New wheat variety tipped to boost competitive edge

16.08.2016

A wheat variety developed by researchers based at Murdoch University could increase profitability for Australia's $6 billion wheat industry.

A new wheat variety to be released next year aims to overcome the handicap posed by Western Australia's nutrient-depleted soils and increase the protein content, yield, and revenue from the state's annual crop.

Despite the Wheatbelt's comparatively poor soils, WA wheat producers have always punched well above their weight, producing about half the nation's wheat crop every year.

Innovative tillage practices and use of fertilisers have helped WA growers overcome the unfavourable growing conditions, however, the reliance on nitrogen fertilisers, for example, adds significantly to input costs and affects the bottom line as growers aim to lift yield and quality.

Tungsten

The latest cropping innovation is a scientific one, with researchers identifying a gene that maximises the take-up of nitrogen in the soil; protein content can be increased by more than 14 per cent in the new high-yielding variety, named Tungsten for its strong genetic properties.

WA-based independent wheat and barley breeding company Edstar Genetics developed the variety in conjunction with the WA State Agricultural Biotechnology Centre at Murdoch University's Perth campus.

Edstar chief executive and adjunct professor Ian Edwards said the variety could produce lower-cost, higher-yielding wheat in poor quality soils, potentially increasing the value of the $6 billion sector.

"Increasing the protein yield of Australian crops will increase the revenue that Australia receives for its wheat, making our growers more competitive," Dr Edwards told Business News.

He said available soil moisture was a significant factor in the productivity of Australia's grains sector compared with other countries.

"The wheat acreage in WA is about 4.8 million hectares, and that's almost identical to the annual wheat acreage in France; our average yield is approximately two tonnes per hectare and for the French its six tonnes," Dr Edwards said. "Our biggest limitation will always be available soil moisture."

In order to increase yield, Dr Edwards said researchers were faced with the task of creating a variety that could use available soil nitrogen more efficiently as well as being able to grow in less-fertile, sandy soils.

"We needed to make maximum use of good genetics and deploy those genes that will really move as much nitrogen into the grain," he said.

After nine years of conventional plant breeding, the Murdoch-Edstar team developed a cross between Australian and European blends as the most promising option.

"Tungsten is a first-cab-off-the-rank variety that is high performing in terms of yield but also has efficient use of nitrogen," Dr Edwards said.

"It has a gene that causes nitrogen that has been stored in the vegetative growth period of that plant to be remobilised into the developing grain at a higher level of efficiency."

As a result, farmers will be able to maximise their use of applied nitrogen, as Tungsten requires less nitrogen fertiliser per unit of grain.

Dr Edwards said another key feature was Tungsten's high protein, which would allow farmers to command a premium price on global markets due to the demand for higher protein grains.

Higher protein means greater water absorption, which for bakers means the flour takes up more water in the course of making dough.

"Bakers love wheats that have higher protein - they get more loaves of bread per sack of flour," Dr Edwards said.

Dr Edwards found that, as a result of low protein content, millers typically blended Australia's high-quality grains with stronger wheats from the US and Canada; he hopes Tungsten's higher protein will help deter this practice.

"Bakers want higher protein flour ... that's the challenge and we've got to try and give them that flour," Dr Edwards said.

"Why shouldn't we be the one-stop shop?"

Tungsten has already been tested in national variety trials with industry partner Elders, and is due for commercial release in 2017.

"The future for WA lies in delivering premium quality wheat and, as researchers, the more we can do for growers the better the product we provide," Dr Edwards said.

"At the end of the day we'll get our report card from farmers as to how well it's done in their paddocks."


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