Intergrain: A Wheat Breeding Partnership (National, 2 April 2008)

Author: | Date: 02 Apr 2008

InterGrain, the new West Australian wheat breeding company, has made an immediate impact in the market by the release of two outstanding new varieties, the high yielding Australian Premium White (APW) variety Magenta and the premium quality udon noodle grade variety Yandanooka.

Both are expected to have major market impact in WA and, in the case of Magenta, also in South Australia and Victoria.

The Department of Agriculture and Food WA (DAFWA) Wheat Breeding Program, which has consistently provided 80 – 90 per cent of varieties grown by WA farmers in the last decade, has transformed into the company InterGrain.

The new enterprise is the corporate product of a long-term partnership between DAFWA and the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

The recently passed Biosecurity and Agricultural Management Act, enables the state government and the GRDC, the previous owners of InterGrain’s intellectual property (IP), to continue as shareholders in wheat breeding.

According to Dale Baker, InterGrain’s Chairman, the formation of the company is in keeping with changing times in the wheat breeding industry.

“There is a trend in Australia for wheat breeding to be run as a business, rather than as a state government or university program. This move relates to the concept of competitive neutrality, where government resources may not be used to compete with commercial enterprise.”

“Until the early 1990s wheat breeding in Australia was through publicly funded programs and then in 1994 the passing of the Plant Breeders Rights Act allowed breeders to claim End Point Royalties. This payment, essentially for intellectual property rights, has enabled wheat breeding to become commercial,” Mr Baker said.

“We anticipate that the corporate model will introduce efficiency and relationships that will enable us to do a better job. It runs on business parameters, rather than public service parameters and makes it easy to deal with other players in the private sector.

“InterGrain is majority owned and funded by the WA taxpayer and the economic benefits return to this state,” he said.

At his InterGrain office on the DAFWA campus in South Perth, CEO Keith Alcock is clear about the reasons for the high performance of the program’s varieties in WA.

“The WA climate differs from that of the eastern states, except perhaps the Eyre Peninsula, because across most of the wheatbelt we have terminal drought and a rapid finish to the season,” he said. 

“This means wheat bred for the longer seasons under east coast conditions run into problems at the finish, either with yield falling away or with high levels of screenings.

“Our varieties perform against this challenge and we know one big factor why they perform – it’s because of the high level of stem-stored carbohydrates.”

“When DAFWA Principal Research Officer, Dr Tim Setter and his Plant Physiology team measure the levels in our varieties and in our breeding material, they are finding them to be the highest in the world.

“We actively select for this using assays, because in drought environments it is the reserve sugars in the stem which are mobilized at the end of the season to finish crop ripening,” he said.

Robin Wilson, Senior Wheat Breeder at InterGrain, says that the major drivers in producing a new variety of wheat are yield, disease resistance and quality.

He has been involved with developing many WA wheat varieties, including Magenta.

Magenta and Yandanooka, developed by Dr Iain Barclay, are the first ‘progeny’ of InterGrain.

Mr Wilson says Yandanooka is a mid-season udon noodle variety, with good quality and yield, maturing between the two widely grown udon noodle wheats, Arrino and Calingiri.

It has improved resistance for all three rust diseases, compared to Calingiri and Arrino.

Magenta is a high yielding, disease resistant variety of APW wheat, with a number of advantages over the popular Wyalkatchem, including better stem and leaf rust resistance.

“It has the most complete resistance to the rusts and leaf spotting diseases of any variety currently available in WA,” Mr Wilson said.

Intergrain Wheat Breeder, Dr Iain Barclay, stresses that a particular strength of InterGrain’s program is that wheat varieties are bred to cope with the stressful environment in WA.

“We also look for parental material which will perform in different and even hostile soil conditions, such as acid, alkaline, saline, micronutrient deficient, waterlogged and boron or aluminium toxic soil,” he said.

“We are looking to incorporate traits such as high intrinsic yield, disease resistance and micronutrient efficiency.”

According to Dr Barclay, research has given breeders many tools to accelerate the breeding process.

Molecular biology has led to an understanding of the genes which respond to environmental stressors and markers for genes allow breeders to directly manipulate genes for a better understanding of the drivers.

Keith Alcock affirms that in the modern world, successful wheat breeding is a blend of science and market awareness.

“A lot of energy goes into determining what it is that overseas markets want,” he said.

At present WA produces 40 per cent of Australia’s wheat and 95 per cent of that is sold overseas, mostly to the Middle Eastern and Asian markets.

Mr Alcock trained as a plant pathologist, and worked in agricultural chemical research and product development. He has made the journey from corporate to public and now back to the private sector.

His involvement with the farming community spans many years and he says that although the WA production environment is “challenging”, he thinks WA has the best growers – amenable to new technology, new varieties and best practice in every respect.

Asked about challenges for the future, Mr Alcock said it would be to increase wheat production through breeding by more than the current one per cent per annum achieved in the DAFWA program: “We need to do better than that to stay ahead of the cost-price squeeze.”

Another challenge is herbicide resistance.

“The current level of herbicide resistance in WA is an example of how new technologies can be over-used. WA is the herbicide resistance capital of the world because we over-reached in depending on selective grass killing herbicides to drive our no-till systems.

“Hopefully, we are now turning this around and now lead the world in integrated management of herbicide resistance. InterGrain has a part to play building on the release of the metribuzin-tolerant variety Eagle Rock and the ‘Clearfield’series.”
Mr Alcock emphasized that their record for quality had always been there.

“Everything in the former DAFWA wheat breeding program, which is almost 100 years old, has been incorporated into the new breeding program.

“We have in the past and will in the future ensure we produce ‘super’ varieties quality-wise. We are aiming for the top of the grade rather than also-rans.”

Mr Alcock said that InterGrain was on track to release four new varieties in 2008, with diverse regional adaptations and covering quality grades from noodles to hards. 

Media Contact: Keith Alcock, Tel 08 9368 3300

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