Ethiopians plant more tef than any other cereal, and produce and consume more tef than any other cereal except maize. Approximately five million Ethiopian households grow tef on about three million hectares of land. The scientific name of tef is Eragrostis tef, and the crop is believed to have originated in Ethiopia.
Tef accounts for approximately 15% of the calories consumed in Ethiopia. Enjera, made from tef flour, is a staple for most Ethiopians.
Why is this subject important to listeners?
Tef is an important crop in Ethiopia for several reasons:
- The crop performs better than other cereals where there is little moisture, and also in waterlogged conditions. It can grow on a wide variety of soils, ranging from acidic to alkaline soils and from heavy black to light red soils.
- Tef grain can be stored for a long period of time without being attacked by pests.
- Tef has never been seriously attacked by disease.
- Tef straw is the main source of feed for ruminants in many parts of the country. the straw is a nutritious cattle feed, and is used as a material to plaster houses.
- Both grain and straw fetch a high price.
- Tef is a relatively healthy and nutritious crop. It is gluten-free and contains more iron, calcium, and copper than other cereals.
What are some key facts?
- Tef is the staple crop of most Ethiopians.
- Farmers produce tef mainly for the market because the market is reliable and the price less variable than for other crops.
- While tef is grown in all soil conditions, one benefit of tef is that it resists waterlogging, and is therefore also grown in waterlogged soils.
What are the big challenges of growing tef?
- Tef has a lower yield than wheat or maize. The average national yield is 1.5tonnes per hectare, but the potential yield in suitable growing areas is close to 3 tonnes per hectare.
- Tendency to lodging. Yield losses can be 20%-25%.
- Broadcasting seeds leads to poor yields.
- Weeding is labour-intensive and not always effective.
- Late harvest and poor handling lead to shattering and loss of yield.
- Common threshing practices, whether by hand or using animals, increase losses.
Is there misinformation about this subject that I should cover?
Tef is the second-most popular cereal in Ethiopia, but has been historically neglected compared with other staple crops. The nutrient levels in tef are similar to other cereals, but, until recently, there was a misconception that it had low nutrient levels.
Gender aspects of growing tef
- In Ethiopia, an estimated 15% of households are headed by females, and female farmers are engaged in all stages of farming—from land preparation, planting, weeding, crop management, and harvesting, to threshing and storage.
- By its nature, tef is a labour-intensive crop and farmers currently use a high tillage frequency compared to other cereal crops grown in Ethiopia. Using better technologies and practices will increase yield and lessen the labour-intensity of growing tef, which will reduce the workload for women. Increased tef yield and reducing labour requirements entail raising the status of women in society.
Predicted impact of climate change on production
- Tef is well-adapted to the changing climate in Ethiopia and, therefore, farmers face low risk.
- In some environments where farmers might face complete crop failure because of moisture stress, tef is a good choice to get some harvest. When early-sown long season crops such as maize and sorghum do not perform well because of drought, pests, or diseases, Ethiopian farmers often plow the crop under and sow tef.
Key information about growing tef
- Suitable land and land preparation:
- Tef grows best at altitudes of 1800-2100 metres with an annual rainfall of 750-850 mm and a temperature range of 10-27°C, but can be grown in areas with rainfall up to 1200mm.
- Tef grows on a very wide range of soils, including the black cotton soils that are notoriously hostile to other crops, and in acidic soils where the pH is below 5.
- Tef is able to withstand wet conditions, perhaps better than any other cereal crop except rice.
- Tef fields are traditionally ox-ploughed two to five times a season, depending on the type of soil, level of weed infestation, and whether the soil is waterlogged. The reason for the high frequency of tillage is that tef seeds are very small and thus germination is difficult in heavy, unbroken soil.
- Heavy clay soils and high weed populations need more frequent ploughing than loam or sandy soils.
- Vertisols in waterlogged areas need more frequent ploughing to open drainage furrows.
- Over the last 10 years, some farmers have successfully tried no till methods for tef, so the frequent tillage might have more to do with tradition than agronomy.
- Seeds, varieties, and planting:
- Most Ethiopian farmers use traditional varieties, which are available all over the country, but, since 1970, 35 improved varieties of tef have been developed and released to farmers.
- The two most important sources of tef seed are the formal “commercial” seed system and the informal system—farmer-saved seeds and seeds bought in the local market. The improved varieties which are most widely-grown and accepted in the country are Quncho, Cross37, and DZ196.
- Ethiopian farmers broadcast tef seeds, mainly because the very small size of the seeds make row planting difficult. Farmers use 25-50 kgs of seeds per hectare.
- Planting in rows has several advantages over broadcasting: it makes weeding easier, reduces the seed rate to 5-10 kg per hectare, uses fertilizer more efficiently, and reduces lodging.
- For best germination, tef needs moderate soil compaction—which is usually accomplished with domestic animals, and sometimes humans. This makes the seedbed firm and flat and prevents the soil surface from drying quickly to avoid drying out of seeds.
- Tef can be planted with 20 centimetres between rows and 5-15 centimetres between plants. Seeds are planted 2-3 centimetres deep.
