Teff grass is a new forage crop being tested in California that has been around for a few thousand years.

For Kim Anderson’s string of 18 rescue horses, it arrived none too soon.

“The horses will walk right by the bermudagrass pasture and go to the Teff. They prefer it and do very well on it,” she said.

Anderson, from Sanger, Calif., is a senior plant health major at California State University. She first saw Teff at college where CSUF is testing the annual grass under center pivot irrigation at the school’s northeast Fresno farm.

Cal/West Seeds, Woodland, Calif., is distributing Teff and is working with CSUF in demonstrating and evaluating its value.

Jack Griffin, regional sales manager for Producer’s Choice Seed, is marketing Teff and said there are about 2,000 acres of it now planted in the central San Joaquin Valley. There are about 250,000 acres planted nationwide.

Anderson pastures her horses on 16 acres, 13 of which were planted to Teff last year. Alfalfa is the most commonly fed horse forage. Wheat, oat and barley hay also are other horse hay choices.

Horses are grazing animals. They need a high-fiber, low carbohydrate diet containing 8 percent to 10 percent protein to keep the gut working on a continuous basis. Horses that receive insufficient amounts of fiber are more likely to develop colic, due to obstructions not moving through the intestines properly.

Alfalfa’s high protein content can also cause a horse to colic or founder. Hay that is mostly or all alfalfa can only be fed to horses in very small amounts. Alfalfa hay generally contains more calories and less fermentable fiber per pound than grasshay. Therefore, stalled horses fed alfalfa are given fewer pounds of hay per day and spend less time eating than horses consuming grass hay.

Horse owners are well aware that grazing horses on alfalfa also can cause colic.

Colic is a deadly disease for horses. Horses die of colic more than any other cause of death.

“You can spend $10,000 on vet bills to try to save a horse from dying of colic and still watch it die,” said Anderson.

Teff: fiber, protein, easy digestion

Teff pasture provides the fiber and protein for Anderson’s horses. “Teff is more protein balanced and the horses get the fiber they need. They like to munch on it.”

Anderson’s rescue horses range in age from a yearling to a 35-year old. They range from thoroughbreds she has rescued from race tracks to a pony. All of her animals were abandoned or abused before she took them in.

Teff is a tall, willowy annual grass that is easy for horses and other animals to graze. That is important because with Bermudagrass, horses and other animals often digest dirt when they graze the low growing Bermuda.

CSUF is conducting horse feeding trials with the Teff. Griffin said dairymen are also testing it as a replacement forage. Bruce Roberts, agronomy professor at CSUF, believes Teff likely would be a replacement for dry cow hay quality alfalfa.

However, for now, it is the equine audience that is the target market of the annual grass in the valley. Teff has proven comparable in quality with Timothy hay, often called “race horse hay” because it is associated with the thoroughbred business in Kentucky and the Southeast.

Griffin said Teff is catching on in that area as well as in the Phoenix area and in southeastern New Mexico. around Artesia.

The American Horse Council estimates there are about 700,000 horses in California. Unofficial estimates have put the number as high as 1.5 million. Regardless, the horse hay and pasture business is significant.

According to the council, the California horse industry produces goods and services valued at $4.1 billion annually. The national industry has a $7 billion impact on the California economy when the multiplier effect of spending by industry suppliers and employees is taken into account.

311,100 Californians are involved in the industry as horse owners, service providers, employees and volunteers.

The California horse industry directly provides 54,200 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs. Spending by suppliers and employees (in California and other states) generates additional jobs in California for a total employment impact of 130,200.

Teff benefits for forage producers, horse owners

Teff, believes Roberts, could benefit California forage producers, as well as horse owners. It produces a premium quality hay for a wide range of livestock. It has been called an “emergency forage” for dairies that face sudden feed shortages. It could fit well where dairymen can use manure to fertilize it.

It yields 1.5 to 2 tons per acre per cutting.

Teff originated in Ethiopia where it has been documented as a grain crop for human consumption sometime between 4000 B.C. and 1000 B.C.

Its grain produces a gluten-free flour.

It has only been in the past decade, however, that Teff has been the focal point for a possible new U.S. forage crop. Plant breeders like Don Miller of Cal West have been working on new varieties and perfecting management techniques. Miller has been researching the crop since 1995.

Roberts believes the annual grass crop has potential in the San Joaquin Valley as a double crop after corn or wheat. It can also be used as a rotation break crop when rotating an older alfalfa stand and as a forage mix to extend the life of an older alfalfa stand.

“It likes the heat of summer in the valley,” said Roberts.

It is a relatively low water user, needing only about 2 acre feet of water for a full season of up to six cuttings a year, according to Roberts. University of Nevada Reno Cooperative Extension forage specialist Jay Davison says Teff requires 50 percent to 70 percent as much water as alfalfa to produce an economic crop.

It would require less than 2 acre feet as a double crop, which Robert says would get three or four cuttings before cold weather stopped growth. It is not cold tolerant and requires annual seeding. It reportedly does well in a wide range of soil conditions from acid to alkaline.

According to Miller, Teff has produced 1.5 to 2.5 tons of forage in 45-55 days. It germinates quickly in three to five days.

The CSUF Teff field was disked, rolled and seed planted dry under a center pivot at the rate of 8 to 10 pounds per acre.

“The seed is very tiny — half the size of alfalfa seed. There are roughly 1.5 million seeds in a pound,” Roberts said.

Planting depth is critical. Miller says planting one-eighth to one-fourth of an inch deep in a firm seedbed is optimum. Planting a half-inch deep could result in stand failure.

Miller said Teff’s fertility requirements are low, 30 to 50 pounds of N per cutting. Roberts concurs. It may need other nutrients in certain conditions.

Roberts said CSUF will continue to evaluate Teff, but he believes it shows promise, as a relatively low input summer forage crop.

hcline@farmpress.com