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August 31, 2007

Salt-test method easy, useful for checking grain moisture content

To most farmers, feeling or biting a maize seed for hardness is enough of a test of how dry a seed is. Others do not have the patience to wait until the seeds are fully dry because they want quick money.

Cedric Mutyaba, a research officer at Uganda's National Agricultural Research Laboratory Institute, says farmers stand to lose when they do not fully dry their produce. “A high moisture content causes mould,” he says.

Safe primary processing for most agricultural products requires a moisture content wet basis (MCwb) of between 18-16%. Long-safe protracted crop storage requires moisture content below 14% MCwb. Above 18% MCwb level, breakage is very high during primary processing. “Above 14%MCwb, the produce is easily attacked by storage pests including insects, fungi, rats and rodents,” Mutyaba says.

Inadequately drying and improper storage of cereals, legumes, roots and tubers products causes mould to grow and produce mycotoxins, which contaminate the foods.

According to Mutyaba, most buyers on the international markets pay special attention to the moisture content of grains. If a farmer sells produce with above 14%MCwb levels, the produce buyers spend resources which would have been paid to farmers to bring down the MCwb for safe storage.

Farmers can avoid high moisture content using the salt-test method. Place 160g of maize and 8g of dry salt in a glass or clear plastic bottle and shake for about one-and-a-half minutes. Leave this for five to 15 minutes to settle down. When the salt clings to the walls of the bottle and glass, it means the moisture content is above 15%. In that case, “The farmer must consider re-drying of the seeds as soon as possible before marketing,” Mutyaba warns.

The farmer can also use a moisture metre or moisture tester. This is mostly used by international exporters and buyers. Unlike the salt test method, the moisturiser will show the moisture content as soon as the grain is poured into it. “But a farmer has to part with over one million Uganda shillings ($565) to buy one,” Mutyaba says.

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