One sample, two verdicts

A western Manitoba farmer has been frustrated by vomitoxin testing this winter because inconsistent results may cost him $70,000 on his barley crop.

Ashley Mackedenski, who manages 2,500 acres with his brother near Rossburn, Man., seeded barley on about half of the farm last year.

Like thousands of other western Canadian farmers, fusarium was a challenge for Mackedenski.

The six-row barley on his farm had low levels of fusarium and the associated fungal vomitoxin, also known as deoxynivalenol (DON), which is a mycotoxin hazardous for humans and livestock. However, 35,000 bushels of two-row barley had higher amounts of vomitoxin.

Mackedenski bought a cleaner and vacuumed the barley this winter, hoping the crop would meet the malting barley standard.

When he took a truckload to an elevator near Rossburn, testing indicated the barley had .8 parts per million of vomitoxin.

Mackedenski’s malt barley production contract said the grain had to have one p.p.m. or less, so he assumed the cleaning was a success.

However, when the same truckload went to the maltster, the barley failed the test. It came back at 1.8 p.p.m.

Undeterred, Mackedenski tweaked the cleaning method and sent another truckload to the elevator.

The result was even lower, 0.6 p.p.m. of vomitoxin.

However, when that truckload of barley went to the maltster, it failed again. Now it was 1.7 p.p.m.

At that point Mackedenski began to ask an obvious question: how can tests at an elevator and a maltster produce completely different results?

“What’s going on here? Same sample. Same stuff,” he said.

“I realize that if I take my wheat to one elevator, the protein may be 13.2 (percent). And you take it to the next elevator and it may be 12.9. It’s very close. It’s not 12.9 and 13.9.”

The inconsistency has kept Mackedenski up at night. The difference in price between his malting barley contract and the value of feed barley is nearly $2 per bushel.

“We shipped out two loads to the maltster. They’ve both been rejected and I’ve lost out $8,000 on the two loads,” he said.

More significantly, Mackedenski produced 35,000 bu. of two-row barley. He could be out $70,000 if the rest of the grain doesn’t make grade.

Mackedenski didn’t share the names of the elevator or the maltster because he’s been dealing with the companies for years. He has spoken to both parties about their testing methods but hasn’t been able to resolve the problem.

A potential loss of $70,000 is stressful, but Mackedenski is also bothered by the inconsistent test results.

“I realize that a change in sampling will cause different readings, but why isn’t everyone doing it the same way?”

In cases like this, where there is a significant difference in test results, two factors are usually responsible, said Norm Woodbeck, manager of agri-operations in Canada for Intertek, a testing and quality assurance firm.

“The (grain) sample and human error. Somebody is not following proper methods,” said Woodbeck, a former chief inspector with the Canadian Grain Commission.

Growers may assume the sample is the same if it came out of the same pail, but that’s not the case.

“It’s not the same sample. You can still have variability,” Woodbeck said. “There’s always inherent variability.”

Improper sampling may be the cause, but it’s also possible that a lab technician at the elevator or maltster didn’t follow the testing procedure.

However, a difference in the type of test at the elevator and maltster shouldn’t cause this sort of discrepancy. Two methods are typically used for a rapid test for vomitoxin: a strip test and the Enzyme Linked Immunosorbent Assay (ELISA) test.

Woodbeck said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has certified the accuracy of those tests.

“The technology that’s out there right now, I personally believe there are no issues with it,” he said.

“There are a few different methodologies out there, but at the end of the day the result should still be relatively close.”

Shari Lafreniere, senior analyst with 2020 Seed Labs in Winnipeg, said results from the different tests are consistent, but in Canada there isn’t government oversight or a regulation saying that tests must be done a certain way.

“Any kind of vomitoxin testing in Canada … it’s not accredited,” she said.

“There’s no one out there checking on (the) elevators … unless the individual maltster or chain of elevators has someone internally (in) quality control doing it, but the government itself is not doing it.”

The results on Mackedenski’s barley were not close, and he’s concerned about the bigger picture. More than 10 farmers around Rossburn have similar problems with vomitoxin in their malting barley this year.

If wet weather and fusarium plague farmers in future years, consistent testing at the elevator and other locations could be critical for the cereal industry.

“This could be a problem, ongoing, for the next few years,” he said.

“Maybe this is something we really have to address.”

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