Wheat

24.05.17

Wheat is one of Australia’s major crops and one of the most important grain crops in world commerce. Wheat is a cereal grain used for human consumption and animal feed. Australia produces around 22 million tonnes annually with a gross value reported at over AU$6 billion.

Overview

Wheat is grown throughout the annual cropping regions of Australia which comprise south east Queensland, cropping regions of New South Wales, northern Victoria, south east South Australia and the wheat belt of Western Australia. Wheat grown in Western Australia is mostly exported while about 40% of crops grown in the eastern regions of Australia are used for domestic consumption and animal feed. The major export markets are in the Asian and Middle East regions, including Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and Sudan.

Wheat quality classification grades grown in Australia include: Australian Prime Hard (APH), Australian Hard (AH); Australian Premium White (APW); Australian Standard White (ASW); Australian Soft (AS); and Australian Durum (ADR) with each of these classifications used for different products and end uses. Wheat is classified into these categories based on various factors including protein, grain size and moisture content.

Graingrowers and Grain Producers Australia are representative bodies for grain producers in Australia. Graingrowers is a national, member-based grain producer association. Grain Producers Australia is a not-for-profit, independent, national advocate for grain producers. There are also state based organisations.

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) is responsible for planning, investing in and overseeing research development and extension (RD&E) across the Australian grains industry. A levy is applied to wheat production to provide funds for this RD&E.

Facts and figures

  • The majority of Australian wheat is exported with major export markets being Asia, the Middle East, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam and Sudan
  • Australia has on average around 12 million hectares under production, of which up to 70% is exported
  • Generally the west coast of Australia exports, while the east coast focuses on production for domestic consumption and feedstock
  • Australian production is mainly in Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria

Production status

The main producing areas are in Western Australia, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland.

The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences reports production area for the states as follows:

  • Western Australia – 5 million hectares
  • New South Wales – 3.1 million hectares
  • South Australia – 1.9 million hectares
  • Victoria – 1.5 million hectares
  • Queensland – 610 thousand hectares
  • Tasmania – 7 thousand hectares
 - image

Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Wheat grain is a staple food used to make flour for breads, baked goods, breakfast cereal, pasta and noodles; and for fermentation to make beer and other alcoholic beverages. It is the leading source of vegetable protein in human food, having a higher protein content than other major cereals, maize (corn) and rice.

Wheat grain is also used as stock feed. The use of wheat straw for bioenergy production is also being investigated.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Wheat is grown throughout the annual cropping regions of Australia which comprise south east Queensland, cropping regions of New South Wales, northern Victoria, south east South Australia and the wheat belt of Western Australia.

Soil type

It is adapted to a wide range of soil types but highest yield is on well drained soils with a surface and sub-surface soil pH(CaCl) of 45 or higher. However, varieties vary in their ability to tolerate low pH and aluminium toxicity.

Crops sown early can develop roots down to a depth of two meters and so the moisture and quality of the sub-soil can be important. Some varieties can tolerate short periods of waterlogging, although this may reduce production.

Climate

A suitable rainfall event is required for sowing as rainfall just before, and during the growing season is the main contributing source of water for a crop. Water stored in the soil at the time of sowing, from pre-season rainfall, is also an important available water source and so rainfall patterns are an essential consideration for production. However, in some areas irrigation is used to supplement rainfall.

Wheat germination requires temperatures ideally between 12°C and 25°C, however germination will still occur between 4°C and 37°C. Germination will occur more quickly with consecutive warm days.

Frosts at the time of flowering can cause florets to be sterile leading to high yield losses.

Varieties

Variety selection is based on a number of considerations, including: suitability of the variety to environmental conditions (rainfall, elevation, temperature, soil type), grain quality, disease tolerance and resistance, grazing and grain yield, and intended the end use of the grain. Beyond environmental and agronomic considerations, there are also business and farm profile/strategy decisions that contribute to the variety selected for any given year or paddock.

Generally, no variety will exhibit all the desired attributes for the site selected. Indeed, a single variety may perform differently on different soil types with different rainfall patterns. Varietal selection often comes down to balancing the various risk factors based on the range of considerations.

There are a wide range of varieties for farmers to choose from and a range of marketing options. Individual research is required to determine the most suitable variety for the environment and end use. Sources of further information about varieties grown in Australia are:

  • National Variety Trials – online database
  • State department of primary industries variety guides
  • Companies that market varieties
  • Local advisors and agronomists

Most varieties are covered by Plant Breeders Rights and a royalty or fee is payable to the breeder of the variety for every tonne of grain produced. The point of collection for this royalty or fee may differ between varieties and growers need to be aware of the arrangements for the variety they grow.

Planting and crop management

Selecting a site or paddock for planting wheat is based on a range of considerations including economics, disease and/or weed pressures, herbicide options, seasonal forecasts, stored soil water and soil nutrients. Although wheat was traditionally grown in a crop rotation there is more flexibility with modern varieties and techniques. Most Australian farmers sow wheat using the “No Till” method. With no ripping of the soil and less traffic, the soil is less compacted and retains more moisture. The soil quality is also improved with the stubble from the previous crop left to decompose and act as compost.

