Eragrostis tef (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Cereal / pulse|
|Forage / feed|
Eragrostis tef (Zucc.) Trotter
- Protologue: Boll. Soc. Bot. Ital. 1918: 62 (1918).
- Family: Poaceae (Gramineae)
- Chromosome number: 2n = 40
- Eragrostis abyssinica (Jacq.) Link (1827),
- Eragrostis pilosa (L.) P.Beauv. subsp. abyssinica (Jacq.) Asch. & Graebn. (1900).
- Tef, teff, teff grass (En).
- Tef, teff (Fr).
- Tef (Po).
Origin and geographic distribution
Tef originated in northern Ethiopia, where it is widely cultivated. Details of its domestication are unknown, but it may predate the introduction of wheat and barley to the region. Tef is perhaps descended from the closely related wild Eragrostis pilosa (L.) P.Beauv., which is a tetraploid (2n = 40) annual like tef, and which has a cosmopolitan distribution. Grain cultivation of tef has been confined mainly to Ethiopia and to some extent the highlands of Eritrea. It is also grown in northern Kenya. Small-scale commercial tef production takes place in South Africa, the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe (the Netherlands) and Yemen. Tef is grown as a forage grass, for instance in South Africa, Morocco, Australia, India and Pakistan. It has been introduced experimentally into other tropical countries, either for its grain or for hay, e.g. in other parts of East Africa and in southern Africa. It is commonly found as an escape from cultivation.
In Ethiopia and Eritrea tef flour is mainly used to prepare ‘injera’, a thin, flat, pancake-like bread, made from dough fermented for 2–3 days. ‘Injera’ is prepared in a range of sizes and is consumed with various sauces (‘wot’), based on meat or pulses. Tef flour produces the best quality ‘injera’: pliable, soft with glossy appearance, which does not fall apart under handling or stick to the fingers, and has a slightly sour taste. Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum L.) can be added to tef flour in a small proportion to improve the ‘injera’ flavour. It also increases the lysine content. Tef flour is also mixed with barley or sorghum flour to make ‘injera’. Other traditional preparations from tef flour include ‘kitta’ (unleavened bread), ‘atmit’ or ‘muk’ (gruel), porridge and local alcoholic beverages. Several recipes that fit Western tastes have been developed from tef flour particularly in the United States, where it has found niches in the health food market and as a gourmet food. Tef flour is used as a thickening agent in a range of products, including soups, stews, gravies and puddings.
In Ethiopia tef straw is used as forage, especially during the dry season. Mixed with clay it is used as plastering material for local houses and to make bricks, stoves, granaries, beds and pottery.
Outside Ethiopia tef is mainly grown for hay (e.g. in South Africa) and as green fodder (e.g. in Morocco and India). In South Africa it is planted for erosion control, often in mixtures with Eragrostis curvula (Schrad.) Nees or other grasses.
Production and international trade
In 1992–1998 tef was annually cultivated on 1.9 million ha in Ethiopia, which is about 30% of the total acreage of cereals in the country. With an average annual production of 1.6 million t of grain, tef constitutes 22% of the annual cereal grain production in Ethiopia. Annually, an average of 4 million t of forage (27% of national production) is produced from tef. In Ethiopia tef is grown by smallholders, mainly for the local market and home consumption. Statistics for 1997/98 and 1998/99 indicate that 1800 t of tef grain was exported each year. Though recent statistics are not available, there is an export market for this crop in the Middle East, North America and Europe, mainly for Ethiopian expatriates.
The composition of whole tef grain per 100 g edible portion is: water 11 g, energy 1407 kJ (336 kcal), protein 9.6 g, fat 2.0 g, carbohydrate 73 g, fibre 3.0 g, Ca 159 mg, Mg 170 mg, P 378 mg, Fe 5.8 mg, Zn 2 mg, thiamin 0.3 mg, riboflavin 0.2 mg, niacin 2.5 mg and ascorbic acid 88 mg (National Research Council, 1996). The essential amino-acid composition per 100 g edible portion is: tryptophan 146 mg, lysine 273 mg, methionine 246 mg, phenylalanine 474 mg, threonine 334 mg, valine 491 mg, leucine 724 mg and isoleucine 378 mg (FAO, 1970). Tef starch grains are conglomerates of many polygonal simple granules 2–6 μm in diameter. Their amylose content is 25–30%. The Kofler hot stage gelatinization temperature range is 68°C (onset) – 74°C (peak) – 80°C (conclusion), which is similar to that of other tropical cereal starches, but narrower than that of maize. The viscosity of the starch is considerably lower than that of maize starch, its water absorption index is higher, and its water solubility index lower.
Due to the small size of its grains, tef is almost always made into a whole-grain flour (bran and germ included), resulting in a high nutrient content. The amino acid composition of tef flour is favourable and its protein is easily digestible. It is a good source of minerals, particularly Ca and Fe, and tef has been implicated in the low incidence of anaemia in Ethiopia. Tef does not contain gluten, making it a suitable substitute for wheat in foods for people with coeliac disease. Several species of yeasts and bacteria are involved in the preparation of ‘injera’, but little is known about their identity and relative importance. In Ethiopia, white-grained types are preferred for food, but consumption of ‘injera’ from red- or brown-grained types is on the rise, especially for health-conscious urban people.
Tef straw is preferred by cattle over straw of other cereals, and its quality is comparable to good natural pasture. Analyses have shown a relatively high digestibility (65%), but a relatively low protein content (1.9–5.2%).
- Annual, tufted grass, up to 150(–200) cm tall, with a shallow, fibrous root system; stem (culm) usually erect, simple or sparsely branched.
- Leaves 2–6 per culm, alternate, simple; leaf sheath glabrous; ligule 0.5–1 mm long, ciliate; blade linear, 25–45 cm × 0.1–0.5 cm, glabrous.
- Inflorescence a panicle 10–65 cm long, with 10–40 slender primary branches, very loose with central rachis fully exposed to very compact with central rachis completely hidden, with 30–1100 spikelets per panicle.
- Spikelet long-stalked, narrowly oblong, 4–9 mm × 1–3 mm, 2–12(–20)-flowered; florets bisexual; glumes unequal, lanceolate, acuminate, the lower 1–2.5 mm long, the upper 1.5–3 mm long; lemma 2–3 mm long, 3-veined, scaberulous on the keel and towards the acuminate tip, pale green to dark purple; palea similar to lemma, but with 2 veins; stamens 3, anthers up to 0.5 mm long, 2-celled; ovary superior with 2 stigmas.
- Fruit a caryopsis (grain), ovoid to ellipsoid, 1–1.5 mm × 0.5–1 mm, yellowish-white to deep brown.
Other botanical information
Little is known on the biosystematics of Eragrostis, a large and taxonomically complex genus comprising more than 350 species mainly in tropical and subtropical regions, of which 14 are said to be endemic to Ethiopia. Tef is the only Eragrostis species cultivated for its grain. The grains of several forage species are sometimes eaten by humans, mainly as famine food, particularly Eragrostis cilianensis (All.) F.T.Hubb., Eragrostis ciliaris (L.) R.Br., Eragrostis curvula (Schrad.) Nees, Eragrostis cylindriflora Hochst., Eragrostis gangetica (Roxb.) Steud., Eragrostis pilosa (L.) P.Beauv., Eragrostis tremula Steud. and Eragrostis turgida (Schumach.) De Wild.
Crossability relationships among the species are largely unknown. Hybridization of tef is a tedious process which is a disincentive to making large numbers of crossing attempts. Eragrostis tef is an allotetraploid of which the diploid progenitors are unknown.
Tef cultivars have been recognized and described based on the colour of the grains and inflorescences, ramification of the inflorescences and the size of plants. For marketing purposes, tef is classified on the basis of seed colour: ‘netch’ (white), ‘tikur/ka’y’ (red-brown) and ‘sergegna’ (mixed). The molecular variation as determined using DNA markers (RFLP, RAPD and AFLP) is not commensurate with the morphological variation.
Growth and development
Germination of tef normally takes place in 3–4(–12) days after sowing. In experiments germination was above 90% at temperatures of 15–35°C; no germination occurred at 10°C. A booting stage is not noticeable in tef: the inflorescences emerge suddenly from the upper leaf sheath without boot formation. The flowers open in the morning (7–9 am) in response to light and temperature. Tef is predominantly self-pollinating, with a very low degree of outcrossing (up to 1%), and pollen is set free in the early morning. In the inflorescence floral maturity starts from the top and progresses downward, whereas in the spikelet it progresses from the base upward. Seeds mature within a month after pollination. The total growth cycle from sowing to maturity is 2–5(–6) months. Tef follows the C4-cycle photosynthetic pathway.
Tef is a very versatile cereal and grows in a wide range of environments, from sea-level up to 2800 m altitude. The highest yields are obtained at altitudes of 1800–2100 m, an annual rainfall of 750–850 mm, a seasonal (July–December) rainfall of 450–550 mm and an average daily temperature range of 15–27°C. Yields decline when the seasonal rainfall drops below 250 mm, the mean temperature during pollination exceeds 22°C, and when the growing period drops below 90 days, in which case early-maturing cultivars become necessary. Despite its shallow root system, tef is drought resistant, due to its ability to regenerate quickly after moderate water stress and to produce grain in a relatively short period. Its rapid vegetative growth and short life cycle make tef particularly suitable for areas subject to drought after short rains. Flowering in tef is delayed at long daylengths. In Ethiopia the bulk of tef production takes place during the main rainy season (‘meher’) between July and November. Tef is mostly grown on Vertisols (dark, heavy clay soils with well-developed horizons) and Andosols (young, shallow soils, weathered from volcanic ash under humid conditions). Vertisol-grown tef gives higher yields provided that prolonged waterlogging does not prevail and sufficient nutrients, particularly N, are available. Farmers usually alleviate the effects of waterlogging by adjusting their planting date or using surface drainage systems (furrows). Micronutrient deficiencies can also be limiting factors on Vertisols. Tef is normally grown on soils of neutral pH, but it has been observed that it tolerates soil acidities below pH 5. Differences exist between cultivars for response to saline conditions. Tef can be found as an escape from cultivation along roadsides and railway lines, and in dry grassland on sandy loam soils.
Propagation and planting
Tef is propagated by seed. There is no seed dormancy and germination is rapid. The 1000-seed weight is 200–500 mg. A single inflorescence can produce over 1000 seeds and a single plant over 10,000 seeds. Tef seeds remain viable for several years provided direct contact with moisture and sunshine is avoided. In Ethiopia centuries-old traditional practices are used in tef production. An oxen-drawn plough (‘maresha’) is used to till the land, with 2–5 passes made before sowing. Studies indicate that tef can be successfully grown under reduced tillage conditions (one ploughing to bring the seeds in contact with the soil) provided non-selective herbicides are used. To enhance germination and seedling establishment on Vertisols, a firm seedbed is made by trampling with farm animals. Normally farmers sow tef by broadcasting on a moist, fine seedbed. A seed rate of 15–30 kg/ha is sufficient, but farmers often use 40–50 kg/ha, because it is difficult to distribute the seed evenly, the viability of farmers’ own seed is reduced, and it helps to suppress weeds at early stages. The seeds are left uncovered or covered lightly by pulling branches over the field using oxen. Tef can also be drilled in rows using adjusted machinery. Row planting minimizes lodging under good growth conditions. Sole cropping is the usual practice, but occasionally early-maturing tef cultivars are used in intercropping systems, including relay- and alley-cropping.
Successful in-vitro somatic embryogenesis and plant regeneration procedures have been developed, using leaf, root or seed material to initiate callus cultures on Murashige and Skoog medium.
After crop establishment, most farmers control weeds through hand weeding once or twice. Some farmers use herbicides such as 2,4-D to control broadleaf weeds, supplemented with hand weeding to remove grass weeds. On light soils the following applications are recommended: 25–40 kg N and 10–18 kg P per ha; on heavy clay soils 50–60 kg N and 10–15 kg P per ha. Tef responds to N more than to P, by producing tall plants and large amounts of biomass; as a result, high N-rates promote lodging. To reduce the risk of lodging, farmers reduce the N-application or plant tef after pulses with no additional fertilization, and they delay the planting time so that rains have stopped by heading stage. Rotation of tef with other cereals, pulses and Niger seed (Guizotia abyssinica (L.f.) Cass.) is common practice in Ethiopia.
Diseases and pests
A number of diseases (mainly caused by fungi) and pests are known to attack tef, but only a few are of economic importance, mostly in specific localities and production years. Among the diseases, leaf rust (Uromyces eragrostidis), head smudge (Helminthosporium miyakei) and damping off (Drechslera spp. and Epicoccum nigrum) are the most important. Low plant densities and early sowing reduce the damage caused by leaf rust and damping off, respectively. Fungicides that control these two diseases have been identified at experimental level, although there are no known cases of field applications. Breeding for resistance has not been carried out because of limited genetic variation in resistance and the sporadic nature and environmental specificity of the diseases. No viral or bacterial diseases are known.
Pests known to attack germinating tef seeds and seedlings include the Wollo bush-cricket (Decticoides brevipennis), the red tef worm (Mentaxya ignicollis), grasshoppers, ants and termites. The black tef beetle (Erlangerius niger) attacks the inflorescence. Among the weeds, annual grasses cause the biggest damage. The parasitic weed Striga hermonthica (Delile) Benth., the recently introduced invasive weed Parthenium hysterophorus L. and the cosmopolitan weed Convolvulus arvensis L. have also become problematic. Hand weeding and crop rotation, particularly with pulses, are the most common methods in dealing with these weeds in tef; the use of herbicides is very limited. Stored tef grains are not attacked by storage insects, but rodents can be a problem.
Tef is harvested 2–5(–6) months after sowing, when the vegetative parts turn yellow. Yellowing of the stalk of the spikelet is a good indicator of maturity. If harvesting is done after physiological maturity, shattering of seed is inevitable, particularly in windy and rainy conditions. In Ethiopia harvesting starts in November and continues until early January. Harvesting is done by hand using sickles. Farmers cut the plants at ground level, heap them in the field and transport them to a threshing ground. When grown for hay, tef can normally be harvested 9–12 weeks after sowing.
