British millers have faced a struggle to cope with the low quality of the milling wheat harvest this year. A strikingly low proportion of the varieties in the National Association of British and Irish Millers Group 1 (milling wheat) classification actually make the specification, but the farmers at the Home Grown Cereals Authority’s annual Milling Wheat Conference were told that it’s still worth the gamble of producing for a quality premium. The industry also needs to face up to the growing problem of mycotoxins in wheat.
"We do have a problem this year with the harvest we have," said HGCA Chairman Jonathan Tipples. He suggested that millers and growers need to work together to deal with it. "We’re in it collectively, and I suggest we get out of it collectively," he said.
"We have a huge variability in quality this year," said Heike Hintze-Gharres, the HGCA’s market analysis team manager. "Just 6 percent of NABIM Group 1 wheats have met NABIM bread-making spec."
The reason is simple: many wheat producers harvested their crop later than usual and in wet conditions. However, U.K. millers are still managing to use home-grown wheat.
"More wheat was used by U.K. millers in the first six months of the season," she said. "The proportion of home-grown wheat was actually larger than last year. Millers have got ways to deal with the low protein issue."
Shaun Taylor, technical controller at Rank Hovis, said steps are being taken to do everything possible to utilize the wheat grown in the U.K.
"There are limits to what we can do with things like wheat gluten, but believe me we are doing them," he said. "We are using the wheat we have. We are using it to the best effect."
Roger Sylvester Bradley, principal research scientist at ADAS, wanted to see more done to make the best use of resources in producing milling wheat. "It seems to me there is an enormous inefficiency in the way we are using nitrogen for wheat for bread making," he said.
He called growing wheat for the high-quality specification "the milling gamble."
"The protein has been the main problem," Bradley said. In nine of the 23 years up to 2008, U.K. milling wheat in Group 1 had failed on average to meet the 13% protein specification. It failed to meet the 250-Hagberg specification in two of those 23 years and failed to meet the specific weight specification of 76 kilograms per hectoliter in one of those years. On average, from 2000 to 2008 just 27% of U.K. wheat had matched the millers’ specification for Group 1 wheat.
A new version of the U.K.’s fertilizer use manual for farmers, RB 209, is due out this summer, but the limits it lays down are not likely to create problems for milling wheat producers.
"The quantities are fairly large, and we don’t believe they should constrain your ability to grow a good bread-making sample," Bradley said.
One big change in the new manual is that it allows for changes in nitrogen usage to take into account changes in price, a move which was triggered by the sharply increased volatility of nitrogen prices. In the previous version, it was assumed that nitrogen was three times the price of wheat by weight, a price relationship which had been steady until then.
The new manual takes into account the volatility of nitrogen prices, whereas the old version, published in 2000, was based on the fact that a kilogram of nitrogen costs three times as much as a kilogram of wheat, a level which had been fairly steady until then. The new manual bases its recommendations on a price ratio of five to one, although nitrogen prices have risen to as high as nine times the level of wheat. To cope with such sharp variations, the manual will include a table that adjusts the recommendations for different nitrogen prices.
Bradley looked at trials of 39 feed and milling wheats, which showed how nitrogen response had been improved. The new varieties produced on average an extra 0.51 tonnes a hectare without nitrogen, but with the optimum nitrogen application that extra yield increased to 1.19 tonnes. "The breeders have been successful at improving the capture of nitrogen," he said.
IS IT WORTH THE RISK?
Graham Redman, economist at the Andersons Centre, compared returns for the farmer for growing milling and feed wheat. It is worth it, despite the risks, he said.
Redman put yields for bread and biscuit wheats at an average of 8.5% below feed wheats. They do require more nitrogen, often more than the 40 kilograms extra specified by RB 209, and greater fungicide use is justified as well as checks on sulfur and magnesium. The return can be substantial if done well.
His figures showed that since 1995-96 the average spot feed wheat price has been above the cost of production in only five years. In the same period, the cost of producing milling wheat was below the average spot price in all but four years, and in three of those the graph showed costs at close to the average price.
Redman warned producers of the hazards of trying to cut costs. "There are corners that can be cut, and there are corners that can’t be cut," he said. "Plowing is an expensive hobby, but cheaper than mycotoxins and black grass." Low yield costs more than using fungicide and wet grain costs more than drying fuel.
Quality is a big issue for end-users, but food safety is an absolute must, as several speakers stressed. "Quality is something that can be overcome," Taylor said. "Food safety has to be a prerequisite."
Mycotoxins have become a big issue for U.K. growers and the conference was reminded that, because they do have food safety implications, it is vital to make sure the problem is tackled.
"We never see products being marketed or sold on the basis of whether they’re safe or not," said Dr. Sam Millar, head of cereals and milling at the food and drinks research organization Campden BRI. "Food safety is overarching and is a given in the consumers mind."
Simon Edwards Reader of Harper Adams University College pointed out to the growers at the conference that they had to take as much responsibility as the rest of the food chain for food safety. "According to the legislation, growers are food operators," he said. "Legislation applies from the first point of sale."
After last year’s difficult harvest, which produced high levels of DON (Deoxynivalenol), NABIM had taken the view that growers’ safety risk assessments, using an HGCA method, were not enough to make sure grain intakes were below the E.U.’s 1,250-partsper-billion legal limit set in July 2006.
"We do need some trust back into the system," he said. "It’s better for all if we don’t have to test every load of wheat at intake."
He warned farmers that some processes, such as producing whole wheat flour, would require reduced limits. The usual intake limits assume a reduction in processing, which not every process can match.
The problem for the risk assessment system is that it is based on data from 2001 to 2007. Mycotoxin levels during that period were never as bad as in 2008. He hoped that the milling industry would accept an updated risk assessment from the 2009 harvest.
The millers said they want everyone to play a part in managing mycotoxins. "It is essential that we manage this element throughout the supply chain," Taylor said.
Unlike DON, the mycotoxins ZON (Zearalenone) and OTA (Ochratoxin A) are not an issue for U.K. flour millers at this time.
Taylor stressed the importance of correct storage throughout the supply chain. "I feel this is still the biggest area where we have influence over food safety," he said. He suggested that any grain with moisture content above 15% would be at risk and thought should be given to whether it is used in the human food chain at all.
The bumper world wheat crop in 2008-09, with closing stocks predicted at the highest level since 2002-03, had dropped prices, according to the HGCA’s Heike Hintze-Gharres. "The much more comfortable supply situation has lowered prices significantly from the record level seen last spring," she said. "Feed wheat prices reached a low of £83 a tonne last October."
Prices have also been affected by low quality, which has pushed up the premium for milling wheat. "Milling wheat (premium) is currently higher than seen in the last three seasons at over £40 a tonne. Our U.K. milling wheat price has remained very much in line with the price of high quality German wheat," she said. "In general, it can be said that the lower the protein the higher the premium. The problem clearly has been the very low proteins this season." WG
Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European editor. He may be contacted at: