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Little indication of a falling numbers repeat in 2017

August/September 2017
By Trista Crossley


Update: With harvest more than halfway over—and completely done in the southern part of Eastern Washington—there have been no reports of widespread low falling numbers, and many elevators have suspended testing for the quality problem.

As the 2017 Washington wheat harvest hits its stride this month, there will be more than a few anxious moments as the industry waits to see if bad luck is going to strike twice.

Last year’s wheat harvest was notable not only for its near-record size, but for being plagued by low falling numbers that hit more than 40 percent of tested wheat and cost Pacific Northwest wheat growers more than $30 million in discounts. The main culprit was likely multiple, large temperature fluctuations in June. Those sudden swings started an enzymatic process called late maturity alpha-amylase (LMA), which causes starch degradation. Most overseas buyers will only accept wheat with a falling number score of 300 or higher. That number represents the amount of time it takes a plunger to drop through a flour/water slurry. Some of the problems with low falling number were also caused by rains in July triggering preharvest sprouting, the initiation of germination in mature grain that hasn’t been harvested yet.

Camille Steber, a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service molecular geneticist based at Washington State University, runs the Steber Laboratory, which focuses on the study of hormonal control of seed dormancy and germination, as well as plant stress responses, including low falling numbers. Steber has been monitoring the weather in the Pacific Northwest this year and said she’s only seen one real red flag. There was a sudden 20 to 30 degree temperature increase during the last week of June that could cause problems for some winter varieties that were 25 to 30 days past flowering. Winter wheat in central Washington may have been susceptible at that time, but there is no way to know for certain without a falling numbers test. Farmers still need to worry about rain happening close to harvest.

“The fairly consistent, warm, dry weather has me feeling optimistic,” she said. “There were some temperature fluctuations there at the end of June, but I can’t tell for sure if it’s going to cause low falling numbers due to LMA or not. It all depends on when those varieties hit the window of susceptibility. My guess is we are going to have isolated pockets (of low falling numbers) but I’m hoping it won’t be so widespread as last year. More research is needed to understand how big of a temperature swing is needed to cause a falling number problem.”

Since last September, Steber has spent more time talking to breeders and growers about low falling numbers, and her lab has ramped up their LMA variety testing. She said that last year, they screened 396 winter wheat breeding and mapping lines for LMA susceptibility. This year, they screened 660.

“I’m not as worried as I was last year,” she said. “We had some instances where we dropped from the 90s to the 60s in one day. We had multiple big temperature changes and just got hit over and over. Then it rained. I think we got hit in more than one way, and that’s why it was so bad last year.”

Steber’s falling number information can be found on her website, steberlab.org.

Another group of people that got buried when low falling number wheat started to hit elevators last year was the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s (WSDA) Grain Inspection Program, which is the primary testing facility for low falling numbers in Eastern Washington. The program provides sampling, weighing, quality testing, grade inspection and phytosanitary services for grains and commodities following USDA’s Federal Grain Inspection Service and WSDA regulations.

Scott Steinbacher, the WSDA Grain Inspection Program’s acting regional manager for Eastern Washington, said they haven’t changed much in the way of procedures in preparation for the 2017 harvest. They will be following the same strict protocols and standards they’ve followed in the past when it comes to testing for low falling numbers.

“The part that slows us down is the testing machines themselves,” he said. “We will have access to one extra machine in Spokane if we need it.”

At the time of this interview in mid-July, the department’s Pasco office had just received their first sample of wheat harvested this year. Like Steber, Steinbacher said he hasn’t heard of any weather conditions that might indicate widespread low falling numbers.

“Everything made it through the flowering stages without temperature swings like we had last year. The growing conditions seem to be doing well from what I’ve heard,” he said.

All of the elevators Wheat Life spoke with said they weren’t planning to implement any unusual procedures prior to this year’s harvest. Identifying and segregating low falling number wheat as it comes into the elevator is difficult, especially as the testing equipment is expensive and the testing is time consuming and susceptible to operator error.

“The test takes too long to run; we can’t ask a guy to wait 15 minutes to dump his wheat (while running the falling numbers test),” said Sam White COO of Pacific Northwest Farmers Coop. “We will be running tests on all the early samples, and if we see issues, we’ll be testing everything. At this point, we are just keeping our fingers crossed.”

White said approximately 50 percent of the crop that his company handled last year had some type of quality issue. Pacific Northwest Farmers Coop has elevators through the Palouse region of Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington.

All the elevators said as a general rule of thumb, they run quality tests on everything that comes in for the first few weeks of harvest.

“Every year, we test the crop as it comes in. We run the falling numbers test for the first couple weeks of harvest. If the majority (of tests) come back high enough, we figure we are good unless we have a rain event. Then we’ll shift gears and try to keep wheat received before the rain separated from wheat received after the rain,” said Heath Barnes, general manager of Whitgro Inc. in St. John, Wash.

About 40 percent of the grain tested by Whitgro last year had a low falling number. Barnes said they were fortunate that most of it was between 250 and 300, and they had enough high quality wheat that they were able to blend it postharvest.

Almota Elevator has facilities in and around Colfax, Wash., and down on the Snake River. Dan Hart, Almota’s general manager, said they too test extensively at the beginning of harvest.

“This year, we are starting out as if there is a problem with falling numbers. We will be testing everyone’s samples and posting falling number scores to customers accounts. However, we hope that quickly becomes a waste of time and money, and we’ll be able to stop,” he said.

Almota will store a second sample from each load for a few weeks in case a customer asks for a second falling number test. Some elevators have invested in a falling number machine of their own, so they can get test results more quickly, but Hart said that expense is too costly for him right now. Besides the equipment purchase, there are also expenses in hiring and training technicians to run the test.

Low falling numbers affected about 50 percent of Almota’s soft white wheat last year.


Efforts continue to combat falling numbers

By Trista Crossley

Nearly a year later, efforts by the Washington wheat industry organizations to address last year’s low falling number problem haven’t slowed down.

The Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) and the Washington Grain Commission (WGC) have teamed up with the grower organizations in Oregon and Idaho to request additional federal funding for falling numbers research, an effort that began last fall. The industry has requested:

• A programmatic increase of $1 million in the FY18 budget of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to address soft white wheat falling numbers issues; and
• A three-year competitive grant, totaling $2,000,000, from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture to fund soft white wheat falling numbers research at land-grant universities and other cooperators.

At the time of this article, the ARS appropriations request has passed both the U.S. House and Senate appropriation committees and is headed into conference where any differences between the two chambers will be hammered out.

“We have champions in both the House and the Senate and on both sides of the aisle,” said WAWG’s Executive Director Michelle Hennings on the requests. “Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) have all been very instrumental in making sure this request has made its way through the appropriations process. We can’t thank them enough for looking out for our growers. We also need to recognize the support we’ve received from Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and industry leader Alex McGregor.”

The WGC has also recognized the importance of addressing the quality issue. Commissioners allocated up to $500,000 in their 2017/18 budget in May to falling number research projects.

“The WGC understands the severity of the falling number issue and is intent on finding a solution which will benefit farmers and the industry. Collaboration is key. More than a half dozen federal, state and private organizations are working together to find solutions,” said WGC CEO Glen Squires.

In the last four years, Squires said the WGC has funded research to track falling number results through the variety testing program to give growers a feel for how varieties respond to preharvest sprout and late-maturity alpha amylase, the causes of low falling numbers. The Commission has also been working with the Washington State Department of Agriculture and the Federal Grain Inspection Service to tighten falling number machine protocols and helped facilitate a falling numbers summit organized by the Agricultural Research Service earlier this year.

WAWG addressed falling numbers at an Agricultural Marketing and Management Organization workshop in November 2016. The Association has also been addressing the crop insurance side of the falling number issue by working with the Risk Management Agency to reconsider how falling number discounts are applied to a producer’s actual production history.