Spelt points to wider gain

Organic farmers inspect spelt lines in trials at NSW DPI’s Yanco Organic Research Site
Organic farmers inspect spelt lines in trials at NSW DPI’s Yanco Organic Research Site. An agronomic project at the EH Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation (an alliance between NSW DPI and Charles Sturt University at Wagga Wagga), it is funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation and Biological Farmers of Australia.

As interest in the specialty grain, spelt, continues to grow, researchers from the EH Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation are developing an agronomic package to help growers optimise yield and quality.

Organic grain producers are looking at the agronomic advantages of spelt as a means of diversifying and increasing their organic systems’ profitability.

Spelt is a relative of wheat with nutritional attributes that offer the specialty health food market an alternate flour source for bread, liquorice, spelt flakes and pasta.

The protein in the gluten of spelt and wheat is different, meaning spelt may be suitable for people with a slight intolerance to wheat gluten.

Spelt also has benefits for livestock, both for grazing and as a stock feed supplement.

NSW Department of Primary Industries organic farming liaison officer, Robyn Neeson, said the first stage of a three-year agronomic project had produced some promising results with the potential to boost profitability for spelt growers.

In 2006, around 80 spelt genotypes were seed increased.

This was the first time many of these lines had been seen and the large range of characteristics, such as maturity, growth habit and grain form, was very encouraging.

Organic growers were asked to assess and rank the lines for key characteristics which made them most suitable to their organic production systems.

Twenty genotypes were selected for their physiological and quality characteristics when grown in an organic production system.

Phosphorus (P) trials conducted in 2006 compared P uptake in a range of cereals including spelt, wheat, cereal rye and Kamut.

Results indicated that while the total P uptake (milligrams of P/plant) is similar between traditional wheat and spelt, some spelt genotypes are able to produce a larger biomass, suggesting spelt may be a more sustainable option for Australian organic cereal rotations where P availability can be a limiting factor.

Observations of the 2006 seed increase screening trials seemed to support anecdotal reports of spelt having good resistance to some common cereal diseases and that certainly appears to be the case with the current strains of stripe rust attacking wheat.

"Of the 80 or so lines we had in the field, only one was observed to be infected by stripe rust," Ms Neeson said.

All lines have been sent to NSW DPI laboratories at Camden for further rust screening.

There has also been interest in screening the spelt lines for resistance to wheat crown rot.

"If resistance to these two key wheat diseases can be identified, that is great news for spelt producers, but there may also be benefits for the wheat industry, if breeders can transfer this resistance to wheat varieties," Ms Neeson said.

"If we find characteristics in spelt that can benefit the grains industry in general, that is a bonus."

This year the agronomic characteristics and grain quality of the 20 outstanding lines are being assessed.

These are being trialled on organic sites at Yanco, Cootamundra and Rutherglen to develop agronomic guidelines for growers.

"We are looking for several lines that will provide options for growers over a range of climatic zones but need to ensure that the selection process or management does not affect the quality characteristics that the processors and consumers want," said Ms Neeson.

"It is obvious from discussions with processors and growers that they prefer true spelts, rather than wheat hybrids, so all lines are being DNA analysed to ensure that only ‘true’ spelts are selected."