Falling number, objective grain-grading debate not new

The grain industry explored machine testing more than a decade ago

Rapid Visco Analyzers are just one small step towards the longed-for ‘black box’ for grain testing.

Calls for “objective” grain grading on the elevator driveway, especially for falling number, have been around for years, ebbing and flowing with the quality of the wheat crop.

These days it’s the Alberta Grain Commission and Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association (WCWGA) advocating for the change. They say since grain companies sell wheat to customers based on falling number and DON levels, grain companies should buy from farmers the same way to ensure fair farmer payments.

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Thirteen years ago it was the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and the now defunct Canadian Wheat Board, an organization the WCWGA seldom agreed with, making the case.

KAP passed a resolution in 2004 calling on the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) to use falling number instead of sprout damage as a grading factor.

“We have an issue,” then KAP president David Rolfe told the association’s general council meeting in Brandon Oct. 25, 2004. “We’re not getting the true return on what we’re growing.”

Falling number is calculated by recording the time it takes a plunger to fall in a test tube containing a slurry of water and wheat flour. The faster the plunger falls, the lower the viscosity of the solution and the poorer the bread-making quality.

Falling number is an internationally recognized proxy for determining alpha amylase, an enzyme that affects bread making.

In 2005 the Canadian Wheat Board agreed machine testing for alpha amylase at elevators should replace sprout damage when grading wheat.

Later that year the CGC and grain companies started a pilot project to assess how well Rapid Visco Analyzers in elevators, measured alpha amylase.

“We are very committed to moving forward on it (on machine testing), but we also want to make sure the technology is accurate so producers get paid fairly,” then CGC chief commissioner Chris Hamblin said in an interview.

If the pilot went well RVA machines could replace sprout damage when determining wheat grades starting August 1, 2006, she said.

The pilot showed machines were inaccurate, at least in an elevator setting as opposed to a laboratory, and also expensive at about $50,000 each. (There were more elevators back then than now too.)

As a result the CGC stuck with sprout damage as a grading factor.

In 2009 the CGC proposed testing an improved RVA — the StarchMaster2 — in elevators. They came with special wheat grinders and robotics designed to work better in a grain elevator and produce more accurate results. But the project fizzled out.

“We’re not adverse to making the change when the technology has proven itself,” Western Grain Elevator Association executive director Wade Sobkowich, said in a 2009 interview. “We just don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and make a change like that without having reliable tools available.” Sprout damage and the falling number test are only “indicators” of wheat flour quality, but so is the RVA test, he added.

“At least visual sprout is fast and it can be done cheaply at an elevator when you deliver and its (results) repeatable,” Sobkowich said. “One inspector can visually inspect sprout damage and a second and third inspector would come up with the same result.”

The machine test is better, Lawrence Klusa, the CWB’s quality control manager, said in a 2009 interview.

“The correlation between visible sprout and falling number is weak so we don’t always get what we need (to meet sales),” he said.

Grain companies do the wheat marketing now and are meeting customers’ falling number specifications, Sobkowich, said in an interview Dec. 21, 2017.

Some years elevators test bins for falling number to ensure exports meet customer specification, he added. The WGEA is willing to explore machine tests in elevators as part of the CGC’s review of grain grading, but added it will only add cost without generating more money for farmers collectively.

But he also stands by his 2009 comments about the benefits of visually assessing sprout damage. It’s quick, inexpensive and not subjective in that the results are repeatable, Sobkowich said.

About the author


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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