Pasture program on the market

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

The future of WA's pasture seed industry is on shaky ground with the Department of Agriculture and Food putting its Pasture Breeding and Agronomy program up for sale.

Over-the-fence farmer trading of seed, coupled with a lack of broader industry ownership, has contributed to the decision, according to industry commentators.

DAFWA executive director Livestock Industries Peter Metcalfe said illegal farmer-to-farmer trading of PBR-registered DAFWA co-owned pasture varieties had diminished a vital royalty revenue stream, which ultimately had had an impact on the sustainability of the program.

_Countryman _understands the program costs the department about $800,000 to run each year.

But Australian Seed and Grain director Chris Martin said there was industry concern that adequate funding would not be injected into breeding new varieties if the program was privatised.

Mr Martin, who is also the national chairman of the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation's Pasture Seed Committee, said pasture breeding needed to stay in independent hands.

"This program does cost the department significantly, but like many areas in government, there seems to be an attitude that these business units need to be cost neutral," he said.

"Clearly this program is not cost neutral, but I question whether privatising the program is the way forward."

Mr Martin agreed that over-the-fence sales of pasture seed were a major contributor to the lack of available funding streams for the program.

"Until that is sorted out there will be problems with reinvesting in the industry," he said.

Mr Metcalfe said DAFWA had received a strong level of interest in the advertised program so far.

"It is DAFWA and the great majority of the pasture and seed industry's belief that greater industry relevance will most likely be achieved by a dynamic, innovative and viable commercial pasture enterprise," he said.

According to pasture seed grower and Pingelly farmer Les Marshall, who produces up to 200 tonnes of pasture seed a year, the department had lost its way in regard to pasture seed development decades ago.

Mr Marshall said a focus on aerial pasture seed varieties, such as serradella, while being a quick and easy fix, had meant funding was not directed to subterranean clover varieties that were more chemically compatible with cereal rotations.

"The problem is the incompatibility of aerial pasture seed varieties with selective and non- selective chemicals for clean pastures for future cropping," he said.

He said DAFWA needed to invest in educating growers and consultants about the agronomic benefits of pastures as part of a complete cereal business.

"There are so many things that DAFWA could have done - its staff needed to be showing farmers and consultants how to use pastures 'agronomically'," he said.

But Mr Marshall said selling off the program couldn't harm the industry.

"They lost their focus years ago, so selling this business surely couldn't harm this industry any more," he said.

"The department hasn't asked for grower input into their research program for many years."

Mr Marshall said funding a pasture-breeding program should be the equal responsibility of the Grains Research and Development Corporation, Australian Wool Innovation and Meat and Livestock Australia.

He said with $45 million from grains levies coming from WA, and with clear evidence that pastures were an important break crop in a cereal rotation, GRDC should be committing funding to the burgeoning industry.

A GRDC spokeswoman said GRDC did not currently invest in pasture breeding, but the organisation had significant investments in pastures sequencing in cropping systems, including a current $6.27 million five-year project with DAFWA.

Mr Marshall said the regulations applying to Plant Breeders Rights were arduous at best, and encouraged over-the-fence trading.

He said the industry lacked leadership and direction, despite pastures being proven as an important rotational tool.

"It's a very fragmented industry - we row our own canoe, we do our best to survive in this very unstructured environment," he said.

_Countryman _ understands an industry consortium, including growers, is considering a purchase proposal.

Expressions of interest are due by October 16, and Mr Metcalfe said the selection criteria was weighted towards the delivery of net benefits to WA growers.

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