Questionable moisture tests may cost farmers big bucks

Are western Canadian grain growers losing money at the elevator because of inaccurate grain moisture test results?

Saskatchewan grain farmer Arie Vandertweel thinks so, and he wants the Canadian Grain Commission to get to the bottom of it.

Vandertweel, who farms near Ridgedale, Sask., about 250 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, began asking questions about the accuracy of commercial moisture testers a few weeks ago after he delivered a load of peas to an elevator in northeastern Saskatchewan.

Tests conducted at the elevator suggested that the moisture content in Vandertweel’s peas was above 16 percent, meaning that the price he received for his peas would be discounted for drying and shrinkage.

The results came as a surprise to Vandertweel, whose on-farm moisture tester indicated the peas were below 16 percent moisture.

For field peas, the threshold between dry and tough grain is 16 percent.

In a recent discussion with The Western Producer, Vandertweel argued that the accuracy of so-called Unified Grain Moisture Algorithm (UGMA) testers, which are widely used by the commercial grain industry, needs to be examined to ensure that farmers aren’t being unfairly penalized for grain conditioning and shrinkage costs.

Vandertweel tests his grain using a 919-type grain moisture tester, an older technology that he claims is more accurate and produces more consistent results under a wider range of testing conditions.

“Why should a farmer take a load of grain to the elevator and get screwed over for no reason?” Vandertweel said.

Inaccurate moisture test results could cost a grower 20 to 25 cents per bushel, he added, which is $300 or $400 on a Super B.

Vandertweel’s experience prompted him to take a closer look at the accuracy of grain testers being used in Canada.

Until recently, Labtronics 919-type testers were the industry standard in Western Canada and were used by farmers, grain elevators and by the CGC.

More recently, however, the commercial grain trade has adopted the new UGMA testers, citing greater accuracy and technological improvements.

In 2015, the grain commission also switched to UGMA testers.

UGMAs are used for all internal CGC operations, including the commission’s Subject to Inspector’s Grade and Dockage Determination binding determination service.

But Vandertweel’s research suggests that UGMA-style testers like those in use at the CGC have never been calibrated or approved to test field peas at moisture levels above 16 percent.

His concerns don’t stop there.

To assess the accuracy of UGMA testers, Vandertweel tested field peas at a variety of different temperatures, ranging from below freezing up to 20 C.

Those tests suggested that peas from the same sample produced moisture test results that varied by as much as one percent, depending on the temperature of the grain.

Ideally, the temperature of the grain should have no bearing on moisture test results.

“I tested cold peas and warm peas and the 919-style tester was the only tester I came across that gave me the exact same moisture readings, regardless of the temperature,” Vandertweel said.

UGMA results were all over the map, he added.

UGMA tests on oats also produced variable results at different temperatures, he said.

“How much is this costing farmers? And why isn’t something being done about it?”

CGC spokesperson Remi Gosselin said the commission has heard concerns from growers who are skeptical about the accuracy of UGMA testers.

He said the CGC is looking into it and reviews calibrations annually for all Canadian grains on both 919-type testers and UGMA-style testers.

Gosselin acknowledged that the CGC does not publish calibration information for UGMA testers on peas with moisture levels above 16 percent.

“The UGMA’s upper moisture limit for testing peas is 16 percent,” he said.

“This doesn’t mean that the UGMA technology is not accurate (on peas) above 16 percent, but the accuracy above that level has not been evaluated.”

Gosselin said the accuracy of UGMA pea moisture tests above 16 percent moisture hasn’t been questioned until this year. Typically, the commercial grain trade does not receive many samples that are above the 16 percent threshold, he added.

In the fall of 2019, however, tough peas were more common due to damp harvest conditions across the West.

Gosselin said the CGC, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and UGMA equipment manufacturers, plan to conduct a calibration review of UGMA testers this spring.

Specifically, the CGC wants to know if the UGMAs can be calibrated to accurately assess the moisture level of peas above 16 percent — a level that the CGC considers the upper limit of the “normal trading range.”

In the meantime, the commission issued a memo to commercial grain buyers, recommending that pea samples be warmed to at least 11 C before conducting moisture tests using UGMA technology.

The CGC’s memo to the industry can be viewed online here.

Other industry groups are also taking notice of potential discrepancies in commercial moisture tests.

On Feb. 4, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers issued an advisory to growers, alerting them to potential concerns regarding variable moisture testing results in peas. The SPG advisory can be viewed online here.

At its annual general meeting held Feb. 4-5 in Winnipeg, Keystone Agricultural Producers also passed a resolution calling for KAP to “investigate options to rectify the difference in moisture testing methods between UGMA style and 919 (style testers).”

Vandertweel said the CGC’s decision to issue a memo to industry recommending pea moisture tests be conducted at 11 C or higher fails to address grower concerns.

For starters, the UGMAs aren’t even approved for testing tough field peas, he said.

On top of that, UGMA moisture tests can produce variable test results at temperatures above 11 C, meaning farmers could still be subject to unjustified monetary penalties at the elevator, depending on how warm the grain is.

The CGC notified grain elevators but it should also be notifying the average farmer, Vandertweel said.

“Their (CGC’s) main goal should be to ensure the accuracy of equipment and to make sure that farmers aren’t getting screwed over.”

Gosselin said the CGC plans to discuss the potential link between grain temperature and grain moisture test results at its annual moisture calibration review meeting in March.

“We certainly understand that these situations have generated some immediate concerns about farmer rights and fair compensation at the elevator,” Gosselin said.

The impact that grain temperatures may have on moisture level readings “is certainly a concern that we’ve heard,” he added.

“Certainly temperature can have an impact on the results that are measured.”

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