Soft white winter wheat
The soft white winter crop harvested this year at 219 million bus was the largest since 2011.

KANSAS CITY — The soft white winter crop harvested this year at 219 million bus was the largest since 2011, but producers in the principal growing region of the Pacific Northwest could not help but be deeply disappointed with the low average falling number of their 2016 crop. Steep discounts are applied to wheat delivered at the elevator with falling number below 300 seconds, and the discounts not only were immediately painful to producers but had long-term consequences for their crop insurance. The larger crop and overall supply could not insulate West coast flour mills and exporters from ripple effects generated by the falling number problem.

Pacific Northwest soft white wheat is well suited for products such as cakes, pastries, cookies, crackers, pancakes, snack foods, flat breads, Chinese southern-type steamed bread and Asian noodles. A large portion of the P.N.W. soft white wheat crop is exported to quality-conscious Asian markets.

To produce high-quality end products, the wheat must have an acceptably high falling number value.

Falling number is a test designed to detect the presence of alpha amylase enzyme activity in grain. The falling number test makes gravy out of a flour sample and uses a falling paddle to test how thick the gravy remains over time. The falling number is the number of seconds it takes to mix the sample and have the paddle fall through the gelatinized starch. When falling number is below 300 seconds, an industry threshold, the chance for alpha amylase enzyme activity increases exponentially, and this adversely affects end product quality. Flour milled from wheat with too much alpha amylase activity translates to crumbly, gummy bread, cakes that fail to rise and pasty noodles.

Alpha amylase may develop when grain kernels sprout, which may occur when too much rain falls during harvest. But more important in the case of the Pacific Northwest this year, low falling number also may occur in non-sprouted grain. This is called late-maturity alpha amylase, which may be caused by temperature shocks during maturation, which were seen across much of the P.N.W. in June and early July.

U.S. Wheat Associates in its 2016 Crop Quality Report said, “The 2016 P.N.W. soft white wheat crop is generally characterized as having higher-than-average test weight, lower-than-average protein content, greater-than-average kernel size and weight, less-than-average falling number value and acceptable finished product characteristics. This year’s white club crop (a subclass of soft white wheat) quality characteristics follow the same trends as soft white.”

U.S. Wheat indicated P.N.W. soft white winter wheat production (including white club wheat) was 6.2 million tonnes in 2016, up 27% from 4.9 million tonnes in 2015 and compared with 5.1 million tonnes in 2014 and 6.2 million tonnes in 2013. Of the 2016 total, U.S. Wheat indicated 5.8 million tonnes was soft white wheat and 0.5 million tonnes was club wheat.

The region’s 2016 soft white wheat crop earned a No. 1 grade with test weight at 60.8 lbs per bu. The problem this year was not the crop’s grade factors but the large percentage of the crop with low falling number. Also, the lower-than-average protein at 10.1% versus 10.9% last year provided additional complications for wheat buyers.

U.S. Wheat said the average falling number for P.N.W. 2016 soft white wheat was 314 seconds compared with 354 seconds in 2015 and 336 seconds as the recent five-year average. The average falling number for club wheat was 301 seconds compared with 363 seconds in 2015 and 327 seconds as the five-year average.

Falling number in P.N.W. soft white wheat was worst in the case of low-protein supply (less than 9% protein), where the average falling number was 304 seconds. Middle-protein supply (9% to 10.5% protein) had average falling number of 317 seconds, and high-protein supply (more than 10.5%) had an average of 327 seconds.

Washington wheat growers in a September letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency noted as of Sept. 13, 42% of the soft white wheat, 43% of the club wheat, 20% of the hard red winter wheat and 10% of the hard red spring wheat samples collected and tested by Washington State Grain Inspection resulted in falling numbers of 300 seconds or lower.

“A regional elevator is reporting as high as 73% of soft white wheat samples with falling numbers below 300,” the wheat growers told the R.M.A.

The discounts applied at the elevator to wheat with falling number below 300 seconds were felt deeply by producers who already encountered prices of good-quality wheat hovering near decade lows.

The reason for the producers’ September letter to the R.M.A. was related to the effect low falling number wheat has on determining producers’ yields and actual production histories, which, in turn, are used in determining the extent of producers’ crop insurance coverage. The R.M.A. requires crop insurers to reduce a grower’s actual yield based on falling number discounts assessed at the grain elevator. The wheat producers asserted discounts for low falling number should be solely in the form of a lower price at the elevator and not affect producers’ actual production and yield when calculating A.P.H. for insurance purposes.

The R.M.A. in late October said it could not change its policy.

“Things are tough in the wheat industry right now,” said Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (W.A.W.G.). “With the price of wheat so low, many producers are already struggling to stay afloat. Then you add falling number discounts on top of low prices, plus getting dinged at the crop insurance level, and it hurts. For some farmers, the crop insurance issue might be the last straw because with the possibility of a declining actual production history from year to year, crop insurance becomes a less effective risk management tool.”

Most overseas customers specify a minimum falling number in their wheat tenders. For soft white wheat and club wheat, the score typically is 300 seconds.

“End users have found scores lower than that can affect the quality of their products,” said the W.A.W.G. “Some customers, such as Egypt and Bangladesh, have lower falling number specifications, but with the rise of the Black Sea wheat producers, sales into those markets occur less frequently.”

Pacific Northwest wheat exporters noted they have encountered no difficulty to date in sourcing enough soft white wheat with falling number of at least 300 seconds and that meets other quality specifications (typically a protein of 10.5%) of foreign buyers, nor did they foresee any considering prospective demand during the remainder of the crop year.  Export shipments during the winter were expected to slow at any rate because of the seasonal closing of the Columbia/Snake river system, which has just begun. Merchants suggested much of the low falling number supply will be carried over by producers into the next crop year or sold into feed channels.

Some western mills indicated the wheat in their principal draw territories were unaffected by the low falling number issue, but others had to reach out well beyond their typical draw territories to source supply. These mills competed for the same quality wheat sought by exporters, which forced them to raise basis levels significantly to attract producers’ attention.