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Teff provides warm season annual grass option for horse, cattle producers

Written by Saige Albert

Hyattville – Maria Eastman and her husband Skip run an equine-assisted therapy program near Hyattville, and Maria says that she noticed that their horses were getting fatter than they’d like.

“We looked into raising an alternative grass because our horses don’t work very hard, and alfalfa was providing more nutrition than they needed,” Maria says. “I think a lot of people have fat horses because most horses don’t work like they used to, but a lot of our horse hay is produced on standards for performance horses.”

With the concern that their horses were becoming overweight, she started doing some research.

Carbohydrate structures

“When I started looking into it, I learned that there is a specific type of carbohydrate that triggers a number of syndromes and medical problems,” Maria explains. “The carbohydrate is a non-structural carbohydrate that a fructan.”

Fructans are implicated in problems like insulin-resistance, founder and laminitis, and Maria notes that the compound is more prevalent in cool-season, C-3 grasses than it is in warm-season C-4 grasses. Many of the grasses in grass hay mixtures are cool-season grasses.

“As I looked further, I found teff,” she says. “At the time, most people were growing it experimentally, and it seemed to work well, so we looked into planting it.”

Caitlyn Youngquist, Washakie County Extension educator, says, “Teff is a warm-season annual grass that is grown in parts of Africa as a food crop. It’s a gluten-free grain that’s low in non-structural carbohydrates.” 

Planting teff

The Eastmans have been raising teff for five years, and they’ve been pleased with the results.

“The main thing with planting teff is that we have to wait until the soil temperature is about 70 degrees,” Skip says. “The seed is really tiny and very granular, almost like salt.”

He plants teff with a no-till seed drill at a rate of five to seven pounds per acre, although 10 pounds is the recommended rate.

“It costs about three dollars a pound, so it’s not expensive to plant,” he adds. “After we plant, it’s a matter of getting it to grow.”

Until teff is six to eight inches tall, the plant requires a lot of water, but after it is established, Skip says, “We don’t have to water it a lot after it’s started. It gets to about three feet tall.”

The drought-tolerant plant performs well in the Big Horn Basin, and Skip says that it’s also a pretty plant.

“It looks gorgeous,” he says. “Teff is a beautiful hay, and it’s silky.”

Because of the fine stems, Skip also says that it is challenging to bale.

“It’s difficult to bale because it’s so slippery,” he explains. “It’s similar to Indian rice grass.”

Additionally, Skip notes that the hay gets very thick and requires heavy equipment to harvest.

“My hay was so thick that my pull-behind, 14-foot mower couldn’t cut through it,” he says.

Skips says, “Usually I get two cuttings, but I’ve had three cuttings, depending on the weather.”

Additionally, Skip notes that last year, he was able to get 40 tons off 11 acres, but both yield and the number of cuttings depends on the temperatures.

“Last year, it rained frequently, and we weren’t able to get into the field to plant or cut it, so we only got one cutting,” he says. “We also keep irrigating it after the last cutting and then graze it in the fall.”

Benefits

“When we first started raising teff, I thought it might be something that fat horses could eat more of and be happier when they’re drylotted without getting too fat,” Maria says. “We’ve been really surprised because teff has so many benefits.”

In addition to working well for horses, the Eastmans note that neighbors they have sold hay to used it to finish calves.

“We’ve sold teff to a couple people who use it to finish their calves,” Maria says. “They were impressed with the quality of calves. Calves get heavy without looking fat. They also finish with a really high quality.”

“The livestock really like it,” adds Skip, “and we’ve had it tested, even when it was rained on. It still tests well.”

He continues, “The cows go crazy over it in the fall, and they tend to eat teff over alfalfa.”

Skip comments that the prevalence of teff in the Big Horn Basin over the last several years has increased.

“Teff is a neat crop, and there are more people growing it around here,” Skip says. “I think that it’s a great crop for us and for the animals.”

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..