Canadian Grain Commission to review wheat class system

Wheat classes serve Canada’s grain industry well, but chief commissioner 
Elwin Hermanson wants to see how they can be improved

The Canadian Grain Commission is planning to review this country’s respected wheat variety classification system to see how it can best meet the needs of customers while adapting to a wider range of varietal qualities.

Chief commissioner Elwin Hermanson told the Manitoba Seed Growers Association annual meeting Dec. 11 the review is about improving the system, not scrapping it.

“I think a lot of things have come together at the same time,” Hermanson said in a followup interview.

“The gluten-strength issue, there’s these American varieties (Faller and Prosper) being grown legally. There’s a market for them, why doesn’t our class system embrace them? Those are good questions. We don’t have all the answers. We want to consult and ask the right questions and get the right answers and make the right decisions.”

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Many believe Canada’s reputation for supplying the world’s best milling wheat stems from its quality control system based on wheat classes, variety registration, including merit assessment, and CGC oversight of wheat classes, grading and exports.

Eight classes

While the CGC will scrutinize its eight milling wheat classes — Canada Western Red Spring, Canada Western Red Winter, Canada Western Extra Strong, Canada Prairie Spring Red, Canada Prairie Spring White, Canada Western Amber durum, Canada Western Soft White Spring and Canada Western Hard White Spring — Hermanson said scrapping the class system altogether would put Canada at a competitive disadvantage.

“Every major exporting country uses classes,” he said.

“What classes do is let you blend varieties and not lose quality control so you can bulk grain and put it on vessels.”

That helps grain handlers and railways be more efficient. End-users benefit by knowing how wheat in a certain class will perform. Lower handling costs and improved customer service result in better returns to farmers.

The Western Grain Elevator Association supports the wheat class system for those reasons, said executive director Wade Sobkowich.

“We need to make sure we’re not making changes that compromise our ability to sell into certain markets,” he said in an interview. “That’s very, very important, but things change and it may be worthwhile to review the classification system, if for no other reason than to verify what we’re doing is proper.”

Canadian wheat is known for its consistency. However, three years ago some customers complained about lower-than-normal gluten strength in CWRS wheat. The CGC determined growing conditions resulted in three wheat varieties with normally adequate gluten strength falling below the standard. Because the varieties — Harvest, Lillian and Unity — represented a large portion of the production the whole CWRS class was adversely affected.

Quality control

David Hatcher, a research scientist with the CGC’s Grain Research Laboratory, agreed the complaints demonstrate the importance of getting quality control right. That’s why the CGC will not add two new wheats — BW961 and BW487 — to the CWRS class, even though that’s the class they were intended for by the developers at Agriculture Canada and Agri-Food Canada and the fact that they were supported for registration by the Prairie Recommending Committee for Wheat, Rye and Triticale at its annual meeting in February.

The committee’s quality subcommittee voted against registration, however, when the three subcommittees, including agronomy and disease voted in a secret ballot later a majority-supported registration.

“We’re the bad guys (at the CGC), but we said they don’t fit,” Hermanson said. “They don’t have the quality that customers are wanting, so we won’t put them in a (milling) class… that’s the role that we play.”

While it’s the the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that decides whether a new variety gets registered — a prerequisite to commercialization — it’s the CGC which decides which class the variety is in. If the varieties are registered the CGC will put them in the Canada Western General Purpose class, which requires no pre-registration merit testing, including for quality.

The class was originally developed for high-yielding, high-starch, low-protein wheats destined for ethanol production or livestock feed, but it is becoming a catch-all for wheats that fail to meet the end-use quality standards of the other classes.

Adjustments

The CGC’s review might result in changing end-use quality standards in some classes, elimination of some low-volume classes or adding new classes, Hermanson said.

“It might mean we should be adjusting the CPS (Canada Prairie Spring) red class,” he said. “Maybe we should be adjusting the CWRS (Canada Western Red Spring). Maybe we should have a new class — something… that would pick up Faller and Prosper…”

Both are high-yielding American Dark Northern Spring milling wheats, but their end-use characteristics don’t fit the current CWRS class reserved for Western Canada’s best milling wheat.

Both varieties are being grown legally in Western Canada under identity-preserved contracts.

“They have a value and maybe we need to be encompassing value by changing the structure of our class system,” Hermanson said. “We won’t make these changes without consulting our stakeholders.”

Selling consistent-quality wheat that customers know they can blend with other wheats is Canada’s competitive advantage in world markets, Hermanson said.

“If we’re just selling it on price and availability… we’re going to be beat out by countries that have lower labour costs and have shorter distances to transport grain,” he said.

“So we have to get these other things right.”

About the author

Reporter

Allan Dawson

Allan Dawson is a reporter with the Manitoba Co-operator based near Miami, Man. Covering agriculture since 1980, Dawson has spent most of his career with the Co-operator except for several years with Farmers’ Independent Weekly and before that a Morden-Winkler area radio station.

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