Falling number appears in wheat, not as ‘massive’ as 2016

Paul Sessions, wheat inspector in training at the Spokane office for the Washington State Department of Agriculture grain inspection program, grinds wheat into flour for falling number testing Aug. 1 as program assistant Juan Rodriguez works in the background.

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. — Grain inspectors in Spokane have run nearly 600 tests for falling number in wheat so far, a state official says.

About 300 of those tests fell below the industry standard of 300, said Scott Steinbacher, Eastern Washington regional manager of the Washington State Department of Agriculture grain inspection program. About 200 fell below 280.

Falling number is a test that measures starch damage in wheat that reduces the quality of baked goods and noodles. Grain inspectors measure the time it takes two pins on a falling number machine to fall through a ground wheat-water slurry, measuring viscosity. Grain with low falling number is sold at a discount because end-use quality is compromised.

Farmers were caught off guard in 2016 when roughly 44 percent of soft white wheat samples and 42 percent of club wheat samples tested below 300, the industry standard. The industry estimates the damage that year cost farmers more than $30 million in lower prices.

Steinbacher said the crop looks “great,” passing visual inspection, with good protein levels and test weights. That suggests to him that the low falling number is due to the enzyme late-maturity alpha amylase, or LMA, caused by temperature swings at critical points in the wheat plant’s development. If the damaged was caused by rain, inspectors would likely find pre-harvest sprouting.

Glen Squires, Washington Grain Commission CEO, said he hasn’t heard of any falling number discounts being applied.

“I think elevator companies, everybody was a little bit better prepared this year,” Squires said. “A lot of testing going on (and) if there are segregation capabilities, that’s taking place where it’s possible.”

Even with problems in 2016, exporters were able to meet the specifications of overseas customers. Squires anticipates doing so again this year.

“As the Pacific Northwest overall, at this stage it doesn’t appear to be as severe on a crop average,” he said. “Obviously, if you’re the farmer and you’ve got 250 or 245 falling numbers, it’s severe to you.”

“Any person that gets below 300, obviously it’s not great news,” Steinbacher agreed. “I’m hopeful we’re going to come back out of this in the next week or two.”

Steinbacher expects a better idea of the whole picture by the end of the week of Aug. 6.

Some areas, such as near Pasco, Wash., and Southern Idaho, have no falling number problems, Squires said.

“It’s existing, but it doesn’t seem to be as massive,” Squires said.

Squires notes that the wheat harvest is only about 30 percent done. It’s uncertain whether the remaining wheat was past the critical point of susceptibility to falling number or not, he said.

“There’s still a lot of harvest to go, relative to the falling number issues,” he said. “This is why we’re spending so many dollars and resources to address it ... The industry is working on solving the challenges of falling numbers.”

The McGregor Co., screens about 40 wheat varieties, including eight for falling number. Of those eight, Cat Salois, director of research, believes two are at higher risk for late-maturity alpha amylase, two have a lower risk and she wants to learn more about the others.

The McGregor Co. will continue to screen varieties, looking for regional trends, Salois said.

“Hopefully we can get some data out in front of our customers in time to make some decisions ... about what varieties we may want to start steering away from,” she said.

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