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Wet summer spoils MT share of record wheat harvest

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) -- Montana's farmland yielded a record year for wheat in terms of bushels and prices are strong, but when the final tally on the value of the 2009 crop is made it will be hard to tell that those factors existed.

GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) -- Montana's farmland yielded a record year for wheat in terms of bushels and prices are strong, but when the final tally on the value of the 2009 crop is made it will be hard to tell that those factors existed.

A late seeding start, cool temperatures and a wet late summer damaged or spoiled a fair share of what looked like a promising Montana grain crop.

"There's good grain out there, good quality, you bet," said Jeff L. Van Pevenage, vice president/general manager of the Montana division of Columbia Grain International. "Wheat is selling at $1.80 per bushel more than the 13-year average. For farmers who yielded 130 to 140 percent more of normal during harvest, that's a good return.

"But there's also going to be a lot of picking and sorting by buyers. It's going to be a difficult year to market (grain) this year," he added.

It's also a difficult year to grade crop samples.

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At the Montana State Grain Lab, inspector Greg Neill picks through individual kernels of wheat, summing up the dark hard vitreous qualities.

Darker, red kernels are clear and hard on the inside -- a quality flour millers want. A good DHV grade is a good indication that the protein numbers will be high and the falling numbers -- which test for gluten -- will be high as well.

"When the outside color of the kernel shifts to yellow, that's an indication that the kernel is soft," Neill said. "When cut in half, the inside is cloudy."

Wheat samples are graded according to the percentage of damaged kernels. Grade 1 has 2 percent or less of damage, and it graduates down to Grade 4, which contains 10 percent or less of damage.

Anything with 15 percent or more of damage is basically a sample grade, which is good only for livestock feed, said Jeff Rumney, State Grain Lab director.

One of Neill's co-workers on Thursday graded a winter wheat sample with 25.7 percent damage.

"It's tough, everybody had such high hopes for this year," Rumney said. "The first concerned calls we got were toward the end of August when people realized protein was off."

He estimates winter wheat is lower in protein by three-quarters of a percent from last year, which also was a low protein crop. The protein in spring wheat this year is about half a percent lower than last year's.

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"Then last week we started getting calls from people worried about falling numbers because they are seeing sprout in their grain," Rumney said.

Sprout happens when wheat and barley kernels begin to germinate, actually growing a sprout out of the end. It increases an enzyme that impacts the quality of flour made from the grain and can result in undesirable baking traits such as sticky bread crumbs and reduced shelf life.

Japan, Korea and other markets won't buy wheat with sprout damage in excess of 1 percent, Van Pevenage said.

"It's tough because farmers' bins are full, they want to haul to the elevators and they won't accept the grain because there aren't mills that will take it," Rumney said.

The volume of this year's crop means there are piles of grain stored on farms and in elevators across the state.

"Our company has piled grain for the first time, and we've got it in Tiber, in Great Falls and Wolf Point," Van Pevenage said.

However, there is a market for this year's lower quality grain. Russia is in a severe drought and has banned exports. Its customers, places such as Bangladesh and other countries in South Asia and the Middle East, are looking for new suppliers, Van Pevenage said.

"There are places for this grain to go, but my gut tells me we'll be marketing it through next year's marketing year," he said.

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Montana Wheat and Barley Bureau Chief Kim Falcon said this year's challenge is working with buyers to educate them about ways to make adjustments to their formulas and milling techniques to compensate for lower quality grain.

Her department uses grain check-off dollars to market the state's crop, especially abroad.

"We have to triple our efforts to work with new buyers and remind seasoned buyers that this is a cyclical issue, and that they should stay with us," Falcon said.

Montana Grain Lab veteran Gene Schwantes said he has seen similar harvests maybe two or three other times in his 33-year career as an inspector -- a career that officially ended last year.

The retiree agreed to return to the lab to help with this year's overwhelming workload.

In addition to grain samples that take longer than usual to grade and the large volume of those samples, the state lab has received a flood of pea and lentil samples.

"Last year, we did 600 of those samples," Rumney said. "This year we've done, I would guess, 3,000. There's good money to be made in lentils right now, so everyone with available land planted them."

Last year in Montana, farmers placed 122,000 acres with lentils. This year, the lentil acreage more than doubled to 260,000 acres. Most of those crops are sold to markets in the Middle East.

Mary Lou Grossman is busy both on her farm north of Great Falls and at her new job testing falling numbers at the State Grain Lab -- a job she started one week ago.

"I usually help out with harvest at home, then take a job in town off the farm," she said.

This year, those duties overlapped.

"Our harvest is usually done the second week in September, but I was home on the tractor Monday helping out," she said.

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