For sowing wheat the main considerations are time of sowing, depth of sowing and seeding and fertiliser rates. Most of the crop in Australia is sown in autumn to early winter depending on the variety, region and rainfall patterns. Wheat is sown after a suitable rain event and the sowing ‘window’ can be across a four to six week time period from April through to June.
For further information on sowing times refer to the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) GrowNotes™ :

Sowing wheat at the appropriate depth is important for the healthy and strong emergence of the first shoot. Considerations include seasonal differences in depth and availability of moisture, but as a general guide a sowing depth of 25-50mm is a useful range.

Seed sowing rates can range from 20kg/ha for lower rainfall zones (up to 400mm per year); to 80-120kg/ha for medium to higher rainfall zones. Farmers generally grow and store their own seed for use in the following year, however when introducing a new variety or extra seed it is important to source good quality seed free of insects, weed seeds or mixed grains.

For further information on planting refer to variety sowing guides available through the GRDC website.

Seed dressing may also be required prior to sowing. Seed dressings may be applied to seed prior to planting to control smuts and bunts. For more information on cereal seed treatments refer to the Agriculture Victoria page Bunts and Smuts of cereals; the Western Australia DPIRD Smut and bunt diseases of cereal – biology, identification and management and the SARDI information sheet Which cereal seed treatment?.

Good crop management involves monitoring to gauge early crop growth: emergence; seedling density; weed population; presence of insects and disease; and general crop health; which all impact the potential grain yield.

An important aspect of this crop management is ensuring that appropriate phosphorous and nitrogen levels are delivered at the appropriate stage of growth. Phosphorous is essential for the early growth and application of fertilisers may be required at the time of sowing. Nitrogen availability is important at the time of grain fill, and along with soil moisture, are the key determinants of grain protein (an important determinant of grain quality).

Soil tests are recommended prior to sowing to assess soil nutrients and help determine fertiliser needs. Cropping advisors can also assist with understanding and developing fertiliser strategies.

Further information can be found in the following publications:

State departments of primary industries and/or agriculture also provide a range of resources on wheat production including variety selection, agronomy, pests and diseases and harvesting.

Weeds, pests, and diseases

As weeds facilitate the transfer of disease and pests and use nutrients and moisture that could be used by the crop, weed control is a key element of crop management. There are a number of weed control strategies available for wheat cropping and assessment of a paddock for weed management may need to be started the year prior to cropping. The aim of weed management is to reduce weed numbers and maintain low weed levels.

Weed control strategies continue to be the subject of ongoing research and development but can include: winter cleaning of pastures; chemical fallowing, herbicides, use of no till methods, use of more competitive varieties, and processing chaff in-field. It is recommended that weed control begin at least a year prior to planting, especially as many winter weeds such as wild oats, annual ryegrass, thistles and mustards may not germinate until after sowing and so pre-sowing weed treatment may be difficult.

There are a wide range of herbicides available for controlling weeds in crops but herbicide resistance should be considered and can be managed through minimising the need for herbicides and rotation of herbicide groups. If the crop is intended for grazing, it is important to take into consideration herbicide withholding periods, which can be up to 70 days. For more information on weed control, refer to the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries’ Weed Control in Winter Crops.

Insect pests are not generally a major problem for cereal crops. However, some insect pests may build up at times, requiring intervention. Insect pests of wheat crops are similar to those for most winter cereal crops and can include cutworm, aphids, armyworm, helicoperva and mites. Chemical control options are available but an integrated pest management approach is recommended. For more information on pest management refer to the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s Insect pest and beneficials in field crops.

Insect infestations can also be an issue with stored grain and if storing grain on-farm, consideration will need to be given to managing these insect pests. Insecticide treatments are available for stored grain, however, withholding periods are required before the grain can be marketed. For more information on pests in stored grain, refer to the Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food’s Insect pests of stored grain; and GRDC’s Stored grain pests identification – The back pocket Guide.

Some of the main pests and diseases responsible for the majority of losses in wheat production in Australia include: yellow leaf spot; stripe rust; septoria nodorum blotch; crown rot; and Pratylenchus neglectus. Other diseases include Rhizoctonia barepatch, cereal cyst nematode, Pratylenchus thornii., common bunt,  stem rust, leaf rust, barley yellow dwarf virus, and wheat streak mosaic virus. The methods used to control these diseases in Australia can be classified into three categories:

  • breeding of resistant cultivars – this has been a highly successful method;
  • cultural practices including stubble management, tillage and crop rotations;
  • pesticides – fungicides applied as seed treatments, in-furrow and foliar sprays, and insecticides/miticides for vector control.

The practice of each of these methods varies from region to region and the reliance on a particular method may be based on economics and genetic resistance of the cultivar used. For more information on wheat diseases in Australia, refer to Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food’s Managing yellow spot and septoria of wheat and Wheat diagnostic tool; and GRDC’s Wheat Rust The back pocket guide.

