Area elevators are urging farmers to bin their newly harvested winter wheat until the market figures out what to do with a crop that is showing so much disease that one elevator manager says many bushels may be "worthless."
North Dakota producers who are beginning to bring in their hard red winter wheat are finding high levels of vomitoxin. Informally known as vomitoxin because it can disturb the digestive system in high quantities, the disease's scientific name is deoxynivalenol (DON), which is caused by a Fusarium species of fungi.
Jim Peterson, marketing director at the North Dakota Wheat Commission, Mandan, said the wet weather in late June and early July when much of the state's winter wheat was flowering was favorable for DON. Some of the winter wheat also went in last fall on acres too wet to plant that previous spring, so high moisture conditions existed from the start, he added.
Winter wheat heads lie in a swath in a Minot-area field. Tests are showing high levels of vomitoxin in this year’s crop.
In addition, corn can be a host for fusarium, increasing the risk for any producers who rotated the wheat onto former corn ground.
"Fungicide control is your best option, and even that is not 100 percent," Peterson said. "With winter wheat, one of our challenges is we don't have a lot of built-in genetic resistance to Fusarium like we do with hard red spring wheat."
Chris Gratton, general manager at CHS Garrison, said his elevator has taken enough of the winter wheat to get a handle on what's in its countryside. He now is asking producers to store the crop on the farm.
"The best option is to keep very good samples of the grain as it's going into the bin and get them to their local elevator to test so we know what we have to deal with, so we can try to deal with it together and get through this," Gratton said.
Elevators cannot handle the diseased grain during the harvest rush but producers should wait to see what solutions become available down the road, he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows up to 2 parts per million of DON in wheat. Half or more is eliminated when milled, leaving only about 1 part per million in flour. That standard drives the export market, with many countries looking for wheat at 2 ppm or less. Peterson said foreign wheat-growing countries that have troubles with DON often look to import wheat that they can blend.
Gratton said his elevator has seen winter wheat that tested as high as 20 percent DON.
"Twenty percent is not blendable," he said. "There's very limited buyers for any grain that has vomitoxin in it at all, and we are at such high amounts it's almost to the point where it's a worthless commodity right now."
Still, Gratton said CHS Garrison will work with farmers as much as it can. Producers can expect that there will be an examination of the varieties grown and fungicides used as the situation is assessed, he said.
Brad Haugeberg, general manager at SunPrairie Grain in Minot, said his elevator has tested winter wheat showing vomitoxin levels in the teens and 20s. The elevator has suspended taking any more winter wheat unless tests show it is under 5 ppm.
"It's between the crop insurance people and the marketplace to figure out what can be utilized and how it can be utilized," he said. "Even the crop insurance people are telling their customers to put it in the bin so they have some time to sort this out."
The general thought is that wheat higher than 10 ppm might have to be destroyed, Haugeberg said. But having been in the business for 40 years, he's seen enough to not dismiss the crop yet.
"I have seen years where nobody wants it. Then at the end of the day, somebody figures out a way to use it at a discounted price of course but at least it doesn't wind up in a landfill," he said.
"If it's at a manageable level, the market can blend it and work with it," Peterson said. "Once it gets to a high level, elevators are put in a tough spot because it's difficult to blend it."
Wheat with lower DON might be suitable for animal feed, although that market comes with a large price discount that producers won't like.
"It's a really big hit," Peterson said.
Guidelines for livestock say grain with up to 10 ppm of DON can be safely fed to beef cattle older than four months and poultry, up to 50 percent of their diets. Other livestock tolerate only up to 5 ppm and in less of their diets, according to the North Dakota State University Extension Service.
North Dakota is scheduled to produce 24.6 million bushels of hard red winter wheat this year, up from 9 million bushels last year. This represents just 3.3 percent of the forecasted national hard red winter wheat crop and 7.5 percent of the state's total projected wheat crop.
Peterson said vomitoxin turned up in North Dakota spring wheat in the mid-1990s. New wheat varieties helped reduce the problem, and Extension researchers did a good job of educating growers on the timing of fungicides and the benefits of crop rotation, he said.
However, the presence vomitoxin in winter wheat raises the specter of possible problems in spring wheat as well.
"I am concerned right now," Gratton said. "We have only seen a couple of spring wheat samples, closer to 2 (ppm), but still higher vom."
Most of the spring wheat was planted later, though, and that could make a difference. Peterson said the genetics of spring wheat and the timing of the crop offers hope that the worst of the problem will be limited to winter wheat.