Recent August rains during harvest have resulted in some Washington grain elevators choosing to run wheat through the falling number quality test.
The events are occurring sporadically throughout the state, mostly on later-harvested wheat, said Glen Squires, CEO of Washington Grain Commission.
The falling number test is used to measure wheat quality, particularly in the event of sprout damage. It involves grinding a small sample of grain and mixing it with water to create a paste.
When placed in boiling water, the slurry thickens. If the enzyme alpha amylase, which is associated with sprout damage, is present, it begins to consume the starch, reducing the thickness.
A small, weighted plunger passes through the paste. The test measures the time it takes for the plunger to fall, plus a 60-second initial stirring.
The industry standard for soft white wheat is 300, meaning it takes 300 seconds for the plunger to fall. Numbers below that generally indicate lower quality wheat that could run into processing problems.
Some growers are receiving reduced prices for their wheat at the elevator. Squires said the reduction varies by elevator, but the export market price is a reduction of about 25 cents per bushel for 25 numbers below 300.
Washington State Department of Agriculture grain inspection labs are going through many sample requests, in virtually every wheat grade, Squires said.
Paul Katovich, assistant manager of Central Washington Grain Growers, Inc., in Waterville, Wash., said the circumstances are similar to events in recent years. It’s hard to know how much of an impact there is until the harvest is over, he said.
“One way or another, the crop has to find a home,” Katovich said. “It’s unfortunate we have to deal with this, but it’s currently part of our market.”
Rain and temperatures are potential causes at key times during the growing season for susceptible varieties, Katovich said.
Katovich’s company has been testing for falling numbers for years as a check.
“It’s not always related to rain events,” Katovich said, noting problems with the enzyme alpha-amylase have arisen under certain conditions or with particular varieties.
Squires recommends growers have a sample re-tested if they don’t think the first results are accurate.
Katovich says the success of asking for a second test on a sample is mixed.
“There’s a theory that it gets better over time,” he said. “I would not say that that’s a cinch. I’ve seen it happen where it does, and I’ve seen it happen where it drops dramatically. Generally, if it’s below 300, it usually stays below 300.”
The industry has voiced a need for an updated test in recent years. Squires expects conversations about a new, more accurate test to continue.
Katovich said the test is finicky and out-dated. The parameters in testing samples, and small sample sizes all create a wide range of possible test results, he said.
“It’s a very old test,” Katovich said. “It’s more than a generation old and, quite frankly, very antiquated, very time-consuming and very expensive. The industry is long overdue for a replacement.”
He said a whole-kernel analyzer or similar test is needed to help define the necessary quality.
Katovich hopes a replacement is on the horizon, but said there probably isn’t the level of demand to warrant the technical investment necessary to come up with something new.
“But it is a problem and we’ll muddle through it,” he said. “We’ve done it before.”