Teff Hay: Forage For The Metabolic Horse

By Tamara Wrayton

Teff hay is a fairly recent option for those of us looking for a low sugar, mid protein, forage crop for our equines here in British Columbia. But what is teff?

Teff has been shown to be an excellent option for the metabolic horse and those easy keepers; it has even been touted as the perfect hay for foundered horses. Being a C4 grass, teff should average lower NSC values than most C3 grasses (timothy, orchard, brome) because C4 warm season grasses do not form long chain fructan. Cool season C4 grasses store carbohydrates – what we call sugar in hay -as starch, and starch formation is self-limiting. Fructan formation in C3 grasses is not self-limiting so these grasses have the ability to store large amounts of fructan, creating dangerously high sugar hay, which can impact our equine friends negatively.

Teff is a self-pollinating warm season, C4, annual grass grown extensively throughout the US as forage for both cattle and horses. Here in BC we are accustomed to feeding cool season, C3 grasses that grow well in the western regions of North America, Alberta, Washington and British Columbia. These include the timothy, orchard and brome grass most of us are accustom to feeding, however teff has recently been planted in the interior of BC as a forage crop to produce horse hay.

Teff is an ancient grass thought to have originated in Ethiopia sometime between 1000 BC and 4000 BC, where it was used as a grain crop for human consumption. When introduced to North America initially, teff was used as a grain crop for ethnic populations accustomed to its use and as a gluten-free alternative to traditional wheat flour.

Researchers began looking into the value of various lines of teff seed as a forage crop for livestock. Throughout the 1990’s, several strains of seed were developed for their potential as forage and teff has since become a popular and valuable feed for livestock throughout the United States.

There are a number of positive attributes making teff an excellent crop for farmers. Teff hay has high palatability; it produces a fine-stemmed leafy hay that is consumed readily by horses and cattle alike. It is a fast-growing, high-yielding crop. Teff has been shown to be highly adaptable and is able to thrive in both moisture-short and waterlogged soil. Teff has shown significant drought tolerance even without irrigation and is highly successful when grown with added irrigation. While most commonly made into dried hay it can also be used to make silage or as a grazing crop.

Teff also seems to be consumed less quickly by most horses; while they do eat the teff, consumption by the pound seems to drop. This results in fewer calories overall being consumed. Of course, reduced consumption without restricting forage access is the goal for many of our thriftier type horses. I noticed this with my own three horses who had the opportunity to try teff recently. It would appear the teff satiates them so well they eat less hay! However, as always, forage for our horses isn’t that simple.

In hay tests provided by a teff seed supplier, NSC values ranged from 7.2% to 15.9%. The hay testing in the lower range would be suitable for the metabolic or foundered horse, however hay testing at the top of the range would be unsuitable. Further research comparing teff grown under sunny, cool conditions versus teff grown intentionally under drought conditions showed a dramatic 45% increase in NSC. This of course serves to highlight, once again, the importance of testing all hay being fed. Teff appears to have a place in the diet of the metabolically compromised horse but as with cool season forages, we can make no assumptions about NSC values.


Sources and suggested reading:

“Teff Grass-Crop Overview and Forage Production Guide” – (http://www.calwestseeds.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/TeffGrassGuidePCI2011.pdf)

“Teff Grass” (http://teffgrass.com)

“Voluntary intake and digestibility of teff hay fed to horses” -W. B. Staniar*,2, J. R. Bussard*, N. M. Repard*, M. H. Hall and A. O. Burk (http://teffgrass.com/wp-content/themes/tg/downloads/psu-teffhorse.pdf)

“Is Teff grass hay always low in NSC?” – Kathryn Watt (http://www.safergrass.org/pdf/Teff_grass2.pdf)

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