Teff grass provides alternative to bermudagrass for horses

May 7, 2015
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Dave Edmark, Agricultural Communication Services
479-575-6940 / dedmark@uark.edu

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horse eats grass

Horses are sometimes discerning in their choice of forage. This horse sampled teff grass and bermudagrass as part of a Division of Agriculture study.
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Fast facts:
• Horses find teff grass palatable and preferable to bermudagrass in some cases
• Maturity of forage is key factor
• Teff is an annual forage

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Bermudagrass has long been popular as forage for horses, but teff grass has some potential as an alternative. Teff is not only palatable for the horses but they’ve shown some preference for it in certain situations, according to a study at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

Teff has become popular in the western U.S. as a horse forage but not yet in the rest of the nation. “There seems to be indecision about it as far as I can tell,” said Ken Coffey, an animal science professor who supervised the study, which was also used for an undergraduate honors student’s thesis research. “It’s getting easier to get seed for it now than in the past, so more people are trying it under different conditions to see if it will work or not.”

Teff is an annual forage and lacks the excessive fiber content that bermudagrass has. The animal science study compared horses’ preference for teff at four different growth stages with that of bermudagrass harvested at two maturity stages. The five horses in the study each received different daily combinations of four of the six total forages from the two grasses over six days. The results showed that the horses preferred the teff grass harvested at vegetative growth stages over even vegetative bermudagrass.

“Teff is going to be much more desirable for a horse because of its finer leaf and much finer stem than what you’d get with other summer annuals like pearl millet or sorghum sedan,” Coffey said.

But it’s the maturity level that has the greatest impact on the horses’ preference, regardless of the grass. “In the study it was very clear that if the forage was vegetative that they would pick vegetative bermudagrass over more mature teff grass. We know maturity is a bad thing in forages as far as quality.”

In Arkansas, property owners who manage bermudagrass generally do so differently than in other places, said Coffey, who complimented hay producers in the area “who know how to put up bermudagrass at its best.” They mow it at the right maturity stage and make sure it has good color and is clean. It’s necessary to stop short of advanced maturity levels or consuming horses are at risk of developing colic.

“You feed a horse really mature forage, you stick it in a stall and don’t exercise it very much and its chances of colic increase greatly,” Coffey said.

As an annual, teff does have an inherent disadvantage against the perennial bermudagrass because of the work required to plant it every year. Coffey also noted teff didn’t yield as much as other summer annuals such as pearl millet or sorghum sedan in local trials.

Although bermudagrass is dominant in Arkansas and nearby states and other grasses are more widely planted elsewhere, horse owners in any location are usually looking for high enough quality grass that won’t cause colic. Teff can be one such alternative if land managers can balance its disadvantages against its advantages.

“We’re always looking for something better,” Coffey said. “If we manage what we have and do it right, then what we’ve got out there may be just as good. The maturity of the forage, regardless of the name of that forage, is the bottom line.”

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