Falling number test change

A grain inspection program assistant for the Washington State Department of Agriculture, holds up a mixture of wheat and water used in the falling number test at the agency office in Spokane Valley, Wash. The Federal Grain Inspection Service has issued two changes to how the falling number of wheat is determined.

Two federally mandated changes in falling number tests will mean more consistency when technicians check wheat samples for starch damage, Washington state’s grain inspection manager says.

Beginning May 1, the Federal Grain Inspection Service will correct for the barometric pressure at all laboratory sites when running the industry standard falling numbers test. Labs at an elevation higher than 2,000 feet above sea level have already been adjusting for the elevation and corresponding barometric pressure.

The barometric pressure impacts the boiling point of water and the falling number test score. In the falling number test, a slurry of wheat and water is heated in a bath of boiling water. In general, the higher the elevation, the higher the falling number, according to the FGIS.

Now all falling number scores will be corrected to the barometric pressure at sea level using a formula developed by the Agricultural Research Service, according to the FGIS.

“We’re going to see some numbers change — some will go up a little bit and some will go down, but there’s no real deviation outside of about 6 to 15 points, is what we’ve noticed,” said Phil Garcia, Washington State Department of Agriculture grain inspection program manager in Olympia.

“You’re going to see more accuracy,” he said.

Also, according to federal rules, labs will no longer be able to hand-shake the slurry of wheat and water to mix it before running it through the falling number test machine. An automatic shaker called a Perten Shakematic must be used exclusively, Garcia said.

Hand-shaking was previously done as a last resort in the event of a machine failure, Garcia said.

“You have that human element, but when you put in the Shakematic, that element is gone,” he said.

That means the state must buy more equipment so it is always available as a backup, Garcia said.

The wheat industry was caught off guard in 2016, when starch problems caused much lower falling number test scores and cost farmers more than $30 million in reduced prices.

“This isn’t the fix-all,” Garcia said. “We’re looking at a problem that is a lot bigger than just the methodology in the falling number test.”

“They’re just steps,” said Glen Squires, CEO of the Washington Grain Commission. “The goal of the industry is to improve the current test, to make the test more accurate. These are steps that certainly help do that.”

The industry ultimately wants a quicker test, and to find the genetics to address falling number in wheat breeding, Squires said.

Garcia said the changes will provide consistency along the grain cycle, from the elevator to the exporter.

But he said there could still be different results when the falling number test is run by the state compared to a private lab.

“If a country elevator who isn’t in the official system is committed to consistency, they would follow the same methods we’re using, and that deviation is going to be a lot slimmer,” he said. “Anyone outside of the official system can do anything they want.”

Starch damage reduces the quality of baked products and noodles, which is why overseas buyers have standard requirements.

Squires said overseas customers will ask about falling number when visiting.

“It’s a common inquiry,” he said.

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