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Peter Shaw

Chairman, ‘Operation Quality Wheat’. Southern NSW Steering Committee

It is stating the obvious to say that this year we are enjoying what is undoubtedly the best start to the wheat season seen for many, many years.

Some would say, not before time! The wheat industry has had it pretty tough over the last few years.

Given that recent history, it would be very easy for wheat growers to get carried away with the euphoria of having a full moisture profile and rising prices on world markets, and miss out on the best opportunity they have had for years to address two of the most important challenges facing the wheat industry in this country today.

And those challenges are the problem of our low yields and declining wheat quality, or to be more specific, our declining grain protein.

Wheat Quality In The National Interest

Wheat has been one of Australia’s major export earners for a long time and a major selling point has been our ability to supply a quality product on a long term basis.

For the majority of quality characteristics, Australia is maintaining a high standard through:

the low moisture content of the grain, and its freedom from weed seeds and insects;

a high yield of flour produced from each tonne of grain, and the generally favourable dough-mixing properties of the flour; and

a segregation system which ensures that the right type of wheat gets to the right buyer.

However, grain protein has declined and the outlook is for it to decline even further.

In the international market place buyers are now demanding higher protein content, putting pressure on the protein content problem. In recent years, buyers’ requirements for protein have intensified to the point where approximately 50% of all ASW wheat is exported under specific protein requirements. This level of specification is likely to increase as the remaining major buyers of ASW wheat move to tighten their protein requirements.

The challenge for the Australian wheat grower and industry is to ensure that we are not left behind and that we continue to supply a quality product on a long term basis.

Low Yields And Decline In Grain Protein

Low yields and a decline in grain protein are a problem and a challenge for wheat growers today.

* Yields are low because there is a general decline in the fertility of Australian wheat growing soils. Especially important is the decline in soil fertility associated with a reduction in the area of quality legume pastures in central and southern NSW during the 1980s.

Table 1. Average wheat yields for NSW and Australia, 1986/87 season


YIELD (t/ha)

Australian average


New South Wales average


These average yields are uneconomical . Many growers produce double or more than the above averages.

* Protein content of bread wheats (ASW and AHW 1 grades) is declining with soil fertility. Modern varieties sown at the right time will produce high yields at the expense of protein content unless attention is paid to soil fertility.

Figure 1. Average protein levels of ASW wheat, 1967-1986

High protein levels in Figure 1 are the result of low yields in dry seasons

We have been mining our soils for the past fifty years to create the current problem. If we continue in the same manner for the next fifty years we will create for ourselves a situation which would be far more difficult to rectify.

Nitrogen: A Key Nutrient

The problem for growers is to improve grain yield while at the same time maintaining or improving grain protein content. Nitrogen is the key nutrient in the problem, since it is the nutrient used in greatest quantity by the growing wheat crop. It is central to the production of high yields and protein.

The decline in the ‘natural’ availability of nitrogen from the soil is a major factor in the decline in protein content of Australian wheat, with the major causes involved in this loss of soil nitrogen being:

• organic matter breakdown through cultivation;

• removal of nitrogen in the-grain from each crop - the more a soil is cropped, the more nitrogen is lost

• (around 20 kg N for every tonne of grain);

• soil erosion, involving the loss of fertile topsoil;

• poor performance of legume based pastures.

Improved Farming Techniques Will Influence Yield And Protein

Better management practices, particularly those which increase stored soil moisture and crop water use, may increase yields. Growers must then look to improving soil fertility to maintain protein or further increase yields.

Inferior management practices on the other hand produce low-yielding crops with high protein content. Thus, high protein may not always reflect high soil fertility - sometimes it is merely a reflection of low crop yield.

Figure 2. Relationship between grain yield and protein level in wheat as affected by nitrogen application.

The Issues To Be Addressed

The following are the important issues to be addressed by the wheat industry:

the need to improve wheat yields;

declining protein content and the need for quality wheat;

the interrelationship between yield, soil fertility and quality;

the management of soil moisture to maximise yield; and

alternatives for improving and maintaining soil fertility as the level of soil nitrogen availability is a principal influence on yield and grain protein.

Operation Quality Wheat

To highlight these issues and provide a service to wheat growers a number of organisations have combined to form “Operation Quality Wheat”. The programme is a cooperative one including the Australian Wheat Board, State Bulk Handling Authority, State Department of Agriculture, Farmer Organisations and Agribusinesses such as Fertiliser Companies. Representative working groups from the above organisations have been formed, based on Wagga Wagga, Dubbo, Tamworth and Toowoomba.

The goal of the teams is not only to highlight the need for improving yield and grain protein but also to assemble expertise and information on this subject and disseminate it to the wheat industry. The effective transfer of technology is the principal aim.

To make the exercise more effective, objective targets for Southern NSW have been set from consultation with various organisations. The targets obviously give rise to considerable interactions and there will be large variations due to any one factor from year to year.

These targets are believed to be realistically and economically achievable over the next five years and are set out in Table 2.

Table 2. Five-year target objectives for ‘Operation Quality Wheat’ for southern NSW



% increase


<450 mm rainfall

>450 mm

Better varieties, yield potential



Better varieties, disease resistance



Better rotation, weed and disase control



Better timeliness and crop observation



Better nutrition (nitrogen, phosphorus, lime)



Better.crop establishment



Better post-sowing weed control







Area involved (,000 ha)



Current weighted mean yields (t/ha)



Target yields (t/ha)



Grain protein increase



Initiatives already undertaken by Operation Quality Wheat include:

• poster

• awareness brochure and mail out to all wheat growers - May 1988

• launch meeting May 1988

In addition, initiatives planned will include:

• management notes for wheat growers to be available in February 1989

• explanatory video to be available in February 1989

• launch meeting in February 1989

• rural press features to be on-going with a major feature in February 1989

• other activities/suggestions welcome

It is important to note that information prepared by Operation Quality Wheat will be in its own right and will be provided and distributed under sponsorship.

Challenge For The Australian Wheat Industry

Wheat growers have been slow to appreciate the benefits of better nutrition, but this factor is the key to yield and grain protein. That is not entirely their fault and I suggest one reason for this is that the wheat industry has not been able to communicate the message effectively.

The challenge for Operation Quality Wheat and to everyone associated with the wheat industry is to present current and new information in a way which will challenge wheat growers to change existing farm practices and priorities.

The Australian Wheat Industry has a sound base moving into the 1990s. Mr Clinton Condon, Chairman of the Australian Wheat Board, has stated:

“If Australia is to continue to compete with other wheat exporters the wheat industry will need to strive for higher quality in the ASW grade particularly in respect of protein content. Improvement in this area is a major importance if the industry is to maintain overall sales and market share at the price levels where we currently compete. The alternative will be to face lower price returns in lower quality markets.”

I would like to congratulate the Riverina Outlook Conference committee for, firstly, choosing a most important and timely topic for discussion and, secondly, for inviting Operation Quality Wheat to participate.

I look forward to what promises to be a very worthwhile and rewarding day. Mr Chairman, I wish you every success for today and it gives me great pleasure to officially open the 1988 Riverina Outlook Conference -

“Wheat Quality - Putting the N into ProteiN”

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