Wheat Breeding

Prepared by Gil Hollamby

Why Breed? South Australia was set up as a free colony to be supported by agricultural development as its prime driver to success. Initially the only plant varieties were those brought from England or picked up along the way (South Africa). However the soils and climate and seasons were significantly different to England particularly the Adelaide Plains and later the Adelaide Hills were tried as more similar to England. It was immediately apparent that the varieties could be improved upon and within three years the “Agronomy Society” was established which soon became the Show Society and a prize was offered for the best bushel (approximately 30 Kg bag) of wheat. This was a means of identifying superior strains that were occurring on the developing farms. One of the earliest people to identify improved strains was Mr J Frame of Mt Barker (see Wrigley and Rathjen) who selected Purple Straw variety. The work of these early farmers such as Mr R Marshall of Wasleys is reported in Chapter three (The Staff of Life) in “A Century of Service”. The successful varieties were named after the farmers who developed them were better suited to South Australia’s drier conditions as the cropping areas spread away from the Adelaide Hills to the northern plains.

Self sufficiency was the first goal of the Colony and then as the wheat farmers became more successful with better varieties and learning how to handle the hot summers and different soils the colony moved rapidly to having surplus production and exporting grain initially to other colonies and the gold fields and then, with the availability of local ports, to overseas.
In the 1860’s a Legislative Council Enquiry resulted in a report into rust in wheat and consequent action to solve the problem.

Roseworthy was established in 1882 and Professor Custance immediately commenced trials of 27 wheat plants as reported in “A Century of Service”. While farmers continued identifying potential plants progressive changes in breeding technology by the 1900’s saw most of the work carried out in agricultural institutions. Farrer was a mathematician by training and applied his knowledge to wheat breeding using hybridisation and the crossing of many plants to identify superior strains. This is detailed in Wrigley and Rathjen’s chapter in the 1968 book “Plants in Australia” by Carr and Carr.

In the early 1900’s rust became an increasing problem for wheat farmers and in 1910 and 1920 breeding spread across Australia to counter the threat of rust.

In 1933 when Sir Allan Callaghan was appointed as principal of Roseworthy he set about addressing the issue of wheat quality. The years of selection of for yield had led to a down grading of quality the so called “FAQ” grade. His goal was “high yield, disease resistance good quality as well as strong straw and non-shattering characteristics. Another improvement at that time was the adoption of procedures for “Pure Seed Production” to ensure varieties remained true to type.

In 1942 backcrossing of varieties was first adopted. Biometrics and experimental design became increasingly important and in South Australia the Waite Institute breeding program was founded. This is detailed in “ Wheat Breeding at the Waite Institute 1925-1978”.

In the 1960’s international breeding conferences and staff interchanges led to the introduction of dwarf breeding material.

In the early 1990’s enquiries including a Senate enquiry were held into the funding of plant breeding in Australia with reports such as the Lazanby Report resulting in today the emphasis being plant variety rights and commercialisation.

Reference: Australian Research Council 1992, Report of the Panel Appointed to Review the Special Research Centres Program and the Key Centres of Teaching and Research Program, (Lazenby Report), Canberra.

Further information is available in the following references: