Marketing fusarium damaged wheat
Get your crop tested and have a plan
By: Delaney Seiferling
“Pretty bad,” “very bad,” “a nightmare” – these are all expressions that have been used to describe the fusarium problem Saskatchewan grain producers are facing this year.
And samples so far are confirming that these expressions are not too far off, says Daryl Beswitherick, Program Manager of Quality Assurance Standards for the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC).
“It’s a major grading factor this year,” he says.
The CGC’s samples from Saskatchewan have shown 65% of spring wheat and 36% of durum has been downgraded due to fusarium, compared to last year’s 17% and 13%, respectively. Neil Townsend, Senior Market Analyst with FarmLink, estimates that the amount of Western Canadian wheat graded No. 1 and 2 this year will likely be closer to 50%, down from the average 70% it usually is.
“Fusarium is probably the number one downgrading factor out there for Western Canada, with Manitoba and Saskatchewan the most adversely affected,” he says. “For wheat itself it’s pretty bad, for durum wheat very bad.”
This is why it’s critical for producers to get their grain tested, this year more than ever, Beswitherick says.
“If everyone’s getting No. 1s there aren’t too many issues, but when you get the lower quality, there are more challenges for the crop from every sector.”
Producers are better positioned to make marketing decisions when they know their grading information, he says.
“When they know what their quality is prior to going to market their grain, they know if they are getting a good deal or not.”
And not only is it important to get grain tested, but also to get a good sample, says Mitchell Japp, Provincial Specialist, Cereal Crops, for the Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture.
“Take it to your buyer to do the testing,” he says. “DON is not a grading factor for the grain commission, but grain buyers need that information to meet market requirements.”
At low levels of fusarium, there’s often a fairly consistent correlation between fusarium-damaged kernels and vomitoxin (vomi) content, Japp says, but at higher levels that relationship isn’t always consistent.
“In wheat especially, the fusarium-damaged kernels tend to be lighter, more shrivelled.”
Producers may also want to get their grain tested privately, as some grain companies do not release the grading spec’s after they’ve tested their grain. Either way, knowing your vomi levels is critical, even if your marketing plans are still undecided, Townsend says,
“You can have vomi that is higher than what is ideal but you still want to keep it segregated and not mixed in with any higher vomi wheat because there may be some blending opportunities available.”
Overall, producers who are experiencing downgrading due to fusarium may need to adjust their marketing expectations.
The general consensus is that samples that fall below 2 parts per million (PPM) will be considered acceptable levels to have clear marketing options for human consumption markets. Those that fall in the 2-5PPM range will have a tougher time, Townsend says, and opportunities will be even harder to find for samples that test higher.
“Essentially I think the one piece of advice we’re giving is the order of which you do the marketing,” he says. “The higher the vomi, the sooner you should try to move it. The opportunities, if there are opportunities, will be better the lower the vomi is.”
Durum is also an adjustment for the feed manufacturers, he says, making it a harder sell.
“A lot of these feedlots are feeding regular feed wheats or barley, so for them to switch to durum they have to make sure it all makes sense money-wise. If they’re going to switch they are going to want to buy as much as they can for as cheap as they can,” he says.
“Durum is also the hardest of all wheats, compared to feed wheats, so for some of these animals it will be an adjustment.”
Ethanol markets are another option, Townsend says, but these manufacturers are also still particular about what levels they’ll take.
“Even the ethanol plants are going to be sensitive about the vomi level because in order to be profitable they need to sell both components, the ethanol and the DDG (distillers dry grain), so that’s not always a starter there,” he says.
“Do they need to take zero PPM? No, but they’re not also going to be as interested in your 7-8 PPM stuff.”
For producers holding grain with vomi levels of 10PPM or higher, there are still options for feed and other markets, but they are much more limited, says Jonathan Meyer, Merchandiser for AGT Foods.
“We’re also looking for export markets that will buy a max level of 10PPM when the price makes sense and put it into their feed programs – markets that are more concerned about their price than quality,” he says.
Townsend also says new markets will likely slowly open up.
“There are countries, export programs, that will take some of this. One we’re hearing about is some aquaculture demand from Thailand, Vietnam, these kinds of places. Again, their preference would be to have lower vomi levels, but it’s a price tradeoff.”
Overall, it may benefit producers to sit tight for awhile while they review their options, Japp says.
“Patience is number one,” he says. “I think to some degree the grain companies may be waiting to see what’s out there. They’re looking at these indicators too, but they have their own samples that they’re testing and they want to get a sense of what’s out there before they buy too much lower quality stuff.”
There are some opportunities for cleaning fusarium-infected grain, but if you’re considering this option there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, ensure that cleaning is going to make economic sense in the long run, Townsend says.
“I wouldn’t clean anything on spec, unless you knew that you’d end up with really clean wheat. People have to be very careful to ensure they understand the cost of what they’re trying to do and whether or not they can recoup the cost down on the other end.”
Producers are also cautioned to start small with cleaning, Japp says.
“Get a good representative sample, then take a truckload in to a cleaner, get it cleaned aggressively, and then get it tested again,” he says. “Don’t start with a bin, don’t start with a whole yard of it. Just see what the cleaner can do.”
And just like with marketing, the higher your vomi levels, the more limited your options are, Townsend says.
“Trying to clean 12-13 vomi down? Probably not to an acceptable level for human consumption. If you’re in the 4-5 range, it might be worth cleaning.”
Japp also cautions being realistic with your goals.
“We’ve seen examples where there has been pretty good success at cleaning it to remove enough of the fusarium, even at very high levels, to make it a manageable product,” he says. “It still might not be great but maybe just moving from sample to a feed and maybe from a feed to a three.”
Another option may be mixing the grain, Japp says.
“Nobody wants to, but waiting a year, storing this grain, and having a good crop next year you can do your own blending to improve it.”
Finally, another thing to keep in mind is that crop insurance may cover some of your losses.
“Talk to your local crop insurance office because there are quality adjustments that they make,” Japp says. “It’s good to have conversations with them.”
One more thing for farmers to keep in mind is to be careful with post-harvest management of infected grain, as it’s likely more susceptible to loss of condition in storage, Japp says.
“It’s just that much more important that it is dry to at least 14.5%, and a little drier is probably better when it’s damaged,” he says.
“Fusarium is not going to increase when it is stored dry – vomi content isn’t going to increase or decrease. Damaged grain is more at risk from infection and moist conditions can promote fungal growth.”