Evaluation and demonstration of teff as a summer annual cover crop on clay soils

Final Report for ONE06-058

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2006: $9,984.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2006
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Michael Hunter
Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County
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Project Information


Large acreages of fine textured soils, developed from clayey lake sediments, are located in major agricultural regions of northern New York with limited areas in eastern New York and the Hudson Valley. Many of the available forage crop species are not well adapted to the heavy clay soils and these particular growing environments.

Corn production on these soils is limited due to marginal yields that result in lower economic returns on investment. The farms that do not grow corn often have limited options for re-establishing sod crops (grasses, legumes). Most farmers on these heavy soils currently use tillage to terminate forage stands. Recent interest has recently developed in growing winter cereal grains to protect the soil, take up residual leftover nitrogen and store it until spring. The winter cereal crops are then harvested as either forage or pre-cut straw in late spring, creating open periods in these fields. This cropping system presents itself for the successful use of summer annual crops, like the warm season grasses.

Some farmers have successfully established Brown Mid Rib sorghum sudangrass (BMR SS) in these open spaces in the crop rotation cycle. Until recently this was considered a minor use crop, but now the adoption of BMR SS is widely accepted throughout the heavy clay soil regions of New York State. With good management BMR SS has the potential to produce good yields of highly digestible forage. This summer annual crop is best suited for use as ensiled, high moisture forage.

This project explores the potential use and production of teff as a summer annual cover crop for forage. After two growing seasons teff continues to show promise as a very high quality forage crop. Teff is a warm season annual grass native to Ethiopia. It is adapted to environments ranging from drought stressed to water logged soil conditions. The teff plant can also be used as a livestock forage or pasture crop.

Project Objectives:

The primary objectives of this research and demonstration project are to compare two different seeding establishment methods for teff, determine the optimum nitrogen rates for the production of teff using dairy manure and/or commercial fertilizer sources and to produce a high yielding, high quality forage that can be grown in approximately 50 days.

The forage cropping systems implemented in this project include:

1)The no-till and conventional tillage establishment and production of teff for forage following a spring grain cereal harvested for forage.

2)The no-till and conventional tillage establishment and production of teff for forage following a winter cereal crop harvested for forage or pre-cut straw.


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Peter Barney
  • Elmer Dart
  • Alan Hunter
  • Thomas Kilcer


Materials and methods:

Both conventional and no-till seeding establishment methods are included in this project. For each establishment technique, four different nitrogen rate treatments (0, 50, 75, 100 lbs. N per acre) with three replicates. Our dairy farm cooperator site included the addition of manure as a fertilizer treatment. Each field experiment was designed using spatially-balanced block design (vanEs and vanEs, 1993.

The conventional seeding methods varied by site. The two Jefferson County sites used a Brillion cultipacker seeder for the conventional seeding method. The Columbia and St. Lawrence County sites used grain drills for the conventional seeding method treatment. All sites used a no-till grain drill for the no-till establishment treatment.

Pre- and post-season soil nitrate samples were taken from each manure/fertilizer treatment in order to determine the nitrogen efficiency rate. The sample results were used to determine the optimum economical nitrogen rate with respect to our environment.

Forage dry matter yields and quality samples were collected at harvest for each individual treatment. The forage nutritive analysis was performed by Dairy One Forage Laboratory. Milk per ton and milk per acre calculations provide relative rankings of forage samples for each treatment using the MILK2000 spreadsheet, version 7.54, developed by the University of Wisconsin. The standard inputs needed for MILK2000 include dry matter percentage and yield, crude protein percentage, 48-hour in vitro neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility, NDF percentage, ash and ether extract.

Research results and discussion:

Two years of New York field research have proven that teff yields can rival the average NYS grass hay dry matter yields and produce high quality forage with higher nutritive values. Each year we have been able to produce 2 tons of forage dry matter approximately 50 days after planting. It can be grown using commercial fertilizer or manure alone.

Based on one year of field data from four locations in NY, it appears that teff can be grown with about 50 pounds of actual nitrogen applied at planting. This data is consistent with a recent teff nitrogen research studies at Montana State University, Oregon State University and the University of Kentucky. One site used manure alone as a treatment and that too produced yields equal to the commercial fertilizer treatment. Once fertilizer rates reached 100 pounds of actual nitrogen the teff lodged and made harvest difficult. Crude protein, as expected, increased with increased nitrogen rates.

Neutral detergent fiber (NDF) digestibility is positively related to feed intake, milk production, and body weight gain in dairy cattle. Teff continues to produce very high quality forage as measured by the digestibility of the NDF fraction. According to a recent report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the benchmark for high quality grass hay is 64 percent NDF digestibility (48-hour in vitro). In our field trials, teff averaged 69 percent NDF digestibility (48-hour in vitro). The teff digestibility results are also well above that of high quality corn silage, alfalfa and red clover.

