Industry scores from 'busman's holiday'

Don Whiting keeps a living wheat library going on his farm, providing a lot of free data for farmers, breeders and students.

You are a farmer and, supposing you have time for a hobby, what do you do? Maybe sport, fishing, fixing things, reading, or honing your computer skills?

Pose the same question to Barunga Gap (SA) farmer Don Whiting, and you'll get an unusual response. "I grow cereal varieties, a lot of them," he says.

And he certainly does. Each year on his farm in the mid-north of the State he sows:

  • 160 wheat varieties in four-row plots from part of his historical wheat collection. There are wheats from the days of the Pharaohs to contemporary varieties. There are wheats from 'official' breeding programs in Australia and overseas, and there are SA farmer selections dating back to the 1860s;
  • replicated and randomised trials of about 50 current wheat varieties and lines in the final stages of pre-release assessment.

Vintage wheats and barley

Then there are the 'add-ons'. This year, for example, he has 15 commercial barley varieties in replicated plots and a pedigree display of all the wheats connected to the once widely grown Ford variety. Ford, which is still used as a parent for its quality hay attributes, was, in the mid-1950s, the third most widely grown variety in Australia.

Mr Whiting also has single-row selections of Machete off-types, some of which one day might become varieties in their own right.

Picking up where department left off

"I used to play around with fertiliser and seeding-rate experiments, including crop responses to trace elements. Then in 1970, when the Department of Agriculture cut back on its trial program, I sowed seven wheat varieties to see how they would perform."

Since then, with the cooperation of plant breeders around Australia and people involved with the Australian Winter Cereals Collection at Tamworth in NSW, Mr Whiting's trial and demonstration program has grown in leaps and bounds.

Don Whiting puts in a lot of work and sometimes in April-May before seeding he wonders whether to continue. But, "the yield data from the larger trials are kept on a five-year rolling average and if I miss sowing one variety for one year I have virtually lost five years' data — that alone has kept me going".

Farmers, breeders and students are all grateful he makes the effort.

Adelaide University plant breeder Tony Rathjen says Don Whiting has done a magnificent job for the grains industry.

"Don has always had large trial plots in an area where there have not been many trials and these have been of great relevance to farmers and plant breeders alike." He cited this year's effort demonstrating variety links to Ford as typically instructive and deserving a wide audience. Mr Whiting holds a field day in October.

Given the smorgasbord of varieties available nationally, the trials give Mr Whiting a pretty fair idea what to grow in his environment (heavy loam country in the mid-north of SA) and what to avoid. "Some of the interstate wheats, which are prone to shattering, or the ones that are prone to disease" don't get a further look.

"But, I grew Darter from NSW Agriculture for a while and have sown Camm from WA commercially, too."

In fact, like many SA farmers, Mr Whiting currently prefers Frame, supported by Janz. And will we one day see a 'Whiting' wheat variety? You never know. Mr Whiting says he has been keeping an eye on one of the Machete selections. "Ward named a variety after himself, didn't he, and so did Gluyas with a selection he made from Ward's Prolific in 1894."

Contact: Mr Don Whiting 08 8865 2289