Animal feed compounders know what they want, and they are prepared to pay for it, reports Tia Rund.
WET litter may not mean much to many arable farmers. But in the broiler house it means money lost through soiled and possibly condemned poultry carcasses. Similarly colitis – a diarrhoea condition of pigs – strikes dread into the heart of pig farmers.
Yet the plant breeding industry may unwittingly have been contributing to both. Concern came to a head in 1988. The variety Slejpner was implicated as being responsible.
"We stopped buying Slejpner. But the decision was made on a whim, not through any particular understanding of the feeding value of wheat," remarks Mick Hazzledine, Dalgety Agricultures chief nutritionist.
It marked the beginning of a research project investigating just about every aspect of wheat nutrition and chemistry as it relates to animal feeding, he adds.
Although wheat is the biggest ingredient in many rations, traditionally it is probably the most neglected.
"So the feed industry tends to use whats left after the premium markets have been satisfied. But we wanted to change that. If I dont understand wheat as a nutritionist, thats makes about 50% of a broiler diet a mystery."
One of the earliest discoveries was that viscosity of the ground grain explains 79% of the energy value of wheat for poultry.
It was also found to be a major aggravating factor in colitis and wet litter. The stickier the wheat, the greater the problem.
Then it was confirmed that the rye gene, introduced into varieties in the late 1980s to improve yields and yellow rust resistance at the time, also increased viscosity.
"Now we can break down UK wheats into those that are sticky and those that arent," explains Mr Hazzledine. "Its simplistic but it works."
As a result, Dalgety has been segregating wheat at two of its 24 feed mills since the last harvest. Now it plans to extend this segregation to all its major pig and poultry-feed producing sites.
This coincides with the launch of the MasterFeed premium contract – the first ever grower contract for a variety with superior animal feeding. And the named variety is Buster.
Frank Curtis of Nickerson Seeds calculates that the promised premium of up to 4% will put gross margins on a par with Brigadier. "Plus its one of only two varieties on the Recommended List still resistant to the new races of yellow rust.
"It also has the best standing power, alongside Equinox, so it can be pushed hard." He believes the MasterFeed contracts will boost Busters market share from 3% to 10% over the next two years.
Any Dalgety customer growing Buster will be offered a premium for the current growing crop linked with a continuation contract for 1998 harvest.
The company will logically be looking to contract grow the variety close to its designated mills.
The contract excludes farm saved seed, and growers next year will be expected to be registered under the new Assured Combinable Crop scheme.
And the story doesnt stop there. "There are issues other than viscosity. The team has pinpointed a whole range of varietal, agronomic and processing factors that have an important effect on the feeding value of wheat for both adult and young animals," says Mr Hazzledine.
"So, beyond Buster, we see the MasterFeed brand extending to other varieties and, beyond wheat, to other species such as barley.
"Meanwhile, theres no doubt that specialist feed wheat growing will become standard practice in the UK before long."