Barley is, in many ways, the perfect crop for Australian conditions.
The native of the semi-arid Fertile Crescent in the Middle East is the most tolerant of all the cereal crops of dry conditions, sets its yield early and is less susceptible to the inevitable Aussie heat shock in spring.
With good returns on offer, it is in many ways an ideal low risk cereal option.
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However, there is always a catch. For all its hardiness, barley, like many humans, is not a fan of excess acidity, and without the option of a Quick-Eze to turn to, farmers on acid soils, such as the sandy northern wheatbelt in Western Australia or the sodic, heavy clays of the Western District in Victoria, struggle to find a useful barley alternative to wheat.
But research is changing all that.
The InterGrain program has also broken the genetic linkage between acid soil tolerance and blue aleurone which was present within Litmus and its ancestors.
Acid tolerant germplasm was identified some time ago, offering yield advantages of up to 30 per cent on widely grown cultivars on severely acid soil (below 3.9pH).
But there have been challenges in developing commercial varieties.
Acid tolerance in barley is often linked with a blue aleurone layer in barley, which is not wanted by some sections of the market, in spite of having no impact on performance.
Grain Trade Australia standards currently have zero tolerance for blue aleurone in malt varieties.
The first commercial barley bred by InterGrain for Western Australia with acid tolerance was Litmus, but it had a blue aleurone layer and was only classed as a feed grain.
However, there is promising work with a new line.
Buff, formerly IGB1506, will be InterGrain’s first white aleurone, acid soil tolerant barley commercially available.
The variety will be accepted into Barley Australia’s malt accreditation program.
Work conducted by the old NSW Department of Primary Industries breeding program, led by Dr Barbara Read, developed white aleurone, acid tolerant germplasm.
This germplasm was mainly with a later maturity and feed grain quality.
After painstaking work, IntergGain breeder David Moody says this source of acid tolerance has been combined with earlier maturity, high grain yields and much improved malting quality.
“InterGrain has extensively used this white aleurone, acid soil germplasm (originating from the old Wagga Wagga program) within the breeding program,” Mr Moody says.
“In addition, the InterGrain program has also broken the genetic linkage between acid soil tolerance and blue aleurone which was present within Litmus and it’s ancestors.”
The new variety Buff has consistently demonstrated a yield advantage in excess of 10 per cent over industry benchmark La Trobe in acidic environments, where pH is below 5.5 and similar yields in neutral soil types.
On the acidic soils at the 2018 Kalannie National Variety Trial (NVT) site, where Buff was launched, Buff yielded 5.91 tonnes per hectare versus La Trobe at 4.51t/ha.
One of the biggest limitations for growers in northern WA is that current barley varieties aren’t well adapted to acid soils.
Mr Moody sees IGB1506 Buff providing that much-needed alternative to wheat for growers in northern WA, providing growers with another cereal crop within their rotation.
“One of the biggest limitations for growers in northern WA is that current barley varieties aren’t well adapted to acid soils,” he says.
“On acidic soils, current barley varieties, prior to the release of Litmus, have typically been unviable due to the significant yield differential compared to wheat.”
Researchers say that growers should not simply rely on the varieties to pick up the slack on acid soils, but to work to sweeten them through lime applications, saying acid-tolerance varieties did not replace the need for farmers to put out lime to raise the pH.