The average tef grain yield is less than 1 t/ha, but farmers using improved cultivars and recommended management practices easily get 1.7–2.5 t/ha. Yields over 2.5 t/ha have been recorded from several regions in recent extension programmes in Ethiopia. In experiments, grain yields up to 4.6 t/ha have been obtained. Normal straw yields are about 3 t/ha, but straw yields up to 20 t/ha have been recorded.
Handling after harvest
Threshing is carried out by trampling by farm animals. Some farmers rent combines used for other cereals for threshing. Tef is stored in any locally available storage facility. Because tef is not attacked by storage insects, no chemical protection is required. Sometimes farmers even mix tef seeds with pulses to protect the latter from weevils. Tef in Ethiopia is traditionally sold in the form of grains, not as flour. The straw is piled up near farmers’ houses to be fed to animals during the dry season; a small proportion may be sold.
The Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (IBC), formerly known as Plant Genetic Resources Center of Ethiopia (PGRC/E), holds 2541 tef accessions collected from different agro-ecological regions and 1497 accessions acquired through donations and repatriations. IBC currently has no collection of the wild Eragrostis spp. The majority of the tef germplasm collections are conserved ex situ; seeds are dried to a moisture content of 3–7% and stored in laminated aluminium foil bags at –10°C for long-term and at 4°C for short-term storage. In-situ conservation and enhancement programmes are used in some regions of Ethiopia, primarily to help farmers maintain crop diversity and to protect major cultigens from extinction while improving the yield potential. Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center, part of the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization (EARO), has selected 320 core-accessions that represent the phenotypic diversity of tef for genetic studies and breeding purposes. Outside Ethiopia, smaller tef collections are held in Brazil (Centro de Pesquisa Agropecuaria dos Cerrados (CPAC), Planaltina; 400 accessions), the United States (Western Regional Plant Introduction Station, USDA-ARS, Washington State University, Pullman), Germany (Federal Centre for Breeding Research on Cultivated Plants (BAZ), Braunschweig; 30 accessions) and Japan (National Institute of Crop Science, Tsukuba; 30 accessions).
Major breeding work on tef has been going on at Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center in Ethiopia since the 1960s. The main objectives have been the development of high-yielding cultivars for the major tef-growing agro-ecological zones and the improvement of resistance to lodging. Conventional breeding has not solved the lodging problem. So far 15 cultivars have been developed through direct selection from the landraces and trait recombination. A crossing technique for the crop was developed in 1974 and since then hybridization of selected parents has resulted in the release of 5 cultivars. The majority of farmers still grow landraces. Among the improved cultivars, ‘Magna’ (DZ–01–196), ‘Enatite’ (DZ–01–354), ‘Dukem’ (DZ–01–974), ‘Tseday’ (DZ–Cr–37) and ‘Ziquala’ (DZ–Cr–358) are the most widely grown. Genotype-environment interaction is high in tef production, especially due to environmental effects on the time to flowering and maturity.
Interspecific hybridization with wild Eragrostis spp. has been tried, but success was obtained only with Eragrostis pilosa; short-stature and early maturity were the favourable traits transferred to tef. Eragrostis curvula may potentially provide stalk strength and large seed size, but hybrids with tef do not set seed. Attempts are being made to construct a genetic linkage map for tef. Anther/microspore culture and subsequent breeding of double-haploid cultivars is also being attempted. Inter simple sequence repeats are more promising than other DNA-based markers for the quantification of genetic diversity and identification of tef genotypes.
In Ethiopia the expansion of tef to new production areas has continued unabated, despite farmers being encouraged to cultivate other well-known cereals instead of tef. Tef cultivation has expanded to the lowland areas, where sorghum and maize cultivation has frequently failed due to severe moisture stress. Outside Ethiopia, tef cultivation has started to a limited extent in the United States and Europe, targeting immigrant Ethiopian communities and its use as a gluten-free substitute for wheat. There is reasonable optimism that, if investments are made in scientific and developmental research, tef can rise to the status of a specialty crop in developed nations. Proneness to lodging is the biggest drawback of tef; the use of appropriate machinery and agronomic practices may be temporary solutions. In the long run, biotechnological approaches - using cloned dwarfing genes from other cereals - seem necessary to arrive at non-lodging tef genotypes in the field. Increasing the inflorescence:culm ratio could also be a suitable approach, although tef straw is important too. Knowledge of the influence of environmental factors on the nutritional quality of tef and of variation in feed quality is still very limited.
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Correct citation of this article
Tefera, H. & Belay, G., 2006. Eragrostis tef (Zuccagni) Trotter. In: Brink, M. & Belay, G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. Accessed 1 October 2022.
- See the Prota4U database.