As we move through harvest season, one odd problem keeps popping up for American farmers. The issue doesn’t have anything to do with trade and it’s not caused by grain dust. In addition to other problems, low falling number prices have some farmers concerned.

It seems strange to say that, because you would think falling numbers would be good. That’s not the case here. A falling number is actually a test, one that measures the amount of the alpha amylase enzyme in grain.

To do the test, you make gravy out of a flour sample and then use a falling paddle to see how thick the gravy stays. The falling number time is “the number of seconds it takes to mix the sample and have the paddle fall through the gelatinized starch,” as the Washington Association of Wheat Growers explains.

For example, a test result of 200 means it took 200 seconds to both mix the sample and have the paddle reach the bottom of the gravy. The measurement is used by the grain industry as a risk management tool.

If the falling number is below 300 seconds, it means the crop has starch damage and the farmer will be getting a lower price than expected. This is a problem for American farmers as more than half of this year’s crop has been compromised in some way. Let’s take a look at what caused the problem and how we can fix it.

Blame It on the Rain

Unfortunately, this has been a prime year for grain damage, thanks in part to heavy flooding and overall poor conditions. As the United States Department of Agriculture says on its website, starch damage in wheat “occurs when wet conditions delay [the] harvest.” Cool, rainy conditions lead to pre-harvest sprouting in the seeds after the wheat turns from green to gold.

It’s not just the wet weather causing the problem; temperature fluctuations also play a part. As the grain matures, if the temperature significantly goes up or down, that triggers an increase in the alpha amylase enzyme, leading to starch damage in the wheat seeds.

This fall we’ve seen large temperature swings throughout the country, with days where it’s 82 by noon and 49 degrees by 7 p.m. That’s caused even mature grain to germinate, as farmers were delayed in harvesting the crop.

The germination breaks down the starch in grain seeds, turning it into simple sugars. In doing so, it destroys the pasting ability of the starch and makes it very unappealing for millers or bakers to use, thus lowering the price. This type of grain becomes crumbly almost gummy bread or cakes that refuse to rise.

When both of these issues hit at the same time, it creates almost a perfect storm for the wheat crop. It also impacts some types more than others. Under these conditions, the USDA says white wheat varieties are more susceptible to falling numbers than red ones.

Use Caution with Chemicals

The rainy weather is just one trigger for starch damage. There is another one farmers have just as much control over. Fungicides and fertilizer, if too much is applied, can also cause the problem. In both cases, this is an odd situation where doing something to help your plants can hurt the price. By spraying fungicide or using fertilizer, your plants live longer. But since the plants live longer, if harvest is delayed that long-growing wheat will suffer more starch damage and become less valuable.

Crops with a falling number below 300 seconds can lose 25 cents per bushel for every 25 seconds they drop below 300. Let’s say your crop comes in with a falling number of 250. That means you would see the price drop 50 cents per bushel, based on that number alone.

Now we’re not saying you should avoid fungicides and fertilizer completely. In fact, both are needed to protect seeds at the beginning of the growing season. But we are saying in cases like this, if rain appears on the horizon late in the growing season, it’s a good idea to lower the amount of both products that you’re using, simply as a precautionary measure.

Fix the Falling Number Price with Grain Storage Temperature

Fortunately, there is a solution to not only avoid a low falling number, but help plants recover from starch damage. Studies from the USDA show your grain can recover some of its quality through high temperature storage. Basically the process calls for your grain to be stored in a bin for three months at a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We know that goes against regular storage rules, which call for grain to be kept in spaces only 10 to 15 degrees different than outside. The goal in this case is different, as you want to reintroduce starch into the grain, to try and improve the quality.

The only way to achieve recovery from starch damage is to monitor the temperature of the stored grain. And the best way to do that is with a grain temperature monitoring system in your grain bins. Rather than despair and accept lower prices, improve the quality of your stored wheat before taking it to market.

For more information about improving a falling number in wheat through high temperature storage, and grain temperature monitoring in general, call us at 1-800-438-8367, contact us here or live chat to ask about the right grain monitoring system for your farm.

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