Darwin Lawson was looking for a fast-growing forage to seed after cutting winter rye in late May. His seed supplier suggested teff.
“I had heard it could produce a fast and decent-quality forage crop, and since this was a relatively small field — just 8 acres — I thought I'd give it a try,” says the Darlington, WI, farmer.
Although heavy rains and a family trip kept him from cutting the crop at the ideal time, he wasn't disappointed with the results.
“We got over 2½ tons/acre from the cutting we took in mid-August,” he says. “The relative feed value was lower than I would have liked, but the grass had already seeded out by the time I cut it. What surprised me was how well the cattle liked it. They really cleaned it up.”
Lawson's first experience with this somewhat exotic crop is typical of what farmers and researchers around the country report after a few years of working with teff. From irrigated fields in Oregon to the rolling hills of dairy country in upstate New York and lots of locations in between, forage experts are recounting generally positive results from their test plots and farm fields.
“We've had tremendous interest in the crop, from all over the country, since the first story about it ran two years ago (‘Tons of Teff', Hay & Forage Grower, February 2005),” says Don Miller, alfalfa breeder for Target Seed, LLC. “We've supplied seed to researchers and farmers in vastly different geographic areas — California, Oregon, North Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. And we've heard and seen that the crop has done well in a wide range of field conditions, so it's fairly adaptable. It even shows potential in the Southern states.”
Sound too good to be true? There are a few key management considerations with teff, say researchers.
“The crop won't take frost,” says Miller. “It handles heat just fine, and will even go into dormancy in drought conditions, then pop right out of it and start growing again the minute there's enough moisture. But once temperatures drop below freezing, the crop dies.”
The other challenge is planting the tiny, dark seed at the proper depth and in a good seedbed.
“There are about 1.2 million seeds per pound, which can make planting a bit of a challenge,” says Miller. “But we've seen success with broadcasting or drilling the seed. This summer, we even tried planting by plane, which actually worked okay.”
It's better to plant too shallow than too deep, he adds.
“Ideally, you want to get that seed about ¼" down but no more; otherwise you risk poor emergence. It will even sprout and grow if it's just laying on top of the soil, without incorporating it. The roots tend to be a little more shallow that way, and you have to be more careful when you take the first cutting or you'll pull the whole plant out.”
He says Target Seed is experimenting with coating teff seed, mainly to improve handling ease and make the dark seed more visible in the soil. “We can basically double the size of the seed with a coating, and it makes it much easier to handle.”
Seeding recommendations range from 3 lbs/acre under irrigation to 6 lbs/acre in richer soils, says Laverne Hankins, owner of Hankins Seed, Bonanza, OR. His company sold one variety of teff seed to customers in 21 states this past year, charging $3.50/lb plus 75¢/lb for shipping.
Versatility and adaptability are what amazes him most about this unique crop native to Ethiopia.
“I've talked to people in Kansas who planted it behind wheat in early July and took their first cutting six weeks later,” says Hankins. “On the East Coast, where they've had some fungus problems in orchardgrass, people have tried teff instead, and said its quality was comparable.”
It's a very palatable forage, he notes.
“It's found a real niche market with horse owners, who say the quality is as good as timothy. But there's been a lot of interest from dairymen and cattle feeders, too. If it's cut in or just after the boot stage, it can have as high as 22% protein, but the average is 16-20%. In our part of the country, you can take a first cutting four to five weeks after planting, and a second cutting three weeks after that, when the crop is about 18” tall.”
He says it's reasonable to expect teff will yield 6-8 tons/acre of dry matter over the course of a season, if the field has good fertility. “The crop seems to respond well to fertilizer, especially manure.”
Teff's crude protein content appears to be heavily influenced by nitrogen, observes Mike Hunter, Cornell University extension dairy specialist.
“It looks like it will be a great crop to grow in complement with manure,” says Hunter. “That's one of the reasons we think it could be a good fit as an emergency forage crop for dairy farmers in this area. It's also one of the only annual forage crops that is suitable for making dry bales from rather than having to ensile it.”
Planting in early June, after a rye crop, could allow for three cuttings in that region with a little luck and planning, he says.
Lawson agrees that, with more careful timing of planting and cutting, teff could offer a little more forage flexibility for his Wisconsin beef cow-calf operation.
“I'm definitely going to try it again next season,” he says. “With a little more attention to seedbed preparation and well-timed cuttings, I think it can become a convenient and good-quality forage that fits nicely into my crop rotation.”
Teff Seed Sources
A number of teff varieties are available, with names such as VA-T1, Tiffany, Pharoah and Dessie summer lovegrass. Several companies are offering seed:
Hankins Seed, Bonanza, OR - 541-545-6649
Target Seed, Parma, ID - 866-400-6434
United Seed, DeGraff, MN - 208-454-1186
First Line Seeds, Guelph, Ontario - 509-765-1772
King's Agriseeds, Ronks, PA - 717-687-6224