Wheat growers are seeing “mild to moderate” problems with low falling number test results in pockets of Central Washington.
“If you take a discount, maybe you don’t call it mild,” said Camille Steber, a USDA Agricultural Research Service molecular geneticist in Pullman, Wash.
Falling number is a test that measures starch damage in wheat that reduces the quality of baked goods and noodles. In the test, grain inspectors measure the time it takes two pins on a falling number machine to fall through a ground wheat-water slurry, measuring viscosity. A test result of 300 means it took that many seconds to reach the bottom.
Farmers may receive a discounted price for grain with low falling numbers because quality is compromised.
Some grain elevators are discounting for low falling numbers, although the amount varies, said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission.
“Everybody has something different, (some) companies are maybe not even doing it,” he said.
The industry standard is 300. Most affected wheats are in the 250-299 range, Steber said.
The cause of starch damage is late-maturity alpha amylase, an enzyme required for wheat germination. Damage occurs when there is cold weather shock late in the grain’s development, as the grain transitions from green to beige coloring.
“This was due to those temperature swings that we had while the grain was developing,” Steber said.
Rain may have caused patches of pre-harvest sprouting, another cause of low falling numbers.
This is the 10th time since 2007 that Paul Katovich, CEO of Highline Grain Growers in Waterville, Wash., has dealt with falling number issues.
“If you ask a farmer in the last decade, they would say every year is a weird year,” Katovich said. “The regions that are affected are different and don’t seem all that predictable; the severity doesn’t seem all that predictable.”
It takes a logarithmic calculation to blend wheat with lower falling number with wheat with higher falling numbers. Logarithms are calculations using numerical exponents.
“You start getting below 260 and things get really dicey,” Katovich said. “If you’re above that ... it’s all more calculation and testing than it ever has been, but it’s something that’s workable, certainly.”
Katovich doesn’t foresee a problem for overseas customers.
“Even in 2016, that’s really the first real bite anybody had on falling numbers ... we still loaded boats and they were just fine,” he said.
Scott Steinbacher, Eastern regional manager for the Washington State Department of Agriculture grain inspection program, said warehouses requested a falling number test on 6,000 of 18,000 total samples in Eastern Washington.
“If we go back to 2016, we had 26,000 submitted samples. We ran 24,000 falling numbers (tests),” he said.
The cost of submitting each sample is $12. Falling number tests cost $20 each.
About 7% to 7.5% of total submitted samples tested below 300, Steinbacher said.
Some soft white wheats, club wheats and hard red winter wheats were affected.
The falling number test takes 10 minutes.
The average response time back to farmers is three to four days, but it can be as much as five to seven days, he said.
Steinbacher’s office extends its hours any time a backlog starts to develop.
Steinbacher recommends farmers talk to their co-ops about which varieties perform best in their region. He welcomes questions at the grain inspection program’s offices in Spokane, Pasco and Colfax.
Steber said researchers use a statistical model to rank varieties for their falling number performance. It helps determine which varieties appear to perform best, such as Norwest Duet, Giles, Puma and ARS Crescent.
“There are choices out there,” she said. “As we get further along with this statistical method, we should be able to give farmers better advice on which varieties are less risky than others.”
How much consideration farmers give falling numbers depends on how high they think wheat prices will be, Steber said.
“If the price of wheat is low, it’s going to be very important because they won’t be able to handle those discounts,” she said.