Now that the issue of grain quality has caught most people"s attention - just what does it mean? Why are end-users becoming so uncompromising?
Patricia Howard reports.
Grain buyers, both at home and overseas, are progressively "raising the bar" on the quality parameters of the grain they buy, with demands, also, that the supply of this increasingly "specified" grain is consistent.
With millions of dollars of production schedules in the balance, the flex in many supply chain relationships has gone. If the quality of delivered grain is affected by drought or late rain, or problems in transport and handling, many buyers now just look elsewhere.
The reason is that end-users, such as food manufacturers, are under increasing pressure in their own competitive, globalised industries. Their modern automation technologies no longer tolerate variations in the raw material.
It is a tough ask when relying on a biological product that is subject to the forces of nature, but an informal survey of end-users reveals that manufacturers" need for confidence in the quality and consistency of supply has never been more stringent - from one season to the next, from one shipment to the next and within individual shipments themselves.
It is arguably the single biggest issue facing grain users, says Ken Quail, director, grain products, with BRI Australia. "As food manufacturers adopt ever-higher levels of automation in their production processes, they are looking more and more for consistency in the grains they use," he says.
"They want to be able to buy the same raw material, that is consistent both in itself and from one year to the next, so they get exactly the same product at the end of their production process every single time."
In the Australian Grains Industry Strategy 2005-2025 released in March this year, manufacturers reported that the need for specification accuracy and consistency had become paramount. They said the Australian practice of "averaging" was now causing problems - raising manufacturing costs and even leading to entire batches being rejected.
This is a big issue for overseas buyers of Australian grain, although Cindy Cassidy, wheat product development manager with the AWB Ltd, argues that this also becomes the strength of Australia"s single desk.
"It means we can work very hard at talking with our customers and asking them what they like about Australian wheat and gain some really strong feedback on what their needs are," she says. "We can then respond quickly by sourcing wheats from different areas of Australia and putting together different blends that might better suit their immediate needs.
"And we can use this information to look at better long-term solutions. This may involve working closely with our seed producers to develop new varieties or filling gaps in the range of wheats we grow at the moment."
Improving this flow of information from end-users through to growers and then on to seed producers is something the entire industry needs to focus on, says Kirsten Pietzner, the GRDC"s Value Chain program manager.
"Growers need to know which market they are selling their grain into and what the needs of those customers are," she says. "You can"t make a generalisation concerning customer requirements as the needs of customers can vary significantly from one market to the next.
"So it is vital growers are aware of the quality requirements of the end-user, but this can be very difficult as there is no direct link between them and their customers and the information flows are not very good.
"Growers need to be aware of the inherent qualities of the wheat they are producing and they need to be aware of what they can do to influence the quality of their wheat during harvest and during the storage of that wheat."
For many, there are substantial improvements that can be made within Australia simply in terms of how grain is handled.
According to Peter Healy, brewing development manager for Lion Nathan, this can have a big impact on the quality of the grain and perhaps more importantly, on the uniformity of the grain.
"If the grain has come from one large region then this tends to be less of a problem, as the grain tends to be of a uniform type and quality and the variations when grain is pooled from several different farms are limited," he says. But when grain is taken and pooled from several smaller regions "that is when we face significant problems because the quality of the grain can vary so significantly".
"This means the grain may malt at differing rates, and that in itself can have a big impact on the brewing process and cause manufacturers like ourselves significant problems in trying to produce a single uniform product.
"Manufacturers are tackling this issue from other areas, such as making their processing systems more flexible and being able to adjust for slight variations in the raw materials they do use, but consistency in quality remains an enormous issue."
Within the malting industry, the "shelf-life" of grain is particularly important and so the GRDC is looking at better handling methods, particularly between integrating storage and harvesting methods.
"One area we are looking at, for example, is increasing the moisture levels above the existing receival standards to enhance the quality of the grain, but this can only be done if there is an appropriate storage aeration strategy in place," Ms Pietzner says.
Of course, the real drivers behind this increasing demand for consistency in supply are consumers and this trend is unlikely to change. Consumers want each bread roll they buy to look and taste like the previous bread roll they bought, and they want their pasta to not only taste the same but look the same.
BRI Australia"s Ken Quail believes a lot more can be done by Australian graingrowers to improve both the consistency and the overall quality of Australia"s wheat crop.
"There are a range of measures that can be adopted in terms of improving how we measure grain quality, in seeking out much better farm practices and even at the grain handling and milling stages, a lot of improvement can take place.
"Growers need to be more aware of this whole issue of consistency. They should be looking at adopting quality consistency programs, keeping much more detailed records of what they produce and be prepared to do more to keep grains of varying quality separate.
"There is already a lot of research and development looking at these areas and this must continue but this will take time to achieve results," he says.
The 52-page Wheat Products Guide is available through Ground Cover Direct for $20 plus postage and handling, order code GRDC154.
For more information:
Ken Quail, 02 9888 9600
Peter Healy, 07 3361 7400
Cindy Cassidy, 0417 662 451
Kirsten Pietzner, 02 6272 5525
GRDC programs 1 and 5