Big benefits from NIR technology

By David Adams

Farmers should save millions of dollars a year following the introduction of near infrared (NIR) technology in the measurement of durum vitreousness.

The project, being run under the auspices of the GRDC-backed Grain Industries Centre for NIR, is one of a number being run across Australia aimed at exploiting the benefits the technology offers.

“Essentially, what we were trying to do was to find an objective way to assess vitreous kernels in durum wheat, because there"s been no objective test available and no effective subjective test that could be used to assess grain quality on receival,” says Pete Mailler, executive officer of the Australian Durum Industry Association.

“The result was that the Australian durum crop was generally being docked between $US10 to $US20 a tonne on quality claims because we were failing to meet the vitreous specs on delivery to international customers.”

The GRDC-funded project has been run by BRI Australia with bulk handlers, GrainCorp, Ausbulk and AWB Ltd.

Trials were conducted in the 2003-04 harvest with full implementation of the system expected later this year.

Mr Mailler describes the change as having enormous ramifications for the industry.

“It"s world-leading technology we can sell, but more importantly... we"re able to utilise it and add value to the investment of the bulk handlers and add value to growers in terms of increasing returns for the quality of their wheat,” he says.

NIR technology was introduced in Australia in the early 1970s, and is now standard for a range of applications including selecting material for breeding programs as well as on farms, at grain receival depots and at processors.

While the technology has been used to measure compositional parameters such as protein, moisture and oil content, it is now also being used to predict the yield and quality of flour that can be produced from wheat or the yield and quality of malt that can be produced from barley.

Dr Brian Osborne, the director of Grain Science at BRI Australia Ltd and NIR Centre, says NIR technology only requires a small grain sample, plus it is non-destructive and fast. This makes it ideal for grain receival depots where loads can be quickly tested on arrival, and for online measurements in a flour mill or a brewery.

The technology involves shining near-infrared light on or through a grain sample.

“The technology works because NIR light and the chemical molecules making up a sample of grain both vibrate,” explains Dr Osborne. “When the vibration energy of the NIR matches that of a particular molecule, some of the energy from the NIR light is transferred to the molecule. It is quite easy to measure the NIR energy in and out of the sample to calculate the amount that was transferred.

“But a sample of grain contains not one but very many types of molecule, each with its personal signature. All of these different signatures overlap with one another so that they need to be analysed using a computer. A mathematical equation, called a calibration, links the NIR chemical signatures with the property of interest (e.g., wheat protein content).”

Dr Osborne says the use of NIR technologies in grain-quality testing has led to greater efficiencies within breeding programs and at receival points.

He says the introduction of NIR tests in wheat breeding programs alone is estimated to be delivering savings of $12.50 a sample across 30,000 samples each year.

“This is in addition to increased efficiency in the breeding trials by eliminating poor performing lines earlier.”

As well as the durum vitreousness project, the Grains Industries Centre for NIR is supporting a number of ground-breaking projects under which Near Infrared Spectrophotometer (NIRS) calibrations are being used to introduce standardised quality testing across Australia.

These include a $400,000 collaborative research program between the GRDC and the Department of Agriculture in Western Australia, which is using NIRS to introduce standardised calibrations for testing barley lines. Allen Tarr, manager of the Grain Products Laboratory at the Department of Agriculture in Western Australia, says this project has greatly reduced the development time and effort needed by individual barley quality testing-laboratories around the country.

Mr Tarr says that as well as measuring such components as protein, moisture and grain brightness, the screening can also predict some malt quality traits in wholegrain barley without the need for malting.

“By using NIR to measure samples between harvest and when the breeder prepares his samples for seeding for next season ... he can use the results to cull poor lines and promote only the good ones for that quality factor,” he says.

“Being able to do that between January and March/April, reduces the amount of material that has to be planted in the field. If you"re doing it by wet chemistry tests it would take a lot longer to malt the sample and do the bench analysis, and the results wouldn"t be available by the time you needed and were wanting to plant out the trial. If you can reduce the number of samples that you"re going to promote by, say, 50 percent, that"s a big saving on field trials costs.”

Calibrations for wheat breeding tests are expected within the next 12 months.

Other projects employing NIR are aimed at improving the processing of grain within bakeries and enabling pig producers to measure the digestible energy in cereal grains they purchase, and thus pay grain producers according to the true value of the grain.

The latter project has led to the creation of a new test for the amount of digestible energy in cereal grains for pigs.

Representing a world first, the new test heralded the first commercialisation of the new NIR technologies when it was released by Australian Pork Limited (APL), GRDC and the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI).

It is envisaged it will be followed by other tests developed through the Premium Grains for Livestock Program.

For more information:
Ian Wesley, 02 9888 9600,
Allen Tarr, 08 9368 3503,

GRDC Research code: NIR Centre coordination: BRI 102, program 1
Durum HVK: ADI 00001, program 5

All other projects pre-date the current GRDC Program structure.
Barley breeding: DAW 582
Wheat breeding: DAW 553
Pig DE: DAS 236
Dough mixing: NZC 1

Region South