Grain-grading factors spur industry debate

Grain companies and farm groups are questioning whether moving to more specific measures of wheat quality provide enough benefit relative to the cost.

Grain companies and farm groups question whether moving to more specific measures of wheat quality provide enough benefit relative to the cost

Western Canada’s major grain companies strongly oppose making falling number (FN) and DON official grading factors for wheat under the Canada Grain Act.

And at least two farm groups — the Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and Alberta Wheat Commission (AWC) — are wary of the idea and want more information before any change.

“The WGEA is certain the proposed changes are not in the best interest of grain producers, handlers, or exporters, and would be neutral to our international customers,” the Western Grain Elevator Association (WGEA), whose seven member-companies represent 95 per cent of Western Canada’s bulk grain exports, states in its nine-page submission to the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC). “We are confident that, through this review (prompted by the CGC), the CGC will reach a similar conclusion.”

Why it matters: Measuring falling number and DON in milling wheat is more accurate than current visual proxies of sprout damage and fusarium-damaged kernels (FDK), but grain companies and farmers question the practicality and cost.

The CGC isn’t proposing FN and DON be grading factors, but in a discussion paper issued March 4 asked industry if it wanted them added.

Interested parties had until May 10 to respond.

“It’s important to note there are no predetermined outcomes and no decisions have been made,” Remi Gosselin, the CGC’s manager of corporate information services, said in an interview March 15.

The CGC isn’t sure if the matter will be dealt with before the October federal election, Gosselin said June 27.

The WGEA says the CGC’s inquiry into FN and DON is “inappropriate” ahead of the results of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s review of the Canada Grain Act and the CGC’s role administering it.

Falling number is used to assess bread-making quality. DON (deoxynivalenol) is the mycotoxin that can be found on wheat and other cereals infected with the fungal disease fusarium head blight. High levels are toxic to humans and livestock.

Currently fusarium-damaged kernels are used to estimate DON levels, but some years the correlation is off.

DON is measured in laboratories, but lateral flow strip technology is a simple, fast and cost-effective alternative that could be used in elevators when grain is delivered, the CGC’s discussion paper suggests.

The falling number test determines the suitability of the wheat flour for bread making.

Currently when farmers deliver wheat, buyers look for sprouting, which is caused by the enzyme alpha-amylase, to assess bread-making potential.

Alpha-amylase breaks down wheat starch in the kernel into sugars so that the germinating kernel has an energy source. Sound grain has minimal enzyme levels.

The falling number test, usually done in a laboratory, measures the time a plunger drops through a slurry of water and wheat flour. The more alpha-amylase the less viscous the slurry and the faster the plunger falls resulting in a lower falling number.

Less alpha-amylase makes the slurry thicker and the plunger falls more slowly resulting in a higher falling number. A higher falling number indicates the flour is better for bread making.

If falling number and DON were grading factors the CGC could arbitrate disputes between farmers and grain buyers as it does now on other grading factors under ‘subject to inspector’s grade and dockage’ provisions in the grain act, Gosselin said.

“The other reason (to change) is grain pricing transparency,” he said. “If it’s being used in transactions between grain companies and grain buyers some people would argue they should be used in assessing the value of grain at delivery (by farmers).”

The WGEA supports objective testing, but only if it’s practical, cost effective and more efficient, and FN and DON are not, its submission says.

FN labs at country elevators would cost $54 million to build and cost $30 million a year to operate, the WGEA says. It estimates it would cost $1.54 a tonne or four cents a bushel. And because the grain companies are already meeting end-user specifications, the WGEA says making FN and DON grading factors won’t increase the price of wheat to cover the additional costs.

“Realistically, the outcome would be a mix of increased producer liability, increased system costs and increased wait times (when unloading grain at elevators),” the WGEA says. “Producers should be wary of adding costs into the system that could in part end up being factored into the farm gate price, or liability after delivery.

“(I)t must be recognized that the proposition of adding FN and DON as degrading factors is a zero-sum game.”

It takes six to eight minutes to unload a grain truck at an elevator. FN and DON testing will add 20 to 30 minutes, the WGEA says.

Now all the liability shifts to grain companies when they buy farmers’ wheat, the WGEA says. If FN and DON are grading factors it stays with farmers, it says.

“The making of FN and DON grading factors will only add cost, confusion and complexity to the grading system,” the WGEA brief says. “It will result in more disputes between producers and grain companies without achieving the overall benefit of increased incremental value to the grain sector.”

The submission also notes it would add costs to administer the system that cannot be recouped from customers, be a distraction and potential loadstone for unnecessary debate and friction within the value chain.

“While it would create winners and losers among producers themselves, the associated costs, inherent risk, and nature of sampling and blending of FN in particular would tip the scales against producers as a segment of the value chain,” the submission reads.

falling number test
Procedure for the falling number test.

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.



Stories from our other publications