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Farmers say some low-quality grain grades inconsistent

Grain quality has taken a beating from hail, moisture and disease. Now some farmers report facing uneven wheat and durum grading at the elevator

Some farmers are still hurting from a poor growing season and harvest at elevators this winter, as they struggle with inconsistent grading.

“The condition of this year’s durum crop leaves a lot to be desired,” Jim Wickett said.

Wickett farms near Rosetown, Sask., and sits on the Western Standards Committee, which makes recommendations to the Canadian Grain Commission (CGC) regarding grain grading standards and specifications. Wicket said less than four per cent of durum was grading No. 1, according to information from the CGC and CWB’s Bruce Burnett.

Wickett cautioned that there’s no way of knowing whether each grain sample sent to the CGC’s Harvest Sample program represent a 4,000-bushel pile or a 10,000-bushel pile, so the CGC has to extrapolate numbers. But Wickett said over the years “they’ve been pretty darn close doing that.”

Harvest was long and drawn-out for one Saskatchewan farmer contacted for this story (he asked his name be withheld, and Grainews agreed to do so for this story). Hail, frost, excess spring moisture and root disease all took a toll in 2014.

As harvest began, “lentils were yielding really well, but the durum was looking quite sad and we knew we were going to have some issues marketing at least some of it,” he wrote via email. He said he didn’t have many issues selling lentils — one buyer even took some lower-quality lentils without a discount.

But durum was another matter. The farmer sent durum samples to three grain companies. He also sent samples to SGS, a third-party that grades grain for a fee.

grain sample on a table

Kernels infected with fusarium have a white or pinkish fibrous mould in the crease area. Fusarium damage is an objective grading factor, meaning specific tolerance levels are laid out in the Official Grain Grading Guide.
photo: Lisa Guenther

“Results that came back from all of the grain companies were all over the map — fusarium and vomi numbers were incredibly inconsistent, along with HVK (hard vitreous kernels) numbers differing by over 50 per cent,” he wrote. One company would grade a bin a three, while another company would call the same bin a five, he wrote.

“SGS provided HVK on all samples which were higher than any of the grain companies,” he added.

The Saskatchewan farmer also sent 2013 durum, which he said was clearly a good two. Companies graded it a four or five, he wrote.

Wickett has been participating in the CGC’s Harvest Sample program for about four years now. The program provides a free, non-binding grade on samples provided by farmers, along with data on the new crop for international customers.

This year Wickett had a handle on what his better crops should grade, so he sent in samples for the crops with more fusarium.

He said grades assigned by CGC and elevators have been “fairly consistent” over the years.

“I mean, there’s been times where something might be a three and someone else is a two. I’ve never had real drastic swings. I have heard of those,” Wickett said.

Fusarium is moving into durum-growing areas, Wickett said. And farmers lack a little bit of knowledge in the grading department, he added.

“We might look at a sample and think: ‘Eh, it’s not that bad.’ And once it’s finally examined a little closer with a grading eye, you start picking out some of the things,” said Wickett.

Brian Otto, who farms near Warner, Alta., also sent grain to the Harvest Sample program. He said the elevator gave him the durum grade he was after, “but it took a little bit of a struggle to get it. And it’s all about grain samples to the Grain Commission.”

The local elevator graded Otto’s durum a three. Otto and the elevator sent a sample to the CGC for a binding grade, under the Subject to Inspector’s Grade and Dockage program. In the end, he got a two. Otto said many farmers are running into the same problem.

“They’re grading really hard this year,” he said. At interview time, Otto and the elevator had sent a representative sample from his spring wheat to the CGC for a binding grade as well.

Otto doesn’t worry that seeking a bind grade will jeopardize his business relationship with his local elevator. The elevator guy he deals with understands, he said. And farming is a business, he added. “Once you start dropping grades in durum, your price drops substantially. So you have to be careful there.”

Another Saskatchewan farmer had a different experience with the Harvest Sample program. She drew samples from three different grain bins of Canadian Western Red Spring. She then sent samples from all three bins to the Harvest Sample program and three local grain companies.

Grain companies and the CGC came up with very similar protein levels, she wrote. But fusarium counts varied between 0.8 per cent and two per cent for one sample.

“That’s a spread from No. 2 to feed,” she wrote. The CGC had the highest fusarium level in all three samples, she added.

Harvest sample program numbers up

The CGC received over 10,000 samples for the Harvest Sample program this year, said Daryl Beswitherick, program manager of quality assurance standards and reinspection with the Canadian Grain Commission. “Last year we were about 7,300. And typically we’re about 9,300.”

Mildew and frost were two of the biggest grading factors this year, Beswitherick said. And both those factors are subjective, rather than objective, grading factors. For subjective factors, the CGC creates standard samples, which are sent to grain companies.

“And so then it’s a comparison. You hold two samples side-by-side and you compare them. Does one have more frost than the other? Does the degree of frost, the degree of mildew, is it harder in one than the other?”

Stephen Vandervalk farms near Fort Macleod, Alta. He wants to see grain grading modernized and visual inspections ended. “You cannot tell me that somebody who is looking at it visually is grading the same at eight o’clock in the morning as five in the afternoon,” he said.

“Not only that, you have these guys who go for a two-day course and they’re sitting there grading your grain. That has to go. We need to have machines (and laboratory tests) that do it,” Vandervalk said.

The major grain companies were asked about training and grading practices, but did not respond to interview requests.

Beswitherick said it typically takes four years for the CGC to train someone to grade grain bound for export. Some might do it in three years, he added.

Asked whether there was any talk of creating industry standards for graders’ training at primary elevators, Beswitherick said no. When the CGC was modernized, there was some discussion about it, he added. But the grain companies wanted to handle their own in-house training, he said.

“It’s pretty expensive through the Grain Commission,” Beswitherick said. He added that elevator companies’ quality assurance staff do work with the Canadian Grain Commission.

Vandervalk also wants to see the grain companies buy grain on the same specs they sell it so farmers can get full value for their grain. Grain companies don’t always sell based on the Canadian Grain Commission’s regulatory grades, he said.

Beswitherick said grain companies can sell based on regulatory grades — such as No. 1 CWRS — or on the customer’s specifications.

“And they can blend. …There’s nothing illegal about blending grain, as long as you’re not blending feed grains into food grains,” said Beswitherick.

But there are rules around buying and selling grain. The Canada Grain Act specifically prohibits people from, for example, taking or claiming excess dockage.

However, enforcement in the primary elevators seems to rely on farmers’ complaints.

“The Grain Commission is not going out and auditing procedures done at primary elevators,” said Beswitherick. The Subject to Inspector’s Grade and Dockage program protects farmers, he added.

Right now the CGC doesn’t have the ability to levy fines against grain companies, Beswitherick said. The Commission can pull a primary elevator’s licence if the company isn’t following regulations, he said.

Proposed amendments to the Act outline monetary penalties that could be levied against companies for violations, he said. But which offenses would draw fines still need to be settled by the Commission’s management, he added.

Part of the Canadian Grain Commission’s role is to maintain grain quality for international customers. To that end, the Commission inspected all grain leaving a terminal elevator, Beswitherick said. While a vessel is loaded, the Commission takes a sample every 2,000 tonnes and analyzes to make sure it meets grades or specifications, he said.

What happens when a shipment doesn’t meet specifications depends on how the vessel is certified. If it’s certified on an incremental basis, every 2,000 tonne increment must meet specification, Beswitherick explained. Shipments that don’t meet specification can be off-loaded or certified to reflect the grade of each increment.

Since November 2012, grain companies have been able to certify shipments by composite. A composite sample is created by combining samples drawn from a shipment.

“So they are allowed to be over on certain increments, but the composite at the end of vessel must meet specification,” said Beswitherick. Loading composite-certified shipments is more efficient than incrementally-certified shipments, he added.

Know what you’re delivering

SGS gave the unnamed durum grower some U.S. grades for his durum, and he ultimately turned to southern markets. He is trucking 60 per cent of his durum to the Northgate port, southeast of Estevan, Sask., at a cost of $1.50 per bushel for trucking. Despite that cost, he said he’s still putting $3 per bushel in his pocket.

“How is this possible? How can my durum be so undesirable here and so welcome 600 km away?” he wrote. He wondered if grain companies were reluctant to purchase grain due to rail service.

“To fill up the terminal with lower-margin grain doesn’t make sense especially when every farmer in the area is desperately trying to get in line to deliver. There is no need to compete for the grain here,” he added.

Wickett said he tries to steer people towards the Harvest Sample program. “It’s an awful good and free service and sure gives you a pretty good snapshot, I think.”

Otto said he’s not trying to slam the elevators. But farmers who don’t get their grain graded in advance leave themselves open to whatever the elevators grade it.

“But if you know what you’re shipping, then you have a leg to stand on to negotiate with them. You can’t negotiate if you don’t know what you’re delivering.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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