East Idaho grain harvest extends into spud season

A pond forms in water-damaged wheat in American Falls, Idaho, on Aug. 25, near the end of a string of heavy rain storms.

AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Lamar Isaak had to hire a custom cutting service to harvest one grain field and leased extra equipment to further expedite completion of one of the longest and most challenging grain harvests in Eastern Idaho’s history.

Regardless, the American Falls farmer still found himself cutting grain and digging potatoes and early sugar beets all at once, devoting a skeleton crew to each task.

In addition to causing widespread sprout and mold damage in wheat and barley throughout Southern and Eastern Idaho, a continuous string of August downpours extended grain harvest, creating logistical problems for many growers.

“It’s kind of a three-way hit,” Isaak said. “The harvests will be longer. The beets will go longer, and potatoes will probably be extended. Hopefully, you get help from neighbors and all that sort of thing.”

Barley and white wheat, which are both sensitive to sprouting, have sustained the most widespread damage throughout the region. Idaho Wheat Commission Executive Director Blaine Jacobson said customers have been flexible and have relaxed standards for sprout damage. He said most buyers are accepting a falling numbers score — which measures enzymatic activity triggered by sprouting — of 250, compared with a normal minimum of 300. Jacobson said about half the wheat harvested in the Idaho Falls area after the rains is below 200, and rain damaged wheat from the Blackfoot area isn’t much above 200.

Idaho Barley Commission Administrator Kelly Olson said IBC is working on alternative markets to absorb as much damaged barley as possible. She encouraged growers to place sprout-damaged barley in bins with aeration and to have it tested by malting companies and independent sources. She said malting companies are working hard to use as much damaged malt as possible while maintaining the integrity of their processes.

Growers are still awaiting details from malting companies. Alan Slater, director of North American barley operations for Anheuser-Busch Agricultural Resources, said in a prepared statement. “We are still evaluating samples from this year’s crop and have not determined any impact from the abnormally wet August.”

Intensive scrutiny on testing wheat at local granaries contributed to long lines for trucks seeking to make deliveries, further hindering crews working overtime to get caught up with harvest,

“Local granaries weren’t able to store wheat like they normally do, so truck lines were extremely long,” said American Falls farmer Jordan Gehring. “In the heat of it, we were waiting four hours for a truck. Everybody was under the gun to get done.”

Gehring finished his grain harvest on Sept. 4 and started digging spuds the following day.

“All of the old-timers keep saying 1968 was kind of like this, but that was well before my time,” Gehring said.

In the Idaho Falls area, grower Marc Thiel estimates the majority of barley sustained 20-50 percent sprout damage, leaving malting companies to conduct a “big experiment” to see how much sprout damage they can accept without affecting flavor.

“It’s going to be ugly,” Thiel said. “There’s going to be a lot of equity lost this year.”

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