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Tortoise keeper?s interest in teff hay sparks interest for future NMSU research

Sandi Jackson picks up a 16-pound Sulcata and gently places her with another tortoise near a pile of grasses, leaves and vegetables. The shiest one scurries away at the sound of a stranger?s voice and hides under makeshift shed. Jackson has turned part of her backyard into a sanctuary for rescued turtles. For 16 years she has cared for these three African turtles, building them a home and making them part of her family.

Sandi Jackson decided to feed teff hay to her tortoises after doing some research and speaking to Leonard Lauriault, superintendent of the NMSU Tucumcari Science Center, who has researched teff hay since 2007. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)
Turtle eating.
One of the two leopard tortoises rescued by Sandi Jackson feeds on a combination of vegetables, grasses and hay forage, usually reserved for horses, to help with vitamin deficiencies. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

Jackson and her late husband built a shed for Annie, the Sulcatta, and two other leopard turtles, that is set to the perfect temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 75 degrees at nighttime everyday of the year because Albuquerque weather can be very unforgiving.

As a member of the Rio Grande Turtle and Tortoise Club, which runs a formal rescue and adoption program for abandoned, lost or neglected turtles and educates people about caring for turtles, Jackson knew her tortoises were lacking variety and needed key nutrients for their growth and sought the assistance of Leonard Lauriault, superintendent of the New Mexico State Agricultural Science Center at Tucumcari, to experiment giving the tortoises teff hay, which is usually reserved to feed livestock.

Jackson read about teff hay, sought information from the group forum on World Chelonian Trust and Sulcata-station on the nutrient content of teff and contacted Lauriault, to discuss his research and the possibility of feeding it to her turtles.

?Teff is more finely stemmed than other grasses she had previously tried, including, orchardgrass which the tortoises ate well, and timothy, which they apparently did not like,? Lauriault said. ?Generally, stem diameter gives an indication of how much an animal will eat and leafiness indicates quality. Teff is leafy with fine stems, so we?re likely to get more of its high quality into any animal that likes it.?

Jackson said that most of what tortoises eat is based on what cows eat except for alfalfa because of its high protein content.

?They need low protein and high fiber,? she added. ?We don?t have the ability to duplicate the available forage found in Africa, so we try to provide the nutritional equivalent which most closely resembles what is growing in their native habitat. Forage grasses and weeds comprise nearly 70 percent of their daily intake.?

Jackson?s tortoises will not grow to full potential due to the poor diet they were subjected to by their previous owners, but teff has helped them regain some nutrients and modified their behavior.

?They haven?t eaten teff long enough to make a definitive judgment as their main food source,? Jackson said. ?But, their fecal matter has increased, which is a good thing, and they are not as hyper since coming off of orchard grass onto teff.?

Lauriualt said teff is suitable for all types of livestock, which includes horses, beef and dairy cattle, sheep and even now exotic pets.

?We haven?t found teff to have any negative qualities, so if an animal will eat it, it?s likely to be good for them,? he said.

Jackson?s interest in teff has sparked another side of possible research for Lauriault, who has researched teff hay since 2007.

?I think it would be best to begin with observations about animal acceptance. That is, offer teff as a feed and see if animals eat it,? Lauriault said. ?A zoo would be a great place to do this. Once you have an idea about animal acceptance, then a research need would have to be identified at which time a research program to address the need could proceed.?

There are no immediate plans to begin a research program to evaluate teff hay as feed for other animals, but Jackson has been keeping detailed records of her tortoises? behavior, bodily changes and overall health.

?I?ve talked to other chelonian keepers and they are not feeding their turtles teff right now, but are intrigued by it,? she said. ?Hopefully, my observations can help them make the transition and a more informed decision.?