- Seedlings should be transplanted at 3-4 weeks. The advantages of transplanting are:
- harvest is 2-3 weeks earlier than broadcasting and can bypass unexpected shortage of rainfall,
- improves germination,
- reduces seed rate,
- can increase the number of tillers per plant,
- can increase the amount of straw,
- suitable for farmers who have no oxen and plough,
- reduces weed pressure,
- suitable for hoeing.
- The disadvantage of transplanting is that it is labour-intensive and it is difficult to transplant in a large field.
- Tef matures in 60-180 days, depending on variety and altitude.
- Growing practices:
- In most parts of Ethiopia, tef is grown during the main rainy season (called Meher), though it is grown during the short rainy season (Belg) in some areas.
- Tef is useful as a catch crop, and as a low risk and reliable crop to the farmers.
- Tef is generally grown as a mono-crop. Under rainfed growing conditions, tef can fit into various cropping systems, including monocropping, sequential, relay cropping, double cropping, mixed cropping, and intercropping. Many farmers, particularly in the highland and mid-altitude areas of northeastern Ethiopia intercrop tef with oil crops and pulses, including sesame, safflower, and faba bean.
- Soil fertility:
- Low soil fertility is one of the major challenges in Ethiopian tef production.
- Traditional soil fertility management practices include using crop residues, manure, and intercropping or rotation with other cereal and legume crops.
- Fertilizer recommendations for tef production are:
- 40 kg ha-1 of N and 60 kg ha-1 P2O5 (phosphorus pentoxide) for vertisols
- 60 kg ha-1 of N and 60 kg ha-1 P2O5 for light-textured red soils
- 130 kg DAP ha-1 and 37 kg urea ha-1 for light soils.
- All P2O5 should be applied two days after planting as DAP. But 50% of N should be applied 10-12 days after planting as urea, and the remaining 50% at the tillering stage 35 days after planting.
- Because tef is grown in a wide range of climatic and soil conditions, it is exposed to a wide range of weeds that affect its production and productivity.
- The most important weeds in tef production are Cyperus rotundus, Phalaris paradoxa (called Asendabo in Amharic), and Convolvulus arvensis L. Witch weeds like Striga hermonthica and Parthenium species can also greatly reduce production. Yield losses because of weeds range from 23% to 65%.
- Weeding is labour-intensive, but is critical to getting a good yield. Hand-weeding is the most widely used practice.
- If weed populations are low, hand-weeding once at early tillering stage (25-30 days after emergence) is sufficient. If weed populations are high, a second weeding should be done at the stem-elongation stage.
- Pest and disease management:
- Tef rust and head smudge are the most important diseases of tef, but diseases are not a serious problem.
- Crop rotation can reduce disease infestation.
- Welo bush-cricket, known as degeza, is a major pest. Farmers can slash weeds in the field margins before cereals have headed, depriving the pest of food and reducing its population near crops. Early sowing allows tef to mature before the natural food sources of this pest mature, reducing pest populations and damage.
- Tef is harvested when the leaves and stalks turn yellowish in order to prevent losses from shattering.
- Harvesting can be done in different ways: with small mechanical harvesters or with a traditional sickle.
- The small size of tef seeds is a major problem during harvests because it is difficult to use machines and manual harvesting is cumbersome.
- Pure whitish-coloured tef fetches a higher market price. So producing clean/pure seed can bring farmers more income.
- Farmers thresh tef on special flat ground called awdma which is usually plastered with cattle dung. The harvested tef is scattered over the awdma and cattle or pack animals are run over the harvested tef to separate the grain from the straw.
Where can I find other resources on this topic?
Note: There are very few online resources on growing tef which use non-technical language.
- The National Academies Press, 1996. Lost Crops of Africa, Volume 1: Grains. Chapter 12: Tef. Pages 213-236. http://www.nap.edu/read/2305/chapter/15#227
- Alemayehu Refera, 2001. Tef: Post-harvest operations. Institute of Agricultural Research Organization, Holetta Agricultural Research Center. http://www.fao.org/3/a-ax445e.pdf
- Hailu Tefera, Getachew Belay, & M. Sorrels (eds.), Narrowing the Rift: Teff Research and Development. Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization (EARO). Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. http://www.etteff.com.et/Output.pdf Note: This document is the proceedings of a workshop on tef production and contains a lot of very useful information. But it is generally written in technical language. You might want to read the abstracts of the different workshop papers before reading the papers themselves.
- Lodging: When a plant, especially a cereal, cannot stand upright because it has been flattened or damaged by weather conditions, or because the stem is not strong enough to support the plant.
- pH: a number that represents the acidity or alkalinity of soil; 7 represents neutrality, lower numbers indicate increasing acidity and higher numbers increasing alkalinity
- Shattering: the dispersal of a crop’s seeds after they ripen. Most crop varieties retain seeds for longer than non-domesticated plants, which makes harvesting them much easier and more effective.
- Vertisol: a clay-rich soil which forms deep cracks during the dry season
Contributed by: Dr. Abebe Atilaw, Director of Technology Multiplication, Headquarters, —Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, with additional material from Mrs. Tsion Fikre, teff researcher at the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.