In the digital age, why not grains?

Dr Pamela Zwer arranges oat seeds under a camera which transmits an image to the computer in the background.

Improved milling oat varieties to be released more quickly - that's the undertaking from oat breeder Pamela Zwer as she and her colleagues utilise state-ofthe-art plant breeding and selection technology.

Dr Zwer, of the SA Research and Development Institute, says the latest plant breeding aid is digital imaging equipment, able to quickly provide accurate physical information on oat grains. That information has not been available until now or has been produced from much slower human assessment.

It works this way: about 200 grains from a particular oat breeding line, one of about 5,000 bred each year, are placed on a glass plate under a camera. The camera transmits an image to a computer, which has been programmed to provide details on the average area of the grains in the sample, and their length, plumpness and colour.

"This information is vital because in milling oats we want a variety with uniform seed size and minimum screenings," Dr Zwer said. "There are also niche markets which want bright, plump grains."

Dr Zwer said the programming was done by Karen Churchill of the University of Minnesota on a visiting Fellowship from the GRDC.

"It's all about improving the efficiency of the breeding program by being able to characterise breeding material early on and make informed decisions on whether to persevere with various lines or discard them," she said.

Already with NIR equipment, purchased with support from the SA Grains Industry Trust Fund, key grain 'content' characteristics could be identified including the seed-to-husk ratio, and oil and protein levels.

Now, thanks to digital imaging, the grain's physical characteristics can be added to the data bank.

Program 2.3.2 Contact: Dr Pamela Zwer 08 8303 9485

About 1.5 million tonnes of oats are produced in Australia each year for use as feed in animal industries and to a lesser degree in the human food market. The production of oats for the export hay market is also important. Japan imports about 3.5 million tonnes of fodder each year. Oat hay exports from Australia to Japan are expected to increase from 260,000 tonnes to 300,000 tonnes in 2000 and to about 500,000 tonnes in the next few years.