GREATER focus on supplying feed grains and specialty grains markets may shape the future of Western Australian farming was the consensus of opinion at an industry forum last week.
More than 200 people at the forum and more than 30 watching via video link from interstate and overseas were told that oats, pulses and soft wheats may take a greater role in cropping programs with malting barley, in particular, and canola to a lesser extent facing existing market difficulties or potential future uncertainty.
While the WA grains industry has been underpinned by bulk commodity exports to "undifferentiated" markets for decades, that may slowly change and although the grains industry is more diversified than it was 30 years ago, the conference heard that more diversification into niche products was likely.
Organised by the Grains Industry Association of WA (GIWA) in conjunction with the Stock Feed Manufacturers' Council of Australia, the Diversifying and Value Adding Western Australian Grain forum featured a discussion panel headed by CBH Group marketing and trading general manager Jason Craig.
Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan sat in on the panel with Premium Grain Handlers managing director John Orr and Alba Oils director Jon Slee.
Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre chief economist professor Ross Kingwell from The University of Western Australia's School of Agriculture and Environment was keynote speaker, establishing discussion points for the panel.
Professor Kingwell said he saw opportunities in further diversification of the suite of grains WA farmers produce, to minimise commercial risk in the export sector and to open up potential new markets in South East Asia where WA enjoyed a geographical advantage of reduced transport costs.
With 85 per cent of WA grain production still bulk cereals and only 15pc specialty products, professor Kingwell said he saw scope to increase the specialty area through development of new products, particularly new oats and soft wheat varieties, as food grade grains.
Increasing consumption of chicken and pork provided opportunities to supply feed grade grains to those industries, as well as the grain-fed beef industry and to the sheep industry if its numbers showed a resurgence, he said.
"Farmers know the wisdom of being technically competent in managing a crop that one day may move from niche to mainstream," professor Kingwell said.
"The negatives are the more crops you have the more competent and knowledgeable you need to be as manager - they may complicate your labour management, complicate chemistry, put greater demand on your ability to store seed and can complicate seeding and harvest.
"In relation to the enduring role of wheat in our cropping program, you frankly have to take your hat off to the breeders, agricultural scientists, farm advisers and machinery manufacturers who have allowed water use efficiency to progress positively through time, allowing yields trajectories to remain positive."
Professor Kingwell said most of WA's main wheat customers were close by in the Philippines, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia and China.
However he said a significant change last year was that the world's second largest cereals importer Indonesia (Egypt is the world's biggest) was overtaken by the Philippines as Australia's best grains customer.
Mr Orr confirmed he had seen recent increasing demand for "lesser" quality or feed grade grains which he believed was a market that had been overlooked to a degree.
He said global production of red meat was relying on more concentrated farming methods such as feedlots which provided markets for our feed grade grains.
Mr Orr said Australia's domestic grains market suffered from high coastal shipping costs which hindered WA growers' competitiveness when looking to supply the Eastern States in times of drought like last year.
"I can send a container from Fremantle to Rotterdam on the other side of the world for $40 a tonne," Mr Orr said.
"The same container going Fremantle to Sydney costs me $75/t."
Mr Slee agreed with Ms MacTiernan that it was "a little bit of madness that our most valuable market for non-genetically modified sustainable canola is to put it into a car (in Europe)".
He pointed out that the European biofuel market had been "fantastic" for WA canola growers and had required the local industry to establish critical and trusted GM and non-GM canola segregations which now put it at an advantage to many of its competitors.
Mr Slee said there were new canola developments in the pipeline, but they were likely to be more niche market than mainstream.
Mr Slee and Mr Orr outlined opposite impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic on their businesses for the forum.
Mr Orr said exports had quickly dried up but their domestic sales of pet food had boomed, while Mr Slee said a domestic canola oil supply to hotels and restaurants had stopped as soon as movement restrictions were introduced but exports of canola product had increased.