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Falling Number Test Results ‘Normal’ This Year, Researcher Says


Low falling number test results have posed only a mild problem for Northwest wheat farmers this year, a researcher says.

Falling number is a test that measures starch damage in wheat that reduces the quality of baked goods and noodles. Farmers were caught off guard in 2016 when roughly 44 percent of soft white wheat samples and 42 percent of club wheat samples tested below 300, the industry standard.

The industry estimates the damage last year cost farmers more than $30 million in lower prices.

This year, Camille Steber, a USDA Agricultural Research Service molecular geneticist in Pullman, Wash., reported the lowest falling number test scores in several soft white wheat field trial locations: 265 in Anatone, 275 in Connell, 284 in Lind, 274 in Dusty, 289 in Pullman and 217 in St. Andrews.

No falling numbers below 300 were reported in Ritzville, Pasco or Dayton.

Steber believes the cause of low test scores was likely late maturity alpha amylase, an enzyme required for wheat seed germination. It is caused by large temperature swings the last week of June, a critical point in wheat development. Rain before harvest can cause sprout damage and also lead to low falling number test results.

Some of the usual-suspect wheat varieties were below 300, but the numbers are much higher than those in 2016, Steber said.

She called the data “encouraging.”

“It is possible that enough farmers switched over to resistant varieties that the high falling number grain will be enough to dilute out the grain that is a bit below falling number,” she said. “I have my fingers crossed that Northwest farmers will have a good, profitable year in 2017.”

Steber hopes there’s enough high falling number wheat that growers won’t be docked for their wheat with low falling numbers.

“It’s just a mild problem, it looks like this year, unless it rains a great deal,” she said. Steber recommends harvesting early.

Phil Garcia, manager of the state grain inspection program, said the tests his agency has run this year have been very “generic,” with the number of samples going down “dramatically.”

“We’re in the hundreds rather than the tens of thousands of samples run,” he said.

That’s normal, he said. “It’s business as usual.”

Garcia said requests for falling number tests typically dwindle by the end of harvest.

“But you never know,” he said.

For next year, if a high-risk variety performs well for a farmer, Steber recommends also planting a low-risk variety, but keeping them separate during harvest. She posts data about wheat variety performance on her website, http://steberlab.org/project7599data.php.

For the development of future wheat varieties, Steber hopes to identify the genes that lead to low falling number test results.

“If I’m successful, no one will know, because there won’t be a problem,” she said.

Source: Matthew Weaver, Capital Press

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