Infrastructure Requirements

Large scale agricultural machinery, including tractors, cultivation equipment, seeder/disc drills, boom sprayers, combine harvesters (headers), chaser bins and grain trucks, will be required for a successful crop.

Some or all of the operations required to produce a crop can be carried out by contractors, which may reduce some capital investment in the significant amount of machinery required for crop production. Grain silos will be required if the grain is to be stored on farm.

Harvesting & Processing

Wheat is harvested using a header/combine harvester and can then be stored on farm, delivered to a receival silo or delivered direct to the end user, such as a feedlot or flour miller.

Crops are harvested in spring and summer (from September through to December), depending on the variety planted, seasonal conditions and region.

Wheat is generally ready for harvest as soon as the header can give a clean grain sample, usually when the grain moisture content is below 20%.

Where drying facilities are available, harvesting can start well before the crop dries down to the required 12.5% moisture and so reduce the time the crop has to stand at risk from weather damage. A moisture content of 12.5% or less is required for sale.

Markets & Marketing

Wheat in Australia is usually traded through grain trading companies. However, since the market was deregulated there are no limitations on trading grain on the domestic market. Grain can be stored on farm, sold directly to end users or sold through grain traders via a range of options offered by these companies.

Gaining the best financial returns on wheat requires growers to be responsive to markets and choose varieties that, for a range of reasons, will give the best return. This may mean that the variety selected may change from year to year.

Wheat grain quality is classified first by variety and then by various grain quality specifications such protein concentration, screenings test weight, weather damage and foreign matter. The quality of the grain will affect the price achieved for the crop.

Damage from frost, heat (due to high drying temperatures), black point, and sprouting can affect the quality of the end product developed from the grain.

Wheat in Australia is classified into nine grades: Australian Prime Hard, Australian Hard, Australian Premium White, Australian Standard White, Udon Noodle, Durum, Australian Soft, General Purpose and Feed wheat. The price paid for grain will depend on it’s classification.

Variety quality classification in Australia is currently managed by Wheat Quality Australia (WQA) using a classification system inherited from AWBI. WQA is a not for profit company owned by GRDC and Grain trade Australia.

For more information on quality and grades in Australia refer to GRDC’s Understanding Australian Wheat Quality, and Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry’s

Wheat Quality and Markets in Queensland.

Grain Trade Australia provides trading standards and other resources to assist purchasing, selling, trading, broking or operating in the commercial grain industry.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/challenges

As with all agricultural pursuits, risk is inherent in wheat cropping and can include:

  • the crop failing to establish or mature properly due to adverse weather events, thus resulting in reduced grain yield and/or poor quality grain
  • commodity prices falling during the growth period impacting on the returns projected at planting
  • not recouping the costs of inputs and capital invested in the crop, like fertiliser or the costs of running large equipment, if the crop fails
  • diseases causing crop failure of severe yield loss
  • high weed populations out-competing the crop

Regulatory considerations

Regulations related to wheat production in Australia focus on wheat quality, trading, and access to export markets. Trading grain in Australia ranges from highly regulated human specialty crops grown in closed loop systems, to over the fence or farmer to farmer. Regulations relevant to grain growers are those related to receival of grain.

Grainflow provides annual receival standards for wheat which also refer to Grain Trade Australia’s annual trading standards for which apply to buying and trading wheat in Australia. These standards regulate the grading and standards of wheat for trade in Australia.

The Wheat Export Marketing Amendment Act 2012 provides a regulatory framework for participating in the bulk wheat export market with the aim of promoting an efficient and profitable bulk wheat export marketing industry.

Publications

Publications/ information products

Wheat growth and development – New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Irrigated Wheat: Achievable yields for irrigated wheat – GRDC fact sheet

Wheat – Southern Region – GRDC GrowNotes™

Wheat Northern Region – GRDC GrowNotes™

Wheat Western Region – GRDC GrowNotes™

Productive dual purpose winter wheats – NSW DPI Agnote 438

Growing Wheat – Agriculture Victoria AGO548

Stored grain pests identification – The back pocket Guide – GRDC publication

Wheat Rust The back pocket guide – GRDC publication

Managing yellow spot and septoria nodorum blotch in wheat – WA Department of Agriculture and Food

Other resources

New South Wales Department of Primary Industries

Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry

Department of Primary Industries and Regions South Australia

Victoria Department of Environment and Primary Industries

Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food

Grains Industry Association of Western Australia

Grain Trade Australia provides trading standards and other resources to assist purchasing, selling, trading, broking or operating in the commercial grain industry

Wheat Quality Australia – independent, not-for-profit company that classifies new wheat varieties according to market needs

Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority – information about chemical products registered for use in agriculture in Australia

Image Gallery

 - image

Wheat crop

 - image

Combine harvesters harvesting a wheat crop

 - image

Wheat heads ready for harvest

 - image

Wheat grains