Is Teff Safe? What factors affect the sugar content?

Teff hay is often touted as being a safe hay for laminitic / metabolic horses and ponies.  But is it really??

A few years ago in the Goulburn area of NSW, there were quite a few laminitic horses and ponies that either weren't getting better while they were being fed Teff hay, and some were even getting worse.  This leads to considerable pain for the horse and frustration for the owner.

Why did this occur?

It is so important to realise that the time of day the hay was cut has a SIGNIFICANT effect on the sugar level.  This can have as much or sometimes more impact on sugar levels that what the actual species of hay is.

We have been making low sugar hay successfully for the last 10 years. It has been a learning curve and the following is part of that journey. 

The first cut we ever did was ryegrass hay, it WASN'T low in sugar.  It was beautiful, soft and yummy hay, but its sugar levels were through the roof, over 16% from memory.  I then did a hoof trimming workshop, and that revealed a lot about hay types and sugar levels in hay.  When we soaked this ryegrass hay, it was so full of sugar the ants were attracted to the water and it was a deep molasses looking colour.  It literally left a sticky residue when it dried.  Some may say this is tannins, and it could have been as well, but it was certainly also indicating a HIGH level of sugar for this particular hay.  

That was the last time we ever made hay from ryegrass after learning just how bad it can be for horses in terms of sugar levels and mycotoxins. So we sowed in a pasture hay mix of Prairie Grass, Phalaris, Cocksfoot and Lucerne.  The lucerne was probably only around 10-15%.  Some may think this is still far to rich of a mix for laminitic prone horses, however we have been able to make low sugar hay from this mix year after year. 

How, you might ask??

Simply by cutting the grass for hay in the morning after the dew has gone.  We also don't 'flog' our pasture paddocks out with overgrazing, and we replenish nutrients with liquid fertilizers such as Seasol or RUM.

Another thing we did last year was that we asked a neighbour to slash our paddocks after summer with a special German mulching slasher that helps spread the seeds throughout the paddock.  This broadcasting of seed from our own plants worked well and stopped us having to re-sow the paddock as the pasture was getting a little thinned out from continual cutting and baling each year.

Our pasture now contains in varying amounts each year of cocksfoot, phalaris, only about 5% lucerne, prairie grass, wild oats and some natives, sometimes clover if it's been a wet spring. Just as the sugars are lower in the morning when you are grazing the pastures, the same applies to cutting hay. By the time our hay is baled, the clover usually amounts to nothing.

Just because its Teff hay, means little if the paddock was cut for hay in the afternoon. As the farmer goes around and around the paddock then the sugar levels are going to be different from the section where they first start to cut hay to where they end.

For example in our own situation, we start around 8-9am and it's usually all done by 12 lunch (sugars are lowest in plant from 3am to 10am). Most farmers start cutting the hay in the afternoon. Say they start at 1pm and finish at 5pm, then the sugar levels are going through the roof by the time they have finished. Due to the variation that is possible simply from the one cutting due to the time it takes to cut, you could also potentially buy hay one time from a farmer and it might be ok, go back in a few month's time and it will be hay from another part of the paddock that was cut later in the day, and this hay might tip a laminitic prone horse over the edge. 

Another farmer might cut a 100ac paddock in the afternoon, get interrupted, and then come back in the morning to finish the paddock off, and again, this will result in very different sugar levels within the same hay baled from the same paddock.  By the time the hay is collected from the paddock and put into the shed, you have no idea which hay is which and what part of the paddock it came from and what time of day it was cut.

It doesn't matter if it's Teff or what it is, that hay will be higher in sugar if it was cut in the afternoon.  How high, depends on the species of plant, and conditions it is grown under such as, has the soil been fertilized, is it drought/rain stressed, was there a frost, was it a cloudy day the day before it was cut? 

So many variables impact the hay that you get by the time it is baled and in the shed.  If the hay gets rained on when it is laying on the ground drying, then this will help leach out some sugars.  Anything over about 8mls seems to start affecting the sugar content by lowering it.  As long as the hay is raked and dried properly before baling, this hay can be great for horses that are more at risk of laminitis and can successfully be made without mould issues.  Trust us, there have been many hay cuts that have gotten quite wet with us and we have still made great, low sugar hay and non-mouldy hay.

Another factor to take into consideration is the stage of development that a plant is in.  While the plant is building up and creating the seed head it is in maximum sugar production, once the seed head has matured, then sugar levels are lowered.

How can I determine whether the hay I get is low is sugar??

We always send our hay to be tested. We used to use Equi-Analytical in the USA but it got too complicated with customs. We now use Feed Central in Queensland, Australia and have been happy with them. Slightly more expensive but worth it rather than trying to battle the USA govt website importing the hay.

We have just recently received our hay results from Feed central as we were able to get 205 4x4 round bales and 560 small bales off 16 acres thanks to the spring rain. I actually sent most of the sample from the middle of the paddock that was cut last so that I know that the rest of the hay will be lower than that, not higher.

From the above Feed Central analysis of our hay, the ESC + Starch added together gives you the sugar content of the hay. Hay for metabolic / IR / laminitic horses and ponies should be less than 10%.

The hay we just made in December 2022 total sugar is 5.24 + 1.14 = 6.38 This hay is very safe for horses & ponies struggling with obesity, laminitis, or other metabolic issues.

Remember that soaking hay for half to one hour before feeding will leach up to 30% of the sugars out of the hay. Soaking longer than this can turn the hay rancid and also drive iron into the hay which is the last thing you need if feeding metabolic type horses and ponies.

Colour isn't important, it is the sugar and nutritional profile that matters!

We all love the look of fresh green hay, however that doesn't mean it is good for the horses.  Many factors can influence the 'greeness' of hay including how long it has been cut and laying on the ground for, how many times it has been raked and therefore bleached, and / or if it has been rained on.  Only a hay test such as the above, will give you an accurate profile of your hay.

"Premium" Teff, most likely means cut in the afternoon and higher in sugar.  So be sure to ask the person you are buying from a few more questions about the hay, especially if you are dealing with laminitic horses or ponies.

So we all should start asking the farmer or feed store what time of day the paddock was cut for hay?  They might look at you like you have two heads, but this way we will start to build awareness of how important this is.