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Pre-Harvest Sprouting in the 2021 Winter Wheat Crop

While winter wheat yields have been strong this year, there have been some challenges with quality. Pre-harvest sprouting and low falling numbers have been a concern along the wheat value chain. While this is not an issue every year, it is important to understand the challenges with pre-harvest sprouts and low falling numbers from an end use perspective, and what can be done to reduce the risk.

Pre-harvest sprouting

Pre-harvest sprouting is the initiation of grain germination prior to harvest (Figure 1). Why is that a bad thing? When sprouting occurs, alpha-amylase is produced which converts starch into sugars that fuel seedling growth. High alpha-amylase in the grain can have varying effects on the processing of wheat products. In high moisture, batter-based products high alpha amylase can negatively affect quality, while high fat and sugar doughs can tolerate higher levels. The added challenge is that mills produce many kinds of flours, so the logistics of dealing with high alpha amylase and low falling numbers is complex.

Falling Number

Falling number is a standardized testing method for determining the amount of sprout damage or more specifically, the structural integrity of the starch chains. Wheat is ground and mixed with water in a test tube to create a slurry. The test tube is heated for 60 seconds at which point a plunger is dropped. The plunger is timed to see how long it takes to fall to the bottom of the tube or a specified distance and this number (in seconds) is the falling number.

When sprouting occurs, and alpha-amylase levels are high the slurry will be thinner, resulting in the plunger falling quickly and giving a low falling number (Figure 2). When there is less alpha-amylase produced the slurry will be thicker and the plunger will fall slower giving a higher falling number.

Wheat is considered sound and satisfactory for most milling and baking processes with a falling number of about 300 seconds; however, levels as low as 250 can be acceptable to end users. While growers are given a grade based on sprouts, mills are increasingly looking at falling numbers as an indicator of wheat quality. As a result, growers are encouraged to review all contracts to ensure they are aware of falling number or any other quality requirements upon delivery of grain.

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