Teff, the warm-season annual grass that’s gained popularity the past several years, may be more than a good horse hay. Dairy cows like it, too, says Blair Mickelson, Melba, ID.

Early this March, Mickelson replaced all the alfalfa in rations for his 35 registered Holstein and Jersey cows with teff. He’d done the same six months earlier for his 16 show cows.

“Teff is more palatable,” says Mickelson, who owns Haven-Maid Dairy with partners Harmon Tobler and Jon Mortensen. They also provide breeding stock for dairies and raise alfalfa to feed at Mortensen’s heifer calf ranch.

“With the grass hay, we don’t have much loose manure or toxicity problems we had feeding a hot ration (including alfalfa). The grass has a little bit more fiber in it. And for the show cows, it helps give more depth of body – more substance – than alfalfa would.”

He buys 75- to 80-lb small squares of Tiffany teff from a local grower and finds that, compared to alfalfa, it also has more protein. The 2008 teff crop tested 21% protein.

Teff is softer and sweeter than other grasses, too.

“Timothy and some of those other grasses can be a little bit coarse. Teff is almost like if you went out and cut your lawn and dried it – that’s how tender it is.”

Not a large herd, the dairy nevertheless maintains an award-winning milk production average. It was recognized for its high milk yield for its herd size by the Idaho Holstein Association last year. When tested in late March, the Holsteins were producing 87 lbs/cow/day and running 27,000 lbs/cow/year on average. The Jerseys were producing 68 lbs/cow/day, averaging 21,000 lbs/cow/year, Mickelson says.

Lactating cows are getting about 24% teff along with corn silage and other ingredients. “I can feed their grain in a manger and come back and throw in some grass hay and the cows will actually walk away from their corn and go over and eat the grass hay. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”

Branching the Tiffany teff line into the dairy and beef markets is a goal of Producer’s Choice Seed, the marketing subsidiary of Cal/West Seeds, says Don Miller, forage breeder and director of product development.

“What we’re saying now is that it’s not just for horses. It’s for other animals, too,” Miller says. “Based on positive feedback received from dairymen, our company has decided to seriously explore the possibility of expanding the use of teff hay into dairy rations. This coming year, to accomplish that goal, we plan to establish 20 Tiffany teff dairy demo plots across the U.S. Our intent is to work with dairies, letting them try teff in their own operations.”

Miller has also been collecting input from growers and university specialists to produce a second edition of a teff grass guide, now offered on www.producerschoiceseed.com as a free download. Free print copies are available through local dealers.

It’s called the Teff Grass Crop Overview and Forage Production Guide.

“We’re taking into account anything we’ve learned over the last couple of years. We try to stress whatever is important to make sure the farmer has success in raising teff.

“We’re also trying to stress things farmers shouldn’t do,” he adds. The most important things to avoid when managing teff are:

• Don’t plant teff in soft soils. “The seedbed has to be very firm. Bruce Anderson (University of Nebraska forage specialist) did some testing last summer, and he recommended that the soil has to be to the point where you can bounce a basketball on it,” Miller says. “That’s a problem we’ve had in the past. If people are going to fail, they put it in too soft of soil and, as a result, they get the seed too deep.”
• Don’t plant in soils that are too cool. Soils should be at least 65° before planting teff. If not, the grass will grow slower and weed competition will be more of a problem.
• Don’t interseed teff into an older stand of alfalfa until after the first cutting. “That puts you far along into the late spring, when soil temperatures are starting to warm up,” Miller recommends.
• Don’t cut it below 4”, because all the food reserves are in the bottom part of the stem and you may not get as much regrowth.
• Don’t let teff go to head. If it does, the next cut may suffer because the food reserves have moved into the seed.

Insect problems at this point are minimal – some damage occurred in North Dakota teff fields a few years ago and haven’t recurred.

“There’s some indication of an insect in teff in Arizona, but, for the most part, we haven’t had any major outbreaks. We on the breeding end are looking at a lot of new lines, making sure we’ve got a genetic base just in case there’s an insect that comes up,” says Miller.

Disease worries are few, too, he says. “We had some seed growers who were growing back-to-back teff, which we don’t recommend. If you’re going to get diseases, that’s where you’ll get them.

“However, in 2009 we took samples out of first-year, second-year and third-year plantings of teff and didn’t come back with any diseases in Idaho.” Some cereal rust problems showed up in Nebraska one year, but didn’t make any return appearances, he adds.

For more information, visit hayandforage.com and search for teff.