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Could a wheat sample test put money in your pocket?

Buyers are increasingly using falling number to determine wheat’s value — but farmers don’t get paid for that

Alberta Wheat is hailing a move by the Canadian Grain Commission to consider making tests for falling number and deoxynivalenol official grain-grading factors.

“We want the grain commission to make a whole bunch of changes,” said chair Gary Stanford. “We think the grain should be sold by falling numbers… Everybody wants to sell at Grade 1 because you get more money for it, but it’s more often than not that the falling number would get us a better price.”

The farm group has long called on the grain commission to “modernize” its grading system by using testing machines to measure falling number instead of relying on a visual inspection. For the former, you want the falling number to be 300 or above.

“As a farmer, if I’ve got a Grade 3, instead of you discounting me a dollar a bushel, I want you to pay me by the falling number,” said Stanford.

“If it’s over 320 to 330 falling number, that means that the quality of the wheat is very good. It could be a Grade 1 and have a 350 falling number, which is good. Up to 400 even. It can be a Grade 2 and not look as nice, but still have a 350 to 400 falling number.”

Both the falling number and a visual inspection of sprouting in wheat samples are a way to estimate alpha-amylase, the enzyme that plays a major role in producing quality bread and pasta. But the latter is a much rougher guide.

“This is where the big debate came in,” said Stanford. “Are we selling wheat to Asia by the falling number or are we selling strictly based on the visual look of the grain?”

If the falling number is the key to price, then having that test done at the elevator could put more money in producers’ pockets.

“The elevator will say, well this is a Grade 2 CPS wheat, so we can only pay you $6 a bushel for it. But the falling number is very good, it’s still 350, so then we say the falling number is still good, so you should have to pay us the Grade 1 price. And they say, ‘No, grain is sold on the grading price, on the visual look of it.’”

It only makes sense to pay farmers according to the value of the wheat, said Kevin Auch, a former Alberta Wheat chair.

“If wheat’s got a high falling number, it’s going to be good for uses like bread flour and that sort of thing,” said Auch. “That would definitely be a value that they would pay more for.”

Technical challenges

The grain commission has resisted a move to measure falling number at elevators, arguing machines that measure it don’t provide sufficient accuracy when used outside a laboratory environment. But the commission also acknowledges that the technology is improving — both for the falling number and deoxynivalenol (DON).

“Advances in technology and analytical testing now provide the opportunity to test directly for these important characteristics using methods that are increasingly accessible to the sector,” the commission said in announcing its review.

As well, testing for falling number and for DON has “escalated” in importance “due to increasing buyer demand for wheat purchases by specification,” it added.

However, there’s still a lot of factors to be considered when it comes to this issue, said Alberta Wheat officials.

“Would it be a driveway test, for example? That has a lot of cost implications and speed implications for handling system,” said general manager Tom Steve. “We need to know a lot more about the nature of what the discussion is before we could take a formal position.”

“Not every grain elevator has a falling number tester,” added Stanford. “And it takes a long time to do it. It takes a couple of hours to do a test.”

But there are ways to deal with that if the falling number is valuable enough, said Auch.

“Rye has been tied to falling numbers for years, if it’s milled rye,” he said. “There were always falling number specs that were important there. Companies can buy based on falling numbers. If they’re looking for those grade specs, they get samples from the farmer.”

However, falling number is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card for a poor crop.

While a sample that gets a lower grade can have a decent falling number, quality factors often go hand in hand.

“If you have too many sprouts in a Grade 2 or a Grade 3 wheat, then the falling number falls off,” noted Stanford. “If it has too much disease on it, or mildew on it, the falling number will fall off.”

Review underway

The grain commission review is focused on whether those in the grain sector “support the use of falling number and DON as grading factors… and what the impacts would be if these changes were implemented.”

Many of the questions listed in a background document (available at www.grainscanada.gc.ca) are focused on grain companies or buyers. (Such as whether their contracts require falling number or DON specifications, and what tests they currently use for those two factors.)

But the commission also wants to know if the grain sector wants them to be official grading factors, and if they do, whether it should be for wheat or other types of grain (such as barley). It also wants to know if respondents think such a move would affect grain prices or increase profits, and how it might “affect the dependability of Canadian grain.”

DON, or vomitoxin, is produced in grain infected by certain types of fusarium head blight, a fungal disease of wheat, barley, oats, rye, and corn which produces shrivelled, chalky-white kernels. Currently, the commission visually inspects grain for fusarium-damaged kernels (FDK) to gauge DON levels. But FDK isn’t a precise predictor and “may not ensure sufficient accuracy for grain contracts with defined DON specifications,” the commission said.

If DON becomes an official grading factor, the commission is proposing there be a maximum allowable level for all grades within a class. FDK would remain an official grading factor, though, since fusarium has “other significant end-use quality impacts.”

Moreover, falling number and DON grading factors “would not take precedence over other official grading factors.” That means factors such as mildew, frost and percentage of hard vitreous kernels (HVK) “would continue to apply.”

Before any official changes are made to grading factors, the Eastern and Western Standards Committees would also be required to conduct “a careful review and consideration,” the commission added.

Comments need to be sent in by May 10 via email ([email protected]), fax (204-983-2751), or mail (Canadian Grain Commission, 600-303 Main Street, Winnipeg, Man. R3C 3G8).

— With staff files

About the author

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Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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