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Oat breeding effort celebrated

Ashley Wiese presents a gift of appreciation from the Australian oat industry to Dr Pamela Zwer for her 27 years of improving Australian oats.
Photo: David Broadway

With international and national oat experts gathered for the 11th International Oat Conference in Perth recently, it was a fitting occasion to pay tribute to former Australian oat breeder Dr Pamela Zwer on her retirement.

On behalf of the Grain Industry Association of Western Australia (GIWA) and the Australian oat industry, conference chair Ashley Wiese presented Dr Zwer with a gift of appreciation for her many years of oat improvement work.

“Dr Zwer joined the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) in 1995 as principal plant breeder and leader of the oat breeding program, bringing with her considerable experience in oat and club wheat breeding from the US,” Mr Wiese said.

This was the beginning of a 27-year career in oat improvement for Australian growers.

Dr Zwer succeeded Dr Andrew Barr, who was instrumental in breeding Australia’s first semi-dwarf oats, most notably Echidna. She expanded the oat team further, bringing Daryl Schaefer, Mark Hill, Michelle Williams, Jenny Emery and Kerry Lee McMurray on board to support Sue Hoppo and Peter McCormack.

“Understanding the needs of both growers and end users was key for Pamela and her team,” said Mr Wiese, an oat grower himself.

“In 1995 she quickly established a relationship with the Uncle Tobys and, in particular, the research and development group in Rutherglen.”

Industry input

Although Dr Zwer’s main industry connection was with Uncle Tobys, her team also connected with other millers in Victoria (Unigrain), South Australia (Blue Lake Milling), and WA (PepsiCo Quaker) to discuss traits important to processing their oat products.

With this industry input, the focus of Dr Zwer’s oat team shifted from primarily yield to improving grain quality and nutritional components.

The team pioneered the implementation of new technologies for oats that were available at the time – a major one being near-infrared technology (NIR) screening – and Dr Zwer’s team achieved significant gains in physical and chemical grain quality. The adoption of NIR techniques for whole grain  generated calibrations that brought efficiencies to the breeding program, taking the number oat traits that could be rapidly screened to 11 for grain and 10 for hay.

Collaborating with Uncle Tobys, a micro mill was developed to assess processing and sensory characters of advanced breeding lines. The team was also instrumental in adopting other new technologies such as Megazyme to assess beta-glucan and also developed digital imaging to assess seed size uniformity and grain dimensions.

In 2002, SARDI was approached by the WA Department of Agriculture to establish a National Oat Breeding Program. Subsequently, Dr Zwer became the lead of this program in 2003 and became a regular visitor to WA, together with oat program colleague Peter McCormack. This new program required additional resourcing and John Sydenham, Joe Naughton and Toni Cure joined from the Department of Agriculture. During the final years of the program, Pip Payne, Cody Hull and Deb Donovan assumed these roles.

Delivering for growers

From 2003 onwards, landmark milling varieties released by the program included Possum, Mitika (PBR), Dunnart (PBR), Wombat, Bannister (PBR), Williams (PBR), Kowari (PBR), Bilby (PBR) and, the last variety from the program, Koala (PBR). NIR calibrations assisted with the selection of varieties with high groat percentage, which equates to about $100,000 in processing savings with each one per cent increase.

Mitika , Kowari and Bilby increased groat percentage by 1.8 to 2.3 per cent compared to Echidna. Screenings ranged from 4.1 to 6 per cent in these varieties compared to Echidna at 12 per cent. Grain weight for 1000 kernels was increased from 33.1 grams in Echidna to 37.5g in Bilby . Increased beta-glucan in new variety releases was also achieved, notably Bilby , Mitika and Kowari .

Landmark hay varieties released from the program include: Wintaroo , Brusher , Kangaroo, Mulgara , Tungoo , Tammar , Forester , Koorabup and two recent releases – Wallaby and Kultarrin 2022.

In the early 2020s, eight of the program’s hay varieties made up more than 80 per cent of export hay produced in Australia, while nine of the program’s milling oat varieties made up more than 90 per cent of Australian milling oats.

Oat legacy

In 2020 the national oat program was put up for tender and was transitioned to InterGrain in WA.

“The industry would like to recognise the professional manner that Pamela has shown working with InterGrain to transfer the program from a public breeding program to InterGrain,” Mr Wiese said.

“Her open and engaging attitude to this ensured that important knowledge about the breeding pipeline was protected and effectively transferred.”

Dr Zwer’s passion for oats and the Australian oat industry has been clear throughout her career.

Pamela has been author and co-author of more than 30 publications relating to oat and oat production constraints during her time as the principal oat breeder.

“She was also chair of the International Oat Committee from 2008 until 2016 – a position that recognises the respect Pamela holds globally.

“Pamela has been an active participant for the life of the GIWA Oat Council and a driving force behind the success of the 11th International Oat Conference.”

Dr Zwer said it was a privilege to develop improved milling and hay oat varieties for oat growers, processors and commercial seed partners.

“A highlight of my career was developing a more-robust breeding program for enhanced grain quality coupled with improved grain yield,” she said.

“Working in collaboration with the industry assisted with developing new technologies for assessing traits of importance. Improved seed size uniformity through lower screenings, higher groat percentage and enhanced beta-glucan content was achieved with the National Oat Breeding Team.

“Another highlight was the development of the new hay breeding component of the program. Hard work from the oat breeding team and continued input from the blossoming hay industry shaped the new hay breeding program, which delivered improved varieties for disease resistance, hay quality, varied maturity for different hay cutting times, and hay yield.”

Dr Zwer said the genome sequencing of oat varieties globally in the Oat PanGenome opens a new horizon for oat breeding. “The future is bright for progressing oat breeding and genetics beyond expectations.”

More information: Dr Pamela Zwer,  

For more information on the latest GRDC investments supporting oat production - Groundcover Supplement 162 Oats.

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