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Extension > Agriculture > Livestock > Horse > Pasture management > Grazing horses on teff, alfalfa and perennial ryegrass

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Grazing horses on teff, alfalfa and perennial ryegrass

Michelle DeBoer, Craig Sheaffer and Krishona Martinson

horse grazing teff in pasture


There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing which forage to use during the grazing season. Different forages offer advantages and disadvantages, so it is important to evaluate them so we can improve yield and forage nutritive values in pastures.

In a study during the 2016 grazing season, yield and forage nutritive values were measured. Based on the results, we found that teff, alfalfa, and perennial ryegrass all meet nutritional requirements for horses and would be good grazing options in the Upper Midwest. Teff is recommended for horses that are likely to have energy-storing or energy-releasing problems or have lower energy demands. Alfalfa and perennial ryegrass are recommended for horses with higher nutritional needs.

Summer and fall grazing

horse grazing alfalfa in pasture


Varieties of three forage species, including teff (a warm-season annual grass), perennial ryegrass (a cool-season perennial grass) and alfalfa (a perennial legume) were evaluated during the 2016 grazing season in St. Paul, MN. Perennial ryegrass and alfalfa were grazed monthly from May to October (with the exception of September), while Teff was grazed monthly from July to September. Alfalfa and perennial ryegrass pastures were established in 2015, while teff pastures were established on June 6, 2016.

Six adult horses grazed for approximately six hours a day for three consecutive days each month during the grazing season. Forage yield and nutritive values were evaluated prior to grazing, which was initiated when perennial ryegrass and teff were between 8 and 10 inches or when alfalfa reached bud stage. Following grazing, manure was removed and any remaining forage was mowed to 3 (alfalfa) or 4 inches (perennial ryegrass and teff) and allowed to regrow.

Yield differences

Alfalfa had the highest yield at 6.9 tons/acre in comparison to perennial ryegrass (3.2 tons/acre) and teff (2.8 tons/acre). However, perennial ryegrass was grazed 5 times throughout the grazing season while teff was only grazed 3 times. While these results suggest alfalfa is the most productive pasture species, the ability of alfalfa to withstand long-term grazing needs to be explored. Teff also appears to be a productive annual pasture species option.

Forages meet nutrition recommendations

horse grazing perennial ryegrass in pasture

Perennial ryegrass

Alfalfa also had the highest crude protein (CP) and equine digestible energy (DE), followed by perennial ryegrass and teff. However, all species exceed the general recommendation of 12% CP for adult horses at maintenance and would meet or exceed the DE requirements for adult horses at maintenance.

Both alfalfa and teff had lower nonstructural carbohydrates (NSC) values than perennial ryegrass. Although there are no nutritional recommendations for NSC in the horse diet, researchers suggest limiting the overall diet of horses diagnosed with equine metabolic syndrome (EMS), laminitis, polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM), obesity and/or Pituitary Pars Intermedia Dysfunction (PPID) to less than or equal to 10-12%. Based on these guidelines, teff and alfalfa would be possible forage options for horses diagnosed with these diseases.

Additionally, teff had the highest Acid Detergent Fiber (ADF) and Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF) values while alfalfa exhibited the lowest values. Although no recommendations for NDF and ADF in the horse diet exist, most experts recommend horse-quality hay should be less than or equal to 65% NDF and less than or equal to 45% ADF.

These results suggest teff is more suitable for horses with lower energy demands or horses prone to metabolic concerns. In comparison, alfalfa and perennial ryegrass have the capability of meeting nutritional requirements of horses with elevated nutritional needs. However, all forages meet the DE and CP requirements of adult horses at maintenance based on consuming 2.5% bodyweight on a dry matter basis each day.

Yield and forage nutritive values of three forage types grazed by adult horses
Species Yield CP NDF ADF NSC DE
  Tons/acre % dry matter Mcal/lb.
Alfalfa 6.9a 28a 39c 29c 8.4b 1.15a
Perennial ryegrass 3.2b 21b 51b 30b 11.7a 1.08b
Teff 2.8b 18c 63a 36a 8.2b 0.93c

a-c Within a column means without a common superscript differ (P ≤ 0.05).


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