Feature

In-season insights

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

Every morning, MFA Crop-Trak Consultant Kevin Runde gets in his truck and heads to his first field. He’ll be in that same field on that same day every week throughout the growing season, rain or shine.

In the early spring, he’s out in the fields before they’re planted, checking weed pressure and soil conditions. Once the seed is sown, he evaluates stand counts and looks for emergence problems. Starting in early summer and all through the growing season, he scouts for insect pressure and disease. And every week, he provides the producer with a report of what he’s seen. It’s Runde’s responsibility and the job of all MFA Crop-Trak consultants across the trade territory to be the producers’ eyes in the field and ensure that they are aware of anything that could affect their crop’s performance.

If something requires remedy, he will recommend how to fix the issue.

“We’re independent scouts making unbiased recommendations based on sound agronomics,” Runde said. “It’s important for people to know we’re not trying to sell anything. We just want to make sure the producer is aware of what’s going on in their fields and can address any problems if needed.”

David Cottrill, who farms 1,200 acres near Albany, Mo., has been enrolled in the Crop-Trak program since its inception in 2006.

“He’s out there when I wouldn’t be,” Cottrill said of Runde. “I’ve seen him out there when it’s so muddy that I wouldn’t do it, and it’s my crop. But, that’s the thing, too many times a producer will say, ‘I’ll check it next week. It will be fine until then,’ and the next thing you know, you’ve got problems that you can’t control.”

A lot can happen in a week, MFA Senior Staff Agronomist Jason Worthington said.

“There are a huge number of variables that can only be addressed by somebody being in your field week after week,” he said. “Crop-Trak creates a partnership between MFA and growers to help those growers be more successful.”
Crop-Trak consultants like Runde are expected to make recommendations based on five considerations: agronomic principles, stewardship, grower’s expectations, grower’s logistics and economics. These recommendations are their own, and they are expected to put the grower’s best interest above all else.

Cottrill said he’s experienced this first-hand.

“Kevin looks after the producer,” Cottrill said. “There has been a time or two where we were going to do something, and he didn’t think economically that it would pay, so he recommended not to do it.”

Last spring, Runde’s presence in Cottrill’s fields on one day in May more than paid for the cost of the service, the producer said. He typically applies in-furrow fungicide/insecticide every year, and said he’s never had an issue with insects before. But this past season, cutworms moved in anyway, and Runde caught the issue before too much damage had been done.

“He recommended that we fly on an insecticide, and that took care of it,” Cottrill said. “Every year there’s something that he catches, whether it’s insects, weeds or stand count, that pays his fee.”

Since 2006, the Crop-Trak program has grown exponentially. In the beginning, the program had roughly 200 acres enrolled. In 2017, Worthington reported over 200,000 acres scouted. He attributes that growth to the thorough, unbiased credibility of MFA’s Crop-Trak consultants and the preemptive approach they take in identifying issues before they become something that will affect the producer’s potential yield.

“There is an obvious need for increased field surveillance,” Worthington said. “There are plenty of people in this industry who will go look in a field when someone asks them to, but by partnering with our growers on recommendations and providing them with this level of agronomic observation, we’re able to take a proactive role in finding solutions before the problem gets out of hand.”

Preventing problems that could potentially impact a producer’s bottom line takes diligence and a good foundation, Runde said.

He starts with a cropping plan prior to planting, meeting with growers to figure out when they intend to plant, who their applicator is, and the current level of fertility in their fields. Runde begins looking at weed pressure and putting together burndown and residual herbicide recommendations to make sure the field is clean prior to planting. Once the field has been planted, he scouts each week until it is no longer economical to make further applications. Most days, Runde says he spends approximately 45 minutes scouting per field, checking stands and weed, disease and insect pressures. At that rate, he averages about 2,000 acres a day.

“It’s the most thorough scouting service out there,” Runde said. “We manage these fields year-round, and it’s our full-time job to be in them. A lot of other companies have managers scouting fields in addition to all their other duties, but they can’t do what we do because they just don’t have the time.”

As the general manager of the Northwest MFA Agri Services group, which encompasses the Maryville, Guilford and Conception Junction locations, Jeff Meyer understands that time crunch. During planting and harvest, his days are busy and long. Meyer said one of the biggest benefits of Crop-Trak is that it lets him know what is going on in the field on a weekly basis when he doesn’t have time to get out there himself.

“I get a field-by-field report from Kevin when he has scouted for one of our growers,” Meyer said. “During those busy times especially, it’s hard for me to get away. I’m coordinating trucks and sprayers and spreaders among everything else. It’s a big plus to have someone out there walking those fields who knows what to be on the lookout for during any given time of the season.”

Every time Runde scouts a field, he prepares a detailed report that includes photographs for the grower, outlining the field conditions and any recommendations. With the grower’s permission, the MFA location manager also gets a copy, which Meyer said makes it easier for him to schedule applications.

“A lot of times, there’s a sweet spot with these applications,” Meyer said. “When Kevin sends me his reports, I can then follow up with the growers and steer them in the right direction if there’s something that we need to get to right away. It adds value to the grower to know that we’re getting the right products at the right time on the right acre.”

And as farms grow, their needs change, Meyer said. Ultimately, he sees the Crop-Trak program expanding in his area.

“There are a few operations around here that are getting bigger,” Meyer said. “It gets more and more difficult to intensively check your fields as you have more acres to cover. I hope that growers will look to us when that happens.”
An early advocate for Crop-Trak, Cottrill said he won’t go back to scouting on his own.

“Kevin’s an honest guy,” Cottrill said. “He wants what’s best for the producer. He catches insect pressures quicker than I would ever catch them and lets me know when we need to be spraying for bugs. A lot of times, he’ll be checking corn counts while we’re still planting beans, and if we have somewhere that’s short, we can go back in and replant it. He saves me yield in that instance just by getting it re-planted in a timelier manner than I would if I were doing it myself. I would rather cut back on my other expenses than do away with this, because it pays every time.”

For more information on the Crop-Trak program, contact your MFA location or visit online at https://mfa-inc.com/PrecisionAg/Crop_Trak.

Championing chestnuts

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

In the same river hills where Missouri grapes flourish, a lesser-known favorite offers a virtually untapped industry for farmers. The Chinese chestnut tree thrives in the fertile, well-drained, loess soils that roll along the upