There is no doubt that wheat has benefits in a crop rotation, but in recent years profitability, quality issues, added workload, and other factors have diminished wheat acres in Ohio. Adding to the frustration with wheat has been the dockage at the elevator.
Adam Kirian in Hancock County accepts that it can be a frustrating crop sometimes, but still appreciates the importance of wheat in his rotation for the great value it brings to his farm.
“You have to think about the fact that wheat is closer to going directly to the consumer when we take it out of the field as compared to corn and soybeans. It is going to be turned into a food product right away. That is what it is for. You have to understand what they are looking for as a food product. Wheat has turned into the redheaded stepchild of the three crops and it hasn’t gotten the treatment it needs to be a viable option. When you see $5 or $6 corn, it can make you go away from something like that, but we have livestock so we need the straw and the manure acres,” Kirian said. “When you are busy planting corn and soybeans, it is easy to forget about the other crop you have out there, but if wheat is something you are going to raise then you have to give it more attention. As the testing for wheat has changed and what they look for in terms of quality has changed, we have had to step up the way we manage wheat as well and pay more attention to it. We have tried to get a little more intense in our management of wheat and the way we go about producing it.”
Harvesting high quality wheat starts with planting in the fall.
“We look more at the varieties to avoid head scab and fungicide applications. We have selected earlier bean varieties so we can get the wheat out earlier,” he said. “We are working with split nitrogen applications and try come back in with foliar at some point. In warm, humid conditions you have to stay on top of things. Last year, as it got warmer and wetter, we started hearing horror stories and we knew stuff was starting to sprout and it was frustrating. But the elevators have to do what needs to be done to get a good end product to their end users. We are fortunate to have Mennel Milling right here in Fostoria and if I can get them a good quality product I can take it directly to them and get a premium for it.”
When the wheat gets to the elevator, it is subjected to increasing scrutiny as end users are facing more requirements in terms of food safety and quality, said Chad Rosebrook, with Legacy Farmers Cooperative. It all starts with getting a good, representative sample from each load with standardized sampling techniques.
“When the load first comes to the elevator, it obviously gets probed and a sample is collected from every
load. From that sample we go through and test it for various quality factors. We look at moisture, test weight, dockage and all of that. One of the factors that is becoming more of a sticking point for elevators is vomitoxin. That is very important to the elevator because the level of vomitoxin in the wheat greatly affects the markets that are available to us to sell the wheat,” Rosebrook said. “It is not fun for the elevator to dock a guy for vomitoxin in his wheat, but vomitoxin does greatly reduce the markets that we have available. The amount of vomitoxin can make it only useable for feed and that wheat is worth less. We can’t sell it to millers who use it for flour and human consumption.”
At the elevator, the samples are divided into smaller 1,000-gram samples. These are tested for dockage, moisture and test weight. A clean sample is ground for the vomitoxin test — 20 grams of the ground sample are mixed in solution of 100 milliliters of distilled water. A sample from the solution is tested with a test strip to get the vomitoxin reading.
At a mill, there are even more tests, said Diane Gannon, a milling industry consultant.
“The samples are processed in the grain receiving laboratory. There they are evaluated for their suitability for milling in terms of physical characteristics and food safety so the grain can be milled properly, efficiently and so the mills are getting their money’s worth out of that grain. The food safety testing is becoming more prevalent and that is what often slows things down. Technologies, though, have advanced so much that the tests can be done at the same time labs are processing samples for regular grading factors, so it now takes minutes for completion rather than a half an hour like it used to,” Gannon said. “For wheat, the bulk density or test weight measures the density of that grain. In a flourmill, the pipe can only hold so much volume and if the grain is heavier, the mill will be more efficient in their production. They can get more flour out of a bushel of grain if it is denser. Moisture, of course, is important for grain storage. You don’t want it to become sour in the bins if you are going to hold onto it, so keeping it below 14% is crucial for storage, but also allows the millers to add sufficient water (tempering) during their process, which allows efficient separation of the wheat into flour, and milling byproducts.
