LUPINS have long been considered a means of providing essential nitrogen for soil - as part of wheat crop rotation - and not much else.
While growers regard lupins as an important element in long-term farming processes, they invariably play second fiddle to the main crop, but times may be changing for wheat's poor relation.
Recent research to develop other lupin uses has led to the discovery of its value as a plant-based protein in aquaculture.
Coromup, a new lupin variety released by the Agriculture Department last week, is one such discovery, but the development of new products alone may not be enough to save WA's declining lupin trade.
The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) this year predicted a gloomy immediate future for lupins in its June quarter crop report.
ABARE forecast that 600,000ha lupins would be planted in WA this season - 8pc lower than last year, and certainly a far cry from the heady 1980s when it was touted as WA's golden crop.
Production is expected to reach 720,000t, a 13pc decline compared with 2005-06, but the low July rainfall will see that figure cut by a significant amount when official September figures are released.
In announcing the release of Coromup, Agriculture Minister Kim Chance said the new product would deliver dual benefits for WA's lupin and fishery industries.
Coromup is expected to deliver an average protein yield across WA of 36.1pc, making it 2.4pc higher than its nearest lupin rival, Mandelup.
"Its major benefit, of course, is its high protein feature that will enhance the viability of WA's lupin industry and open up other markets that demand higher protein feeds," Mr Chance said.
Coromup is expected to open new niche markets for lupin products and create high demand as an aquaculture feed.
It has the highest protein content of all narrow-leafed lupins, with about 3pc higher protein than the existing leading variety, Mandelup.
In addition to its high protein content, Coromup is more tolerant than Tanjil to the herbicide Metribuzin and is equal in tolerance to Mandelup.
"Coromup is a narrow-leafed lupin bred to suit WA conditions and is also resistant to the fungal disease anthracnose," Mr Chance said.
"Coromup is expected to be the most profitable variety for dehulling operators and is suitable for downstream processing, ultimately as a high protein source for the food or feed markets.
"It also has potential for regional value-adding, increasing opportunities for the establishment of dehulling plants."
Coromup is as high yielding as Tanjil but not as high as Mandelup, but an expected protein premium could offset the yield differential.
Coromup was developed by the Agriculture Department with co-investment from the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).
Agriculture Department plant breeder Bevan Buirchell said 30t of Coromup seed had been allocated to licensee Coorow Seeds.
"Coorow Seeds will put 30t of Coromup in the ground some time this year and harvest it by the end of this year," Mr Buirchell said.
"It should be made commercially available to farmers to go in the ground next year.
"Deliveries will start the year after, so we should see Coromup start to be delivered into CBH bins or through other means by around 2008."
Mr Buirchell rated Coromup as an important breakthrough for WA's flagging lupin industry.
"We are hoping that the release of this variety will help the lupin industry gather some of the momentum that it has lost recently," Mr Buirchell said.
"The main advantage is the potential to get paid a protein premium, but growers will need to work out the yield difference against the premium to decide if they should be growing it or another variety.
"We also see it as a means of stimulating marketers to find new markets for lupins with high protein content."