Time to drop durum? Vomitoxin, price discounts are huge concerns

TIOGA, N.D. -- Another flare-up of vomitoxin has some North Dakota and Montana durum growers, who dominate U.S. production of the crop, considering whether to quit growing it.

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Durum wheat is unloaded from a combine in this file photo. (Dustin Monke / The Dickinson Press)

TIOGA, N.D. - Another flare-up of vomitoxin has some North Dakota and Montana durum growers, who dominate U.S. production of the crop, considering whether to quit growing it.

"Maybe it's time to drop durum from our rotations," says Ryan Davidson, a Tioga farmer and an officer of the U.S. Durum Growers Association. He and other durum farmers typically rotate it in fields with other crops such as spring wheat and pulse crops.

The problem isn't quantity. Upper Midwest farmers harvested a bumper durum crop, possibility their best yielding ever. But some of the durum - how much is still uncertain - is infected with vomitoxin, and farmers, grain companies and others are struggling to find markets for the sub-par grain.

"It's a real problem," says Lynn Michelson, general manager of New Century Ag, a grain company with elevators in Fortuna, Crosby, Ambrose and Noonan, all in North Dakota, and Westby, Mont. Durum is a major crop in his company's trade area.

Some of the infected grain will be sold at a huge discount, in some cases only a third as much as uninfected grain, and some might not find a buyer at any price. Many durum farmers likely will buy cleaning equipment with which they hope to remove enough of the vomitoxin from infected grain so that it can be sold at the higher milling-grade price, growers and others say.


The cost of cleaning equipment, depending on its size and sophistication, can range from $7,000 to about $150,000, farmers say.

Blame the weather

Durum, from which pasta is made, fares best in dry, hot days and cool nights. Those conditions are common in northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana, and those areas produce most U.S. durum.

But big chunks of prime durum-growing territory were hit this year with humid conditions during a key stage of durum's development. That led to widespread Fusarium head blight, also known as scab, in durum fields, even though growers say they diligently applied fungicide to fight scab.

Scab, in turn, produces a toxin known as vomitoxin, also known as vom, Deoxynivalenol and DON. Human health isn't affected unless infected grain is ingested in very high quantities, but grain with vomitoxin can affect flavors in food and processing performance. So millers try to limit vomitoxin levels

That affects what area farmers receive for their durum. Milling-grade durum typically is fetching $5.50 to $6 per bushel, with infected grain selling for $1.80 to $3 per bushel, if a market can be found at all, farmers and others say.

Rather than sell at poor prices, farmers will try to clean infected grain so that it can be sold for milling grade, says Gordon Stoner, an Outlook, Mont., grower who was hit hard this year by vomitoxin.

Some infected grain also can be blended, or mixed, with uninfected grain to lower its vom count to acceptable levels, but the potential to do so is limited, says Jim Peterson, marketing director of the North Dakota Wheat Commission.


Durum grown in southwest North Dakota is relatively free of vomitoxin, but that area doesn't produce enough durum for large amounts of blending.

Like others involved with durum, Peterson is trying to figure out how severe the problem is. Not all of the U.S. durum crop has been harvested, and vomitoxin levels of much of what has been harvested haven't been measured yet.

Vom levels appear to vary greatly, even in fields close to one another, complicating efforts to measure vomitoxin's extent, Davidson says.

U.S. durum growers have other concerns, too.

Canada, the world's leading durum exporter, also has a huge but vomitoxin-

riddled durum crop. That pushes up world durum supply, and limits opportunities to sell U.S. durum.

Though grain with vom can be fed to livestock, plentiful supplies of low-priced competing feed grains such as corn reduce demand for feed durum.

Federal crop insurance typically provides very limited financial relief for losses from vom. And that assistance comes at a cost: it lowers a producer's actual production history, or APH, which will reduce how much insurance money a producer receives when weather hurts his crops in the future.


"So it's a double-edged sword," Stoner says of collecting federal crop insurance for 2016 durum.

U.S. farmers planted 2.15 million acres of durum this year, with North Dakota producers accounting for 1.3 million and Montana growers for 600,000. Most of the remaining acres are so-called "desert durum" planted on irrigated land in the southwest U.S.

Not a new foe

Scab and vomitoxin, which hammered many Upper Midwest durum farmers in 2014, are old enemies of area farmers. They've been a particular problem since the 1990s, when an ongoing wet cycle hit the region.

Once, durum was grown across most of North Dakota. But as scab problems intensified, durum production has shifted to western North Dakota, which typically receives less rain and had been less susceptible to scab than the rest of the state. Northeast Montana, where rainfall usually is limited, too, also has seen a big upturn in durum acres in recent years.

But vomitoxin has followed durum as the crop moved west. This year's vom outbreak hit farms and fields that have seen little or none of it in the past. That's causing many durum farmers in western North Dakota and eastern Montana to wonder if they, like farmers in central and eastern North Dakota, should quit growing it, Davidson and others say.

Durum is more susceptible to crop disease - and to big price discounts that go with it - than spring wheat, another popular crop in western North Dakota and northeast Montana. Farmers generally want a premium, or higher price, for durum to compensate for the greater risk of growing it.

Milling-quality durum fetching $6 per bushel currently provides a good premium to spring wheat, now selling for about $4 per bushel, Davidson notes.

But the risk of receiving a very poor price, or no price at all, for infected durum may outweigh the value of the premium. If so, farmers now growing durum would be better off raising spring wheat or another crop, he says.

"We really have to ask ourselves, is this a crop we should keep growing?" Davidson says.

Cleaning infected grain is a challenge

Ken Hellevang, a North Dakota State University agricultural engineer, is an expert on grain drying, handling and storage. But even he doesn't have easy or simple answers for durum farmers who want to clean vomitoxin-infected durum.

"Every field (with infected grain) is different," he says. "It's difficult to predict what level of clean-up will be required."

Many North Dakota durum farmers are investigating whether and how to clean grain infected with vomitoxin. Grain with vom is common in northwest North Dakota and northeast Montana this fall.

Without cleaning, the infected grain would fetch a much lower price or might not find a market at all.

But whatever level of cleaning is needed, the process is time-consuming, he says.

Respiratory gear, including masks designed to keep out mold spores and grain dust, are "strongly recommended" for anyone planning to clean infected grain, he says.

Hellevang recommends visiting to learn more about vomitoxin and how to clean it.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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