in maintenance, the teff crop required no insect or disease control the last two years. But it can't tolerate frost, warns Rykbost.

“Our first frost in the fall killed the field dead both years,” he says, adding that it's important to wait to seed in spring until past the risk of frost.

Because of teff's small seeds, he also recommends preparing a fine, well-tilled seedbed for better seed-to-soil contact. “We noticed that even the seeds laying on top of the soil germinated, though.”

Rykbost and his associates plan to plant two to three acres of teff again this spring. “This is a crop that shows real promise as a forage, especially for the horse markets.”

For more information, contact Rykbost at kenneth.rykbost@oregonstate.edu or 541-883-4590.