It's a small-seeded annual that requires careful planting. It can't handle frost and its forage yields are somewhat inconsistent. Despite those drawbacks, people across the country are excited about teff's potential as a hay crop.
In Missouri, growers are finding that it makes better hay than most summer annuals they've been raising. In Pennsylvania, it offers growers a mite-free alternative to pest-plagued timothy. And in the arid fields of New Mexico, teff could be a viable hay crop for the growing number of horses in the state.
Adaptability is a key attribute of the grass, which was brought to the U.S. from Ethiopia several decades ago. It has been grown successfully in many parts of this country and in a fairly wide variety of climates and soil types, notes Don Miller, forage breeder for Target Seed, LLC, one of the first U.S. companies to propagate and sell teff seed.
“Teff's main yield advantage is as an alternative to cool-season grasses such as timothy and orchardgrass, which produce the bulk of their hay in spring,” says Miller. “Teff fills that summer gap.”
Researchers at 15 universities around the country ran teff field trials in 2007, Miller reports.
“Several of them said they had farmers asking about the crop and figured they'd better check it out,” he says.
With one year of teff field trials under his belt, Leonard Lauriault, New Mexico State University forage agronomist, says the crop shows potential in the dry Southwest.
“I was initially concerned about how the crop would adapt to our sandy soils and dry conditions, since it came from an area in Ethiopia where they get 17-20” of rain during the summer months,” says Lauriault.
“On most of our plots, we irrigated the crop after planting the Tiffany variety and prior to each of the three cuttings we took,” he reports. “Plant-ing in mid-May was probably too early. The crop was slow to grow and we waited 90 days before taking the first cutting. I think the crop might have done better if we had waited until mid-June to plant, which also would likely have saved us one irrigation.”
With yields of just 3½ tons/acre for the season, teff won't become a major forage crop in the area, he adds. But he says it could find niches as a thickening crop for alfalfa and as horse hay.
“We can't grow much timothy here, so this would be a higher-quality hay crop, especially for horse owners, who tend to be pickier and are willing to pay more.”
“Compared to sorghum-sudangrass, teff didn't have as great a tonnage, but it produced a better-quality hay,” reports David Otte, forage manager for Green Valley Seed, Kahoka, MO. “It smelled wonderful and the cattle seemed to love it.”
Otte, who also runs a cow-calf operation, tried grazing the crop 30 days after planting, and the animals really ate it. “The grow-back was faster and more even than I expected, and we were able to graze it four times throughout the summer,” he says.
Last year was the first that growers in Otte's area tried teff, and he says most were pleased. “Even with the dry summer we had, there seemed to be no issues with prussic acid or high nitrate levels in the teff that we typically see with other grasses, like sorghum-sudangrass.”
Teff's pest resistance impressed Marvin Hall, Penn State University extension forage specialist. His re-search showed it offers horse owners an insect-free alternative to timothy, which has been plagued by mites in that part of the country in recent years.
“There is a big demand for quality hay for the horse market, and teff is proving to be very popular for that,” he says.
Hall planted teff in several plots beside crops such as millet, sudangrass, sorghum and corn, and says the teff kept growing during dry summer periods when the other grasses stalled out. He applied 75 lbs of nitrogen twice during the season.
“We took the first cutting 50 days after planting, and the second 14 days later,” he says. “From five cuttings, we got an average of 4½ tons/acre for the season on our southern Pennsylvania plots and just over a 3-ton average in the central part of the state. That's not really enough yield to make five cuttings economical, but the crop's higher hay quality could give it an advantage over sudangrass.”
He and Lauriault both note that it's worth taking some care at planting to get good crop emergence.
“You need to do the same things with teff that you would do when you're trying to establish alfalfa - prepare a firm seedbed, set the drill properly and lay the seeds just under the surface,” says Hall.
He adds that using the coated seed that Target Seed now offers also made drill calibration much easier. “The coating roughly doubles the size, and that made a big difference in planting accuracy,” he says.
To help producers learn more about teff management techniques, Target Seed agronomists compiled a management guide available for down-load from the company's Web site. Find it at www.targetseed.com.
Teff Seed Sources
FIRSTLINE SEEDS, Moses Lake, WA
GREEN VALLEY SEED, Kahoka, MO
HANKINS SEED, Bonanza, OR
KING'S AGRISEEDS, Ronks, PA
MIDWEST SEED NETWORK, Bloomfield, NE
TARGET SEED, Parma, ID
UNITED SEED, DeGraff, MN