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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 1

I Groping In A Strange Environment: 1788-1851

II Farmers Take The Initiative: 1851-1888

III Enter Education And Science: 1888-1927

IV Agricultural Science Pays Dividends: 1927-1987

V Examples Of Research And Development 1928-1988
i Land assessment
ii Improving the environment
iii Adapting to the environment
iv Improving farm management

VI International Aspects Of Agricultural Research

VII Future Prospects

VIII Acknowledgements



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Wheat production (continued)

During the 1870s and 1880s, following earlier work in Britain, wheat cross-breeding experiments were being undertaken by individuals in the United States, Canada, France and Germany and, in New South Wales, William Farrer developed a keen interest in this work. In 1885 he began experiments while working as a surveyor but, in the following year, he left this work to manage a small farm near Canberra. After collecting a wide range of seed he began cross-breeding in 1889. His interest was in breeding for rust and drought resistance combined with improved grain quality. For help with the latter he turned to the newly appointed chemist of the New South Wales Department of Agriculture, E B. Guthrie, who developed a method of test milling. Gradually Farrer concentrated on combinations of early maturing and drought resistant Indian wheats and high quality Canadian Fife wheats. His collaboration with the New South Wales Department of Agriculture led the Department to appoint him as Wheat Experimentalist in 1898.

Farrer released numerous new wheat varieties but the best known was Federation, a cross between Purple Straw and Yandilla, which was a Canadian Fife and Indian wheat cross. Named in 1901, by the 1919-20 season Federation comprised some 80 per cent of all the wheat harvested in Australia. Farrer died in 1906 but by then the benefits of wheat breeding had been well established, and the development of wheat breeding programs became a major activity of most departments of agriculture.

The new varieties of wheat gave increased yields, and the yields were further enhanced by the growing use of superphosphate. However, the lack of soil moisture and low soil fertility, particularly a lack of nitrogen, were still a problem. With the movement of wheat growing into the drier regions American experience became more relevant than British and, by the turn of the century, the Americans were looking to science to help dry land farming. At this time the capillarity theory of water movement in soils was in vogue and it was claimed that a dust mulch on ploughed land would prevent water loss from the soil. The theory was wrong but it led to positive improvements in practice. The South Australian Government took a particular interest in possible new systems of dry farming and encouraged research on the topic.

A system of fallowing was developed and it was thought that a fallow of 8-11 months before seeding was most effective. Its benefits were eventually shown to be in removing weeds, and thus preventing water loss through the weeds, and increasing supplies of available nitrogen through promoting the release of soluble nitrogen from organic matter. On the debit side, however, fallowing had a bad effect on soil structure. Nevertheless, with the introduction of fallowing, a further step was taken towards the development of a characteristic system of Australian wheat production.

This development was more or less completed after the 1930s depression. Prior to this, in the 1920s, there had been a rapid expansion of wheat growing into marginal areas. Drought and excessive cropping led to severe soil erosion and Australia suffered its local equivalent of the American dust bowl. Rehabilitation of wheat production required the recognition that some areas were too marginal for cropping and also that superphosphate applications alone were not enough to maintain soil fertility under constant cropping, even with fallowing. Finally, after about 150 years of settlement, a stable, viable system of wheat cropping was evolved. Sheep and other livestock were introduced and wheat was grown in a system which included both a fallow and a rotation, from one to four years or more, under a legume-grass pasture. As a result the wheat growing region became known as the wheat-sheep zone.

People in Bright Sparcs - Farrer, William; Guthrie, F. B.

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 57 - 58, Online Edition 2000
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