By MATTHEW WEAVER
Price discounts for falling numbers this year won't be as big a problem for Northwest wheat growers as they have been in recent years, industry experts say.
The falling number test is used to measure wheat quality, particularly in the event of sprout damage.
Idaho Wheat Commission Executive Director Blaine Jacobson expects some issues to arise due to high moisture in northern Idaho and wide temperature variations in eastern Idaho, but he wasn't aware of any price discounts.
If a sufficient volume of wheat comes in without falling number problems, elevators can blend it with problem wheat, Jacobson said. Discounts arise if the ratio of problem wheat to good quality wheat gets too high, he said.
The falling number test involves grinding a small sample of wheat and mixing it with water to create a paste. When placed in boiling water, the paste 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 is placed in the paste and timed as it "falls" 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 present processing problems.
The test is typically conducted by state and federal grain grading laboratories managed by the USDA Federal Grain Inspection Service. The grain is delivered to the elevator, then submitted to the lab.
Washington Grain Commission CEO Glen Squires said discussions with grain inspectors have shown falling numbers are not an issue in the samples coming through his state, with numbers ranging from 350 to 380. It's still early in the harvest season, but he doesn't anticipate a problem.
Oregon Wheat Commission associate administrator Tana Simpson said there hasn't been much concern yet. Falling number issues can arise in the Willamette Valley -- harvest there started this week -- but weather has been warmer this year, so Simpson's not expecting much of a problem.
Mike Flowers, extension cereals specialist at Oregon State University, ranked 45 wheat varieties at six sites for falling numbers. Soft white wheat varieties SY Ovation and AP Badger from AgriPro Syngenta and Oregon varieties OR2060323 and OR2070608 tested below the desired 300 seconds at test sites in Condon and Corvallis.
Flowers said there can be environmental differences between sites.
"If you were like 295, your next test might be 305 or something like that," he said. "If you're close to that 300 seconds, it's normally worth another test to see if it will pass."
Because the test results are so variable, there has been movement to look for more reliable testing. Squires said the Oregon, Idaho and Washington commissions are working with researchers to coordinate efforts to develop a new test.
Jacobson said promising projects are under way to develop a more reliable test, although they won't likely come to fruition this year.
In the meantime, if an elevator wants to discount, Jacobson recommends retesting.
"It doesn't hurt to check with more than one elevator," he said. "If you're going to be discounted, I wouldn't automatically take that offer. I would shop it around a little bit more and get another test."