Wheat is sprouting worries
It has been said that we shouldn’t complain about the weather. If it didn’t change once in a while, nine out of ten people couldn’t start a conversation, Kin Hubbard famously said (1868-1930).
That’s a humorous truism and probably great advice, but for people making their living in agriculture across Western parts of South Dakota, North Dakota, and northward into the prairie provinces of Canada, badmouthing the weather is about all many of them can do right now.
Weather’s the reason that what started out to be the most bountiful wheat harvest in years – if not ever – is still forlornly drooping in wet fields. Combine crews languish while elevator managers chew pencils down to slivery nubs and farmers pace the floor. What happened?
Just about everything that could happen, except maybe a devastating hailstorm or a lightning- struck field fire, which might’ve been a blessing if the farmer had insurance. Ergot happened. Scab happened. Very low protein levels happened. And to cap it all off, now that beautiful, heavy-headed, golden ripe bountiful grain is sprouting in the fields.
“Actually, our worst problem now is not scab, or even ergot,” Ben Hetzel says. “The big issue we’re seeing today is all sprout,” he finished, voice almost cracking with the magnitude of the situation.
For four years Ben has managed Southwest Grain Elevator in his hometown of Lemmon, S.D. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it,” he said. “We’ve never had to deal with scab, ergot and sprout all at the same time, plus wet wheat.”
Texas A & M University’s Agricultural Communications tell us, “Wheat has a minimal seed-dormancy mechanism, which can lead to seed sprouting prior to harvest (pre-harvest sprouting). Once wheat seed has reached harvest maturity, it will begin to germinate when exposed to adequate moisture and temperatures…in advanced cases of pre-harvest sprouting the upper canopy of fields may appear green. Growers should question suitability of grain for seed if germination or pre-harvest sprouting has occurred. Grains with split seed coats or exposed roots or shoots should not be kept for seed.”
In typical rural Western attitude Hetzel looks first for the positive. “We have a phenomenal crop as far as bushels,” he points out. “There’s some scab and some ergot in both the winter and spring wheat. A little more scab in the earlier crops that were seeded…because of rain they couldn’t spray timely with fungicide. I don’t really know what’s all going on but I think most of it in our area is within a threshold of tolerance. But, it’s bad enough we are concerned. We’re seeing ergot in a fair amout of the wheat…a lot of it’s ok, not a catastrophe. At certain levels it doesn’t make milling but makes feed grade – until it reaches levels which it’s not safe for feed. I think so far we’re OK there…with the scab.
“It sounds like a lot of our trade area on up through northern North Dakota has seen similar issues, Hetzel continues. “I’ve heard stories of far worse scab, high vomatoxin levels…and we haven’t seen any of those extreme cases yet. Maybe producers can try to bin it and work through it,” he says – but somehow his voice lacks conviction. This is happening in spite of the fact agricultural scientists in the Dakotas and Minnesota received around $1.5 million from the 1999 fiscal-year budget of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service for work on projects related to Fusarium head blight (FHB or scab).
Rain is a good thing, usually. It fell regularly across much of the northern plains creating a very wet spring. According to the Canadian Grain Commission “One of the main contributing factors to the incidence of ergot is weather. If the weather is cool, cloudy and wet when cereals, such as wheat, are flowering, ergot spores may enter the floret and begin developing into ergot bodies.” According to http://www.apsnet.org, “FHB infection is favored by extended periods of high moisture or relative humidity (90 percent) and moderately warm temperatures (between 15 to 30°C/ 59 to 86°F). These conditions present before, during, and after flowering favor inoculum production, floret infection, and colonization of developing grains.”
We learn from http://www.prosaro.us, “In wheat, FHB or scab causes low test weights, lost yield, low germination and mycotoxin contamination through Deoxynivalenol (DON or vomitoxin. Wheat kernels have a shrunken, chalky white appearance.”
Not only is FHB able to destroy the profit of this year’s wheat crop, it’s also hard to get rid of. Jason Manz, cereals marketing manager of Bayer Crop Science, says “If scab is present in a wheat field one year, it can overwinter, showing up in that field the next year as Gibberella stalk rot in corn. Plant wheat the next year, and the cycle continues.”
Manz explains, “The Fusarium pathogen causes disease in other crops such as corn, and it can overwinter between crops among field stubble. This means that crop rotation practices often used to manage worm and insect pests aren’t effective when it comes to FHB.”
Canadian Grain Commission explains, “Ergot is a plant disease which is caused by the fungus Claviceps purpurea in wheat. In an infected plant, kernels are replaced by ergot bodies or sclerotia. These are black or dark purple and hard. Because they grow in place of a wheat kernel, these bodies can be almost the same size and shape as a wheat kernel. You may also see ergot bodies that are much larger than wheat kernels. Any ergot contamination can vastly lower or destroy wheat grade.”
Toxigenic fungi do occur regularly in worldwide food supplies due to mold infestation of susceptible agricultural products, such as cereal grains, nuts, and fruits. Thousands of mycotoxins exist, but only a few present significant food safety challenges, said the Institute of Food Technologists.
Ergot is one of those few. “Ergotism is the oldest identified mycotoxicosis in humans. This mycotoxin represents a group of alkaloids that grow on the heads of grasses, such as wheat and rye. Ergot was responsible for a disease of the Middle Ages known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire,’ so named for the burning sensation caused in victims’ limbs. The Spartans apparently suffered an ergot epidemic in 430 B.C. and European epidemics date back as far as 857 A.D. (Bove 1970). Ergotism has also been associated with the Salem witch trials in the 1600s in Massachusetts (Caporael 1976),” said the Journal of Food Science.
Russia (1924 and 1944), Ireland (1929), France (1953), and Ethiopia (1978) have endured sickness from outbreaks. While the U.S. food industry usually screens out such diseased grains, if levels of ergot were high enough, liver or kidney deterioration, liver cancer, skin irritations, even birth defects, neurotoxicity, and death have been blamed on the fungus.
Processing doesn’t remove toxicity, which explains why affected wheat will lose all value.
Because of this toxicity, wheat affected by either scab or ergot cannot even safely go into animal feed, a reduced income option sometimes available to wheat growers if their grain somehow lacks the quality for milling.
Wheat producers in the Dakotas are not alone in exchanging a promising start for the present grim outlook. Bloomberg reported on agweb.com just last week, “Wheat production will drop to 27.7 million metric tons from a record 37.5 million in 2013, Statistics Canada said in a report from Ottawa. The average estimate of 10 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News was 29.1 million…growers on the prairies said excessive rains in late June were likely to limit harvests, after flooding prompted local governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba to declare states of emergency.”
Statistics Canada said it interviewed about 12,850 farmers from July 23 to August 4, learning “Canada’s spring-wheat output will drop 27 percent to 20 million tons, while durum will fall 24 percent to 4.95 million tons.”
Then there’s Perkins County, S.D., where the wheat has been ripe for two weeks, and heavy kernels are sprouting in the fields because Labor Day and the day following were the first weather permissible harvesting days. “Typically you can stand a couple percent of sprout before the wheat is damaged,” Ben Hetzel says. “But this year it’s not taking as much to cause it to fall below a milling grade, because it’s already a lot lower in protein due to the wet weather.”
“This is the lowest percent of protein I’ve ever seen here,” Ben says. “That’s understandable; given the amount of moisture…we are all of a percent of protein below normal.”
The Dakotas aren’t suffering sprouting issues alone. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service only 60 percent of Idaho’s winter wheat and one-fifth of the spring wheat and barley crops got harvested because of sprouting caused by heavy rains at harvest time. Juliet Marshall, University of Idaho extension grain agronomist and pathologist in Idaho Falls commented, “Once that process of sprouting begins, it cannot be reversed. It’s a total loss unless you can market it for feed. And that’s not a guarantee. Sprouted grain is one thing, but livestock producers will not feed moldy grain. If rains do not stop soon so that the heads can dry out, kernels will begin to mold and livestock won’t eat it.”
As the song says, “it goes to show you never can tell.” Despite his years of hands-on experience, Southwest Grain Elevator’s manager admits, “A month ago I would’ve forecast that we’d see an increased amount of winter wheat go in the ground this fall. Today I’m glad I didn’t say that. We were headed for a very good crop…but considering costs and the value that this wheat has it doesn’t look so good in the end.” F
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