Teff grass offers another warm-season option

By Mike Rankin

Teff grass has always been one of those fringe warm-season grass options, but it has gained in popularity over the past 10 years. The annual grass is at its best when other cool-season grasses are in the depths of a “summer slump.” Also, horse owners have sought out teff grass hay because it is often low in nonstructural carbohydrates.

Teff has a relatively short growing season. “The first harvest for teff will normally occur within 45 to 55 days after planting, depending on location and year, and the second cutting 40 to 50 days thereafter,” notes Earl Creech, an extension forage specialist with Utah State University.

It’s the short growing season that allows some growers in Creech’s state to plant a teff crop after first cutting from a marginal alfalfa stand or following the harvest of a winter annual cereal crop.

Creech also describes teff grass as needing fewer inputs than crops such as corn or sorghum. With a shorter growing season, teff uses less irrigation water than many other crops, and the forage specialist notes that growers can expect a 4- to 5-ton dry matter yield from two cuttings with proper management.

Natalie Shaw, an equine nutrition specialist with Purina Animal Nutrition, spent several years working with teff grass while obtaining her master’s degree at the University of Washington.

Her research found that the most important factor for producing low-carb teff hay was applying an adequate amount of nitrogen fertilizer.

“If you don’t invest in nitrogen, it’s not going to be palatable to horses,” Shaw says. “If no nitrogen is applied, the plant will actually have a higher nonstructural carbohydrate concentration at harvest.”

Both Shaw and Creech recommend that 50 to 60 units of nitrogen be applied to teff at planting and after each cutting. The optimum harvest plant maturity is when seedheads just begin to appear. Shaw also suggests cutting the crop before noon while nonstructural carbohydrate concentrations are still low.

She offers this recipe for successfully growing low-carb teff hay:

• Grow in warmer regions

• Prepare a firm seedbed at planting

• Plant during late May to mid-June when the soil temperature is at least 65°F

• Seed 6 to 8 pounds per acre of uncoated seed or 10 to 12 pounds per acre of coated seed

• Seed to a 1/4-inch depth

• Apply 50 pounds per acre of nitrogen per cutting

• Irrigate little and often

• Control weeds early

• Harvest at early heading and before noon

• Ted early, ted often, and bale in four to six days

• Package in small bales (for horse market) and tarp or store inside