Knowing your wheat’s falling number critical this year

[UPDATED: Nov. 22, 2019] The ‘harvest from hell’ has resulted in one of the worst years in recent memory for sprout damage.

That’s pushed down falling numbers and — since grain buyers have different approaches to handling this issue — increased the need for farmers to know the falling numbers for their wheat.

But if you want to take advance of the Canadian Grain Commission’s annual harvest sample program, you need to register for the program before the end of November. The commission has extended the deadline for submitting samples to Dec. 31 — but for farmers who are registered with the program as Nov. 30.

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“Talk to your buyer sooner than later so you know what their requirements are so you can plan accordingly,” said Pam de Rocquigny, general manager of the Manitoba Wheat and Barley Growers Association. “If you do have high-quality wheat make sure you know what the quality is so you can extract as much from the marketplace as you can because there is high-quality wheat out there.”

An official with a major grain company agrees.

“We have a process in place to try and manage the flow from the farmer to end-use customer,” said John Peterson, vice-president of wheat merchandising and hedging at James Richardson International Ltd.

Both de Rocquigny and Doug Chorney, the grain commission’s assistant chief commissioner, are urging farmers to take good representative samples before getting their wheat falling number tested.

The normal error is plus or minus 30 seconds, said Chorney.

“You can have a wheat that is in the 280 (second) range,” he said. “You could test that representative sample again and it could be anything from 250 to 310. That’s a big difference when the cut-off is 300 for some companies, 320 or whatever.”

Both also warn blending to try and improve falling number is complicated.

“One or two kernels can have an impact on the test,” de Rocquigny warned. “It’s not a straightforward process. We’re still encouraging producers to try not to blend it themselves and keep your high-quality wheat binned separately from lower-quality wheat.”

Richardson International is doing a falling number test on all wheat before buying it this year, Peterson said.

“Then we work with the farmer to manage the stocks,” he said. “We also have a minimum falling number in our contract.”

What it means

Much of the confusion is because sprouting, which is a proxy for falling number, is a grade factor. But falling number, which is a proxy for assessing the release of the enzyme alpha-amylase, is not a grading factor — but can still result in lower prices no matter what the grade. (Alpha-amylase breaks down wheat starch in the kernel into sugars so that the germinating kernel has an energy source. Sound grain has minimal enzyme levels.)

The falling number test, usually done in a laboratory, measures the time a plunger drops through a slurry of water and wheat flour. The more alpha-amylase the less viscous the slurry and the faster the plunger falls resulting in a lower falling number.

Less alpha-amylase makes the slurry thicker and the plunger falls more slowly resulting in a higher falling number. A higher number indicates the flour is better for bread making.

Complicating matters this year is that some wheat isn’t being downgraded for sprout damage, but farmers are getting paid less than one might expect given the grade.

Some farmers are wondering if it’s a case of ‘heads, they lose, tails, the elevator company wins.’

But de Rocquigny says grade and price are not the same.

The grain commission doesn’t deal with grain prices, but as a farmer Chorney noted supply and demand affects prices. Years when protein wheat is short, grain companies often pay protein premiums. It’s possible that some buyers will pay more for wheat downgraded for sprout damage if the falling number is good, he said.

“That would be a potential example of a win-win,” Chorney said. “I know the industry works very well to manage that.”

Peterson also thinks that can happen.

“I think that the industry is motivated to show value to the farmer,” he said. “In a year when you are short falling number… the industry will show value where there is value.

“So if a farmer happens to have a No. 3 red for some specification, say mildew, but the falling number is excellent, it wouldn’t surprise me that someone saw value in that and behaved accordingly.

“But that doesn’t mean all of a sudden there is this huge premium market for every farmer who has 400 falling number.”

Other factors

Falling number is not the only specification determining the value of wheat, de Rocquigny said. There’s a long list of items from protein content to insect damage that affect how much a buyer will pay.

In March the grain commission asked the industry for its views on making falling number and DON (deoxynivalenol) grading factors. The commission said if they were it could arbitrate disputes between farmers and buyers on those items.

*Several years ago the Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) lobbied for such a change, arguing falling number was a more objective measure than sprout damage. However, during the CGC’s consultations this spring it recommended against adopting falling number as a grading factor because it doesn’t want farmers subjected to both falling number and sprout damage as grading factors.

“AWC believes there needs to be a serious national conversation about modernizing the visual grading system to one that is based on specifications that are being required by our international customers,” AWC general manager Tom Steve said in an email Nov. 22.

The Western Grain Elevator Association has concluded since falling number is only occasionally a major problem the benefits aren’t worth it.

“This is a notion that doing a falling number test will unlock a whole bunch of value to the farmer and that’s just simply not the case,” said executive director Wade Sobkowich. “There is no more value to be had for the grain we sell because we already sell it based on falling number.

“There’s no new money so it’s just a matter of how far down the road do we want to go to determining how it’s distributed.”

*UPDATE: The article was updated for clarification and added a quote by Tom Steve.

— Allan Dawson is a reporter for the Manitoba Co-operator at Miami, Man. Follow him at @allanreporter on Twitter.

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