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UI researchers evaluating teff, hybrid rye as niche crops

By John O’Connell

University of Idaho

University of Idaho Extension researchers see promise in hybrid rye and teff as potential forage crop options that could fill important niches for Idaho farmers.  

Hybrid rye – a cross of two rye varieties, lending the crop hybrid vigor – can be planted in the fall and harvested early, either helping farmers conserve water or opening the door for them to follow with a second crop in the same season.  

Teff – a warm-season grass originating from Ethiopia – is a great forage option for farmers who must plant late in the season.  

UI Extension barley agronomist and Idaho Barley Commission endowed professor Jared Spackman planted his first experimental hybrid rye crops last fall.

The hybrid rye was ready to cut for forage in early May in Kimberly and in mid-May in Aberdeen. Hybrid rye matured one to two weeks ahead of both wheat and triticale.  

Fall-planted hybrid rye provides field cover during the winter, also trapping snow for extra soil moisture. It matures before the start of peak irrigation demand, which is beneficial to growers who must cut back on water either due to terms of a water call settlement or insufficient storage amid a drought year.  

“You get an early harvest and could maybe do a second crop of dry beans in the Magic Valley,” Spackman added.  

Paul Gregor is the rye product manager for KWS Cereals LLC, USA who provided seed for the project. Gregor reports increased demand for hybrid rye in western Idaho where he sees potential to raise the crop both for Magic Valley dairies and by livestock feeders in the Treasure Valley.

Hybrid rye yields about double the biomass as wheat, and Gregor believes its early maturity is the crop’s best attribute for Idaho.

“The hybrid rye has a place because it’s usually a week to 10 days earlier than some of the other forages,” Gregor said. “It’s not that we’re always outyielding everybody. The grower could get the forage off earlier and then get back in with corn silage or something to get more biomass.” 

Spackman is assisting UI Extension agronomist Joseph Sagers with additional trials involving teff. In Ethiopia, teff is used for making traditional breads and there’s a small, niche market in Idaho of raising teff for grain. Primarily, it’s grown in Idaho as forage for beef cattle and horses.  

“The greatest thing about growing a forage is we already have the markets,” Sagers said, adding that many Idaho forage growers may already be raising teff and feeding it to their own livestock.   

Sagers believes teff could be a great option for a grower seeking to get production from a field following a failed crop, as it likes heat and can be planted late in the season. Farmers in southern Idaho should expect to get two cuttings of teff, each yielding between 2.5 tons and 3.5 tons per acre.  

In trials Sagers conducted in 2019 and 2020, he saw no statistically significant yield difference when teff was planted in mid-May versus on June 1. He also saw no significant yield difference for the crop year when he cut the first teff crop lower than normal. 

Alfalfa doesn’t grow well when planted immediately following a field that’s been taken out of alfalfa.

Sagers sees teff as a great option to break up an alfalfa rotation, noting teff can be raised and baled with the same equipment as alfalfa. Another benefit of following alfalfa with teff is that farmers would have time to take a first cutting of alfalfa before terminating it and planting teff.  

Teff is highly susceptible to freezing temperatures, so there’s no risk of escapes or volunteers after planting it.  

“I think there is a niche for smaller operations that need an easy, fast-growing option,” Sagers said of teff. 

Sagers has also been researching new herbicide options for teff production in Idaho. When he started his work, 2,4-D was the lone herbicide available for weed control in teff.

A local-needs label was subsequently approved to use the herbicide Open Sky in teff. In his ongoing trials, Sagers has found Husky FX, dicamba and Gold Sky show potential to control weeds in teff without damaging the crop, although they are not yet labeled to be applied to teff crops.