“Damage, shrunken and broken and dockage are physical characteristics of importance in milling, as the miller has to clean these kernels away from the sound grain in order to mill the grain for flour. Of course there are bugs that love grain and the inspection labs are looking for those too. At a mill they are closer to the food chain and are a little more fussy about those things verses a grain elevator that has more opportunity to do a little blending and have other outlets for that grain.”
In addition to these tests, mills also often use a falling number test.
“A falling number test is a measure that heats and thickens water and flour in a paste in a test tube. If you have ever tried to make gravy in a pan with flour and water and it doesn’t thicken when you stir it and heat it, it is because the grain for the flour had started to sprout and the seed started to eat the starch. The starch is what thickens your gravy. Falling number measures in seconds how long it takes a rod to fall from the top to the bottom of a test tube. If it is a high number like 350 seconds, that is a sound number measurement for wheat. If it is below 250 seconds, that means the grain has probably started to sprout,” Gannon said. “The ideal falling number depends on how you are going to use the flour. If I were going to make a cookie, completely sound grain may not be as important and the flour may have a lower (250 – 350) specification for falling number levels, versus another operation producing bread or gravy mix, or a soup, which requires completely sound grain relating to sprout. It is difficult in the grain grading process at the inspection laboratory, because it may appear completely sound to the naked eye, however the chemistry which breaks down the starch during the sprouting process may already be occurring but not visible — hence the need for the falling number test. These differences in end product use for wheat is why it is important at the grain elevator level to separate it so that it can be directed it to the right market.”
Everyone along the supply chain admits that the limits of testing consistency can be an issue.
“We are looking at all of the things that contribute to testing variability and error. Sampling is one of the critical parts of this, along with sample preparation. You have different tests and you have the people involved. Those variables all contribute to the accuracy of the tests and introduce the potential for error,” Gannon said. “There is a range of accuracy and precision. The more testing repeats you run on a single sample, it tends to produce a more accurate result.”
But, while waiting in line at the elevator, farmers typically have little interest in taking the time for more tests. Additionally, vomitoxin levels can be extremely variable within different areas of the field and the amount on just one wheat grain can make a large difference in the sample test representing the entire load or field.
Farmers get frustrated with vomitoxin, but so do the samplers, testers, elevators, millers, and end users every step of the way. A tough year for wheat quality is a challenge for every part of the process.
“I am very proud of our grain handling systems as they are doing a better job testing and separating grain based on quality and functionality for the end users. Without the success of all of those people working together it just makes growing wheat in our area more difficult,” Gannon said. “These efforts are crucial to sustaining wheat production in our area, which is vital for some major food producers, here in Ohio. The export market is actually way less tolerant than what our domestic market is, because of the costs around transportation. It is important that we are carefully testing our grain so we can put our best foot forward in the export market.”
This also is important to keeping wheat as a sustainable crop in Ohio. Tim Norden, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Federal Grain Inspection Service, is really emphasizing the importance of improving the consistency of testing wheat quality.
“We look at vomitoxin testing and falling number testing that both affect the value of wheat. Users of that wheat want it to meet regulatory standards of 1 part per million vomitoxin or less in food and millers and bakers like to see a falling number around 300 or greater typically. We want to minimize the variation. We want to have the most accurate results possible all along the chain so grain can travel from a country elevator, to a terminal elevator, then maybe to a train or barge destined for export,” Norden said. “Internationally, there are regulatory agencies testing that grain to make sure it meets the regulations of their country and contract specifications. It is very important to use procedures that are standardized. We talk a lot about the sampling, the preparation of the sample, and the actual analysis. It is very important to follow standardized procedures so we can get a consistent answer all along the value chain.”
Problem wheat is a problem every step of the way, but conversely, high quality wheat adds value with every step, starting with the farm.