Seeds Focus: Could soft wheats see a revival?

They’ve gone from commanding more than half of the UK wheat area to representing less than 20% today.

Group 3 wheats – traditionally linked with the biscuit and cake making market – may also be suitable for the export, distilling and bioethanol markets. That gives them the potential to expand rapidly, believe many in the industry, especially as last year saw the introduction of Scout, while this year both Invicta and Warrior have been launched.

The three new varieties have joined old favourites such as Claire and Robigus – both of which are expected to lose market share as the higher yielding newcomers make their presence felt.

Hampshire independent agronomist Tod Hunnisett looks after a sizable area of Group 3s spread out across Hampshire, Kent and the Isle of Wight. The region’s proximity to the ports at Southampton and Shoreham means that the export market drives variety choice, as growers know that it usually offers a sensible premium.

“Claire is still a big variety in this part of the country,” he says. “It’s been a reliable performer, growers know how to handle it and it always gets a premium.”

But having gained some experience with Scout, he sees it as the natural successor to Claire. “It has very good grain quality and similar processing qualities, so it’s starting to make inroads down here. Like Claire, it can be drilled early, and it offers orange wheat blossom midge resistance too, which is a bonus.”

What Scout and Claire offer his growers is a superior product at selling time, he explains. “Often, there’s a boat waiting in the port and the farmer is rung at the last minute. If he’s got either of these two varieties, he’ll get a premium.”

Viscount, which joined the Recommended List last year as a soft Group 4 type, hasn’t found a place on the south coast, he notes. “It lost its status. There’s only one outlet which will take it down here.”

Mark Isaacson, wheat buyer at Bowman’s, says that Group 3 wheat represents the largest chunk of the company’s purchases. “It’s our single biggest grade, so we’re keen to encourage more Group 3s, as well as support the introduction of new varieties.”

He has been impressed by the very promising results achieved with Scout and confirms that the company will be using it from harvest 2010. “Invicta is still a year away, but we are always looking at new varieties and will be running tests on it this year.”

The declining availability of Group 3s means that he also finds a place for the soft Group 4 varieties, Viscount and Alchemy, which are used in blends. “They do a reasonable job.”

George Mason at flour millers Heygates agrees that differentiation exists between the varieties, making it essential that growers know where they’re going to sell the variety before they drill.

“They all fit the bill from a milling point of view, and that includes the soft endosperm Group 4s,” he says. “But quality does get a premium, which is where they vary.”

From the farmer’s point of view, Mr Mason believes that geography, end market and yield should be considered.

“Yields are creeping up, perhaps more slowly than growers would like,” he comments. “Farm location is important, as what the local mill is making will dictate what varieties it buys.”

A good example of this in practice is that Heygates buys Alchemy and Claire for the breakfast cereal market, he reveals.

The arrival of breakfast cereal manufacturer Weetabix in the market this year is also giving a steer on variety choice. The company is keen to buy soft wheats grown within a 50 mile radius of its Burton Latimer site in Northamptonshire and has named seven varieties as suitable – Scout, Claire, Alchemy, Robigus, Viscount, Zebedee and Einstein.

But further north, the distilling perspective takes over, points out Dave Robinson of NIAB TAG. “There are few varieties which can meet the requirements of millers and distillers. So the soft endosperm Group 4s are just as relevant up here as the Group 3s.”

Varieties considered to be good for distilling include Viscount, Beluga and Glasgow, while Alchemy, Robigus and Invicta have received a medium rating. Scout and Warrior are not suitable.

“The key requirements for distilling are a high alcohol yield and a low residue viscosity,” explains James Brosnan of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute. “The soft endosperm texture is also important, as distillers need to be able to access the starch and fermentable sugars.”

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