Using the Unversity of Wisconsin’s Milk 2000 spreadsheet (version 7.54), teff forage samples averaged 3400 lbs of milk per ton. The expected average milk per ton values for alfalfa-grass forage samples are 3000 lbs of milk per ton. Nitrogen fertilization had no effect on the amount of milk/ton as this is driven by the stage of development of the crop. This held true regardless of location.

Teff was easy to establish with conventional seeding methods. The no till establishment of teff was successful in all locations, however, it was not a productive as the conventionally tilled and seeded treatments. The teff is a very aggressive crop that emerged from the soil four days after planting at each site.

Research conclusions:

What is the future for teff in New York? Initially, we may not see a large number of acres of teff grown in New York; however, it has the potential to fit nicely into a crop rotation that has a summertime open space window that may be too short for the profitable production of most other summer annual forage crops. We have proved that it can be established following a winter small grain crop that was harvested for forage or pre cut straw. It can also serve as an emergency summer annual forage crop, especially considering its tolerance to such a wide range of soil moisture conditions.

Teff will provide dairy farmers the opportunity to apply manure to a summer annual crop that will utilize the nutrients supplied by the manure. Teff can be harvested as a high moisture forage crop and ensiled during storage or baled as dry hay. In the Pacific Northwest, baled teff has been very desirable for the horse hay market and is grown as a stand alone crop for this purpose.

Our intitial work with growing teff as a forage crop in 2005 attracted attention of a seed company located in the Northeast. They began selling limited amounts of teff seed to farmers in 2006.

Hay and Forage Grower magazine contacted us about our teff research in New York. They published an article about teff in the November 2006 issue referencing our experience with growing teff. This article has generated a lot if interest from farmers throughout the United States. The seed company reports that they have already received several orders from farmers that intend to grow teff in 2007.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

We held a field day at two of the sites in August to educate and expose area farmers, crop consultants and agribusiness representatives to the production of teff. The field days were well attended with approximately 25 total participants. Those in attendance were full of very good questions. Many of them were impressed with the established stands of teff.

We have already included some of the preliminary teff data from this project in three Cornell Cooperative Extension newsletters and the local newspaper. Additional articles regarding this project will also be written in the future.

The American Agriculturalist wrote an article about our experiences with teff and this research project. The article is scheduled to appear in their magazine sometime in early 2007.

Farmer outreach has also included several crop meetings. This teff research was included in a teff presentation given by the project leader at four seed industry sponsored grower meetings throughout New York State. The total attendance for these four meetings was 175 farmers and agribusiness representatives.

The farmer outreach will continue in 2007 with plans to present our teff research project results at two upcoming North Country Crop Congresses scheduled for March 2006. Based on prior attendances, the North Country Crop Congress will attract 150 farmers and agribusiness representatives.

A Cornell Cooperative Extension factsheet about the production of teff for forage is currently being written with an expected publish date of February 2007. This factsheet will include information and data from this project.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

The dairy farmer that participated in this project is going to plant teff again. He is planning on growing teff in 2007 and use it for a summer annual forage crop for grazing his dairy cows. This farmer has been quoted as saying "I feel that it has tremendous potential for pasture because it is so drought tolerant. Next year I am going to plant some for grazing my dairy cows when it gets hot and dry in the middle of the summer. I wished my field of teff was closer to the barn this year because when my pastures weren’t growing well the teff was lush and green."

According to seed industry representatives, the seed orders for teff are much higher than last year and they expect a large number of farmers to grow teff in 2007.

Teff has attracted interest from both large and small farms. A few dairy farms that are milking over 500 cows have mentioned they they will be likely to plant teff within the next two years.

Teff can be harvested as a high moisture forage crop and ensiled during storage or baled as dry hay. In the Pacific Northwest, baled teff has been very desirable for the horse hay market and is grown as a stand alone crop for this purpose. We have talked to farmers in the Northeast that are exploring the possibility of growing teff with the intention of harvesting it as baled hay and marketing it to horse farms.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

This is a very new crop and there are still a lot of unanswered questions. Our teff growing experience and research in New York is limited to the last two years. Additional years of study would provide more reliable information about the yield potential of the crop over several growing seasons. We would also like to see it grown for more seasons to evaluate the growth and production over diverse weather conditions.

Additional areas needing study include:
A planting date study to determine how early farmers could plant teff in New York.

A cutting height study to determine what the optimum stubble height is to encourage the most rapid and productive regrowth.

We do not have any first hand experience; however, teff can also be used as an annual pasture forage crop for livestock. This is an area that we feel also needs to be examined more closely.

Currently there are only six known commercially grown teff varieties in the United States. Research is needed to evaluate the varietal differences of teff and to determine which varieties are best adapted to our growing conditions in the Northeast. A comparison of yield, forage quality and agronomic traits of different teff varieties is important for the future of this new alternative forage crop.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.