Growers from Washington to New York and parts in between now have one or more years' experience with teff, an Ethiopian warm-season annual grass.
For some, it meets and exceeds expectations of readily adapting to different soil types and producing well in droughty or wet conditions — while offering versatility as a hay, silage or pasture crop.
For other growers it's been hard to establish. The reason, say growers, seed dealers and forage specialists, is that teff is “finicky” and, like a lot of small-seeded crops, needs a firm seedbed and a shallow planting depth.
Although an old grass used to produce gluten-free flour, teff is new to U.S. hay growers. Target Seed, now merged with Cal/West's subsidiary, Producer's Choice Seed, brought its Tiffany variety to the marketplace more than four years ago. Several other companies also offer teff varieties, including Dessie, Corvallis, Emerald, Excalibur, Horse Candi, Pharaoh and Velvet.
Butch Cardinal and his brother, Jim, have successfully planted Tiffany teff for two years near Hugo, MN. This past spring they planted it after some alfalfa winterkilled and got three cuttings.
“We get 3½ tons/acre of a quality grass and it keeps me in my hay market,” says Cardinal, who markets teff to horse owners in the Twin Cities area.
Cardinal has had no issues with stand establishment. After applying 60 units of nitrogen this past May, he sowed 12½ lbs/acre of teff with a Brillion seeder. “It catches real well with that,” he says.
He sprays to keep broadleaf weeds out and sees a little crabgrass competition. “On sandy soils there will be sandburs when the ground is really dry. But if we're getting good moisture, it doesn't matter; the teff will outcompete all of that.”
Cardinal fielded a few calls from growers asking if there was a “trick” to drying the crop. “It takes a little bit longer to dry than orchard or brome grass. I just let it dry longer or ted it.”
Joe Boehler, Litchfield, IL, got 4½-5 tons/acre of teff in 2007 from 15 acres he rotated out of alfalfa but needed to keep in forages. “The field is located at an airport and the only thing I'm allowed to have on it is forage,” he says.
“I broadcasted teff, then rolled it with a roller. It was the most beautiful crop. I planted another 10 acres of teff last year and really like it. It's fine in texture and seems to be extremely palatable. I think the animals probably get more nutrition out of it than from a lot of grasses because the protein is high.
“The main trick is to get it cut when it's going into boot stage. That's where the majority of your nutrients are.”
This year he'll work a seedbed, roll it and use a Brillion seeder. He uses coated seed because it's easier to handle, he says.
Marketing the teff has been easy. “The horse people really like it.” One customer who previously fed alfalfa told him, “As long as you grow teff grass, I'll buy it over alfalfa.”
A forage analysis done in Nov-ember 2007 showed a relative feed value (RFV) of 97; relative forage quality (RFQ), 103; and crude protein, 15.14%.
“I showed that to a dairy producer. He said that would be a great dry-cow ration,” says Boehler.
In reality, growers should look at the RFQ values, rather than the RFV, when evaluating grass quality, says Mike Hunter, Cornell University extension educator. RFV doesn't give grasses credit for having higher fiber digestibility than alfalfa.
He's grown Corvallis and Tiffany teff and says yields and growth characteristics were pretty much the same between the two. Harvested at the right time with enough nitrogen applied, teff can have crude protein at 15-16%, Hunter says. Quality samples from his latest teff trials aren't yet complete, but of 107 teff forage samples from several locations across New York State, the RFQ averaged 137, he says.
Besides having merit as an emergency forage and one-year rotation crop, teff can be doublecropped, Hunter says.
“Even here in northern New York, we can use it in a doublecropping with winter triticale or winter rye.” Teff can follow winter cereal forage or a precut straw crop in the rotation and produce up to two cuttings of summer forage, he says.
Growers trying teff in Kentucky, which has suffered through droughts the past two years, found the crop touchy to establish, says Bret Winsett, forage specialist with Miles Farm Supply, Owensboro.
“I use the term that it's a ‘finicky’ crop, but really only in the establishment phase,” Winsett says. “People think that they understand how firm the seedbed needs to be, but when it's all said and done, most don't get the seedbed firm enough. If you're doing a prepared seedbed, you ideally need to cultipack it twice before you even sow the seed.
“We've had some fields where somebody would call us three weeks after planting and say, ‘The teff is not coming up; there's something wrong with it.’ And there would be nice green rows of teff maybe 2-3” tall where tractor or fertilizer spreader tracks were and very little else.”
Even so, Winsett says, some of those “failures” did come up. “They got a little rain and teff was slow coming out of the ground because the seedbed wasn't firm. But once the grass did come up, it produced.”
University of Kentucky forage specialist Garry Lacefield has seen several fields of teff over the past two years with a range of successes.
Besides reduced stands, some failures resulting from seeding techniques and competition from warm-season grassy weeds, he saw lodging on stands not cut early enough. Once seed heads emerge, there is potential for lodging. Several producers experienced poor regrowth when they cut teff too short.? “In other situations, excellent stands were obtained by hay producers happy with the crop,” Lacefield says.
Keith Callaway at Rainier Seeds, Pasco, WA, says growers in his area didn't have much luck with teff. But it's not the fault of the grass, he maintains.
“The growers didn't really understand how to grow teff, they put it in way too late and didn't give it the opportunity to develop like it should,” Callaway says.
Growers in Firstline Seeds' Moses Lake, WA, area, however, are replacing some timothy and orchardgrass acres with teff, believes Kirk Jungers, the seed company's president and owner.
“We did thousands of acres last year where we overseeded timothy fields with Pharaoh after first cuttings,” says Jungers. “We take off first-cutting timothy about June 15, and June and July are so hot that the timothy doesn't do very well. So we overseeded teff into it and brought our production back to where it was for first cutting.”
His growers air-seed teff at 3-5 lbs/acre after timothy harvest but before irrigation is turned on.
“It's made the most beautiful hay you've ever seen in your life,” he says. “It has a better feed value than timothy. It's about 10-15 points higher in RFV and the feed stores like it.”
Much of the teff goes to feed stores that sell to horse, llama and alpaca owners.
The end of last May, Virginia grower Mark Ferguson decided to no-till broadcast teff into fields that had been producing disappointing single-cut harvests of orchardgrass the past few droughty years.
Ferguson, of Sugar Loaf Farm, Staunton, took three teff cuttings that produced only 1 ton/acre. He figures he shouldn't have broadcast the teff seed, that he planted it two weeks too late and didn't apply nitrogen after planting.
He fed 50 lbs/acre of nitrogen for second and third crops, however. The number of small square bales produced from the 17.5 acres went from 112 from first cutting to 170 for second crop to a whopping 583 from the third cutting.
“So we're going to try some different things for the 2009 season to see if we can increase our tons/acre,” says Ferguson, who markets to horse and alpaca owners. He'll add nitrogen, work the soil and plant the second week of May.
Quality-wise, the teff cut at boot stage showed 14.9% crude protein and an RFV of 101. “I'm used to seeing an RFV for orchardgrass of around 71 or 80,” he says.
In droughty conditions, the teff showed growth but was stunted, Ferguson says. A rain after two to three weeks without water brought the grass from ankle to knee height within four days. “I'm amazed that, when it does get the moisture it needs, it grows very rapidly.”
South Carolina growers have also been struggling with drought the past few years, says Luther Wannamaker of Wannamaker Seed, St. Matthews. “So we were interested in something that would withstand drought, and teff works fine.”
It's grown mostly as hay for beef cattle but is, at times, also grazed, he says. In Wannamaker's area, teff is broadcast with a carrier. “We put four parts blasting sand or organic fertilizer with one part seed,” he recommends.
By growing the grass for his beef cows, he learned a lot about how to plant it. “I haven't had any luck using a Brillion. I used a small seeder attachment on a grain drill, but that put the seed too deep. I even wound up putting it on top of oats, trying to wash it down into the stubble with irrigation. That didn't work. But where I had irrigation I could put it on top of the ground and get it to come up.
“Now I spin-spread it out and just lightly drag the soil over it so it's about ¼” deep,” Wannamaker says.
One of his worst mistakes was cutting the grass too low. “If you cut it under 2”, you'll kill it. You can't cut it below the growing point.”
Teff Seed Sources
Firstline Seeds, Moses Lake, WA - 509-765-1772
Green Valley Seed, Kahoka, MO - 800-748-7943
Hankins Seed, Bonanza, OR - 541-545-6649
Hoegemeyer Hybrids, Hooper, NE - 800-245-4631
King's Agriseeds, Ronks, PA - 717-687-6224
Midwest Seed Network, Bloomfield, NE - 800-644-2677
Producer's Choice Seed/Target Seed, Jordan, MN - 866-400-6434
United Seed, DeGraff, MN - 208-454-1186