Wheat's perennial potential

A robust perennial grain crop would have the potential to increase the versatility and sustainability of Australian food production systems.

A robust perennial grain crop would have the potential to increase the versatility and sustainability of Australian food production systems.

For the first time, pioneering research looking to improve future generations of farming systems is evaluating the performance and potential role of perennial wheat in Australian environments.

The first grain harvest has just been completed and already researchers have observed a broad diversity in the agronomic traits of the material being tested.

Farming systems research agronomist at the EH Graham Centre, Wagga Wagga, Richard Hayes, says most perennial wheat material has been developed by crossing conventional wheat with various perennial grasses, such as intermediate wheatgrass.

"The concept of perennial wheat is relatively new to Australian agriculture," Mr Hayes said.

Perennial wheat is the term given to germplasm genetically related to wheat that has the potential to produce grain for more than one season from the same plant.

Researchers from NSW Department of Primary Industries and Charles Sturt University at the Graham Centre are collaborating with CSIRO in a project facilitated by the Future Farm Industries CRC and run in conjunction with AWB Seeds.

Mr Hayes says perennial grain crops would require fewer inputs and would help maintain groundcover over summer.

"In addition, they would increase the flexibility of grazing systems by enabling farmers to graze the crop as a forage as well as stripping it for grain," he said.

"However, a number of significant challenges need to be overcome before Australian farmers can realise the potential."

Paramount is the requirement to find plants that can survive our long, hot and dry summers.

This is made more challenging by the fact many of the perennial wheat lines available for testing were developed in the northern hemisphere, where long, cold winters are more of a constraint.

Other issues to deal with include improving grain quality and yield, maintaining suitable resistances to pests and diseases, and maintaining lines that have sufficient genetic stability to ensure a long-term breeding program is feasible.