A FAMILY of soft biscuit wheat varieties, specifically bred to follow cotton in rotation in northern NSW irrigation country, could signal a new system of prescription farming tying producer to miller to manufacturer in a way not previously seen in the Australian wheat industry.
Soft wheat, particularly biscuit wheat, has always been something of an orphan in the Australian wheat crop. An uncertain export market and a limited domestic market have seen production areas concentrate around southern New South Wales, a couple of receival centres in South Australia and the southern part of Western Australia.
Continuity of supply has always been a risky business. Traditionally soft wheat has been priced at a di scount to other premium grades, and the relatively small size of the crop and concentration of production areas have meant that supply is at risk to the weather.
Weather forces change
In 1995 rain at harvest in southern NSW forced millers and bakers to source biscuit wheat from WA. The high cost of that exercise and the fact that Arnotts, a major customer, needed supply for a factory in southern Queensland prompted the development of a specialist biscuit wheat suitable for the northern areas.
Bill Rathmell, CEO of the Value Added Wheat CRC*, says that the demand suited his organisation's research strategy and, with the support of growers and the Federal Government through the GRDC, it backed the development of a wheat variety designed to follow a cotton crop. This made a virtue of the remaining low level of available nitrogen and benefited from residual soil moisture.
Ironically, the first release from the program, Qual2000, hit weather problems in its first commercial year limiting production, but it still produced around 15,000 tonnes enough for Arnotts to rate it as a quality biscuit wheat.
Millers support a niche market
David Thompson, who controls the marketing of soft wheat for the miller Goodman Fielder rates the Queensland market for biscuit wheat at about 25,000 tonnes. While that's always going to be a niche market, he says that miller and grower are getting closer than ever before in developing the agronomic strategies for the crop.
Goodman Fielder is offering a range of 'act of God', multigrade contracts for soft biscuit wheat in the north. Protein level is critical for biscuit wheat with the target for soft grade 1 a maximum of 9.5 per cent. Grade 2 is received up to 10.5 per cent with a $5 per tonne penalty and grade 3 up to 11.5 per cent with a $30 per tonne penalty.
"Last year we averaged 10.2 per cent across all receivals," Mr Thompson said. "We're using a sap nitrite test as an early means of gauging the protein potential of the crop and are suggesting early sowing, a relatively high plant density and no nitrogen fertiliser."
Improving on Qual2000
There are some concerns about Qua12000. Though it demonstrates resistance to stripe rust in its adult stages of growth, Qual2000 is moderately susceptible in its early stages That's put a cloud over its potential and Dr Rathmell says that two sister lines incorporating improved resistance are currently undergoing multiplication. The lines will be commercialised by SunPrime Seeds and should be available for commercial release in limited quantities next year.
Goodman Fielder plans demonstration plots of Qual2000 at the Moree TAFE College this season. "This is always going to be a relatively small market," said Mr Thompson, but the proximity of the Arnotts ' plant in Brisbane suggests there'll be an assured market as long as that plant is there and proximity to the customer will give growers a freight advantage.
Contact: Mr Peter Vaughan, Commercial
Director, Value Added Wheat CRC 02 9400 8488
The GRDC is a core partner in the Value Added Wheat CRC.