Wheat quality improved on year, but ergot a concern

The quality of Western Canada’s wheat and barley crops saw considerable improvement this year, according to an analyst with the Canadian Wheat Board. However, of the wheat that failed to make the top grades there were more concerns with ergot, a toxic fungal disease.

Before blending and seed cleaning, about three quarters of the spring wheat grown in Western Canada managed to hit the top two grades in 2011, said Bruce Burnett, director of weather and market analysis at the CWB.

By comparison, in 2010 only about a quarter of the wheat crop ended up in the top two grades. "It’s a significant improvement," said Burnett.

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For durum, about two-thirds of the crop, before blending and cleaning, were in the top two grades, he said.

Overall, there were some frost and weathering issues in northern Alberta, and pockets of fusarium across the Prairies, but the primary downgrading factor in 2011 was ergot, said Burnett.

The Canadian Grain Commission has estimated that up to 20 per cent of the 2011 wheat crop had some degree of problem with ergot, which compares with a normal year when only about five per cent of the crop would see any infection.

Tolerances are quite strict on ergot, as it is a toxin, said Burnett. However, it can be cleaned and/or blended depending on the severity.

As a result, Burnett said there was some optimism that more wheat would eventually find its way into the top two grades.

Looking at the samples of wheat with ergot in it "for the most part, the inherent quality of the wheat looks pretty good," he said.

Wheat with too much ergot can cause some concerns for feed — and the screenings also won’t have the same value in feed channels — because it is toxic to livestock, as well as humans, said Burnett.

As for barley, the quality in Western Canada was very good for the most part, although the later harvest in northern Alberta did cause some problems, said Burnett.

There will be more than enough barley to meet malt specifications this year, he said, with good germination and protein levels for the most part.

"There’s been no major downgrading," as the frost held off and temperature and moisture conditions were good for development, he said.

How much higher-quality barley ends up in feed channels will depend on the price relationship going forward, said Burnett.

If the feed situation tightens and prices go higher, more higher-quality barley can be expected to find its way into the livestock market.

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