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Cotton speaks about drought-resistant teff at Farm and Ranch Days

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Riverton – A new type of forage is being used that can help lessen producer’s lost profits from a failed crop due to drought. The alternative is an annual short season bunchgrass called Eragrostis tef, more commonly know as teff. 

“One of the things that we always wanted to try if a producer’s crop failed was a short season crop,” said Scott Cotton, Extension educator for University of Wyoming. “In Wyoming, the window for a short season crop is 60 to 65 days.”

Cotton spoke at the Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days in Riverton on Feb. 13.

Low nitrate levels 

Teff is a grass that is dominant in the center of Africa and has low nitrate levels. It has very thin long leaves that almost reach the full length of the plant and has very high sugar content.  

“In a drought year, nitrates are worse than other years because nitrates accumulate when there’s a stress on the plant,” said Cotton. “Stresses, such as frost, injury from hail or  drought, can cause nitrate accumulation.” 

“The nitrate level with teff is very low at 760 parts per million (ppm),” said Cotton. “Typically 5,000 to 6,000 ppm is deemed as the manageable number producers can still work with.”

Teff grows three to four feet tall when a lot of moisture is available, but it can also thrive in low moisture alkaline soils.  The fine root system can spread out and form deeper taproots. The stem is very thin but is still able to keep the plant very erect. 

“It will kill itself at the end of the season, and producers don’t have to worry about it, for it is just organic matter,” said Cotton. “The fields that are planted with teff will be more profitable and producers won’t have to deal with weed control as much.”

Drought resistant

In 2008, Cotton worked on a project to help producers find a crop that could withstand drought and still be productive. It was from this project that Cotton and some producers tried teff. 

“It was the first of May, and we were looking at failed wheat fields and almost no forage on the landscape,” said Cotton. “Around 300 to 400 producers were saying they were going to have to cut their herd numbers.” 

“There have been a number of studies that show Wyoming has 5.7 out of every 10 years an occurrence of drought in some of our counties,” described Cotton. “So 57 percent of the time in some of our counties, we are going to have a drought.” 

Cotton added, “We have to get ready for drought and adjust for it.”

Trigger dates

Trigger dates are also very important tools for producers to help them determine if there is going to be enough moisture for their crops. 

“Trigger dates are dates producers have for their range and landscape that helps them determine a deadline,” said Cotton, “helping them know if their crops will make it if a certain amount of rainfall is seen or not.”

In Wyoming, Cotton suggests a trigger date in the range of April 15 to May 15, depending on the producer’s location and the amount of moisture they receive. 

Weed control

Cotton described that during a drought, producers will also see open plant cover spaces between their growing crops and grass. That’s when the weeds take root, and the producers are then faced with an additional charge of getting rid of the weeds. 

“We need to control those weeds because they are very costly to control,” explained Cotton. “We need to reestablish ground cover, preferably with something that is useable or desirable.”

The seed of teff is very small – just slightly smaller than an alfalfa seed – but when a coating is applied to the seed it can be planted in the same manner as alfalfa at one-eighth inch to one-quarter inches deep.

In Cotton’s experiment, they took 35 acres and planted teff at three-sixteenths inches deep on June 10 and used 10 pounds of seed per acre. Fertilizer had already been applied to the field when the initial failed winter wheat crop was planted. The field was hayed on Aug. 12 from a total of 3.27 inches of rain for the whole summer. 

During Cotton’s experiment at 40 to 45 days of growth, the teff grass was at 20 to 30 inches tall. 

“In all those bad years producers might have 40 to 50 days to grow something if they know what to do,” commented Cotton. 


A total of 70 round bales were made from Cotton’s experiment, with each bale weighing 1,500 pounds from the 35 acres. 

“When producers are in the middle of a drought and trying to keep from cutting their herds, another 60 tons of hay comes in handy,” said Cotton, “especially when it’s grown in an area that just had a failed crop.” 

The crude protein of the hay was 15.6 to 15.9 percent with about a 104 to 120 relative feed value. 

“It is not the best hay in the middle of a drought, but any hay that a producer can get on their place is the best hay,” said Cotton. 

In 2008, Cotton was also doing a parallel trial on teff at the West Central office using irrigation. The production results with the irrigation resulted in 6.1 tons of forage per acre and three cuttings were achieved. 

The amount of money Cotton spent to grow teff equated to $70 an acre. Today Cotton suspects the cost would be $100 an acre today with the increased cost of fuel and fertilizer. 

Madeline Robinson is the assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

Gluten-free flour

Other than harvesting teff for hay or using it for grazing, an alternative can be to collect the seeds from the plant. 

“We can run the seeds through a thresher, or in Africa they just beat it over the edge of a barrel, to get those seeds to fall off,” said Scott Cotton, Extension educator for University of Wyoming. 

African herders that experience droughts make their flour from the seeds of teff many times.

“It’s becoming popular as a flour for people who are gluten intolerant because its almost gluten free,” said Cotton. 

Scott added, “People with Celiac’s disease or people who have reactions to gluten can use flour made from teff to make bread and not have it affect their health.” 

Natural food stores have begun selling teff seed for flour at a price tag of $16 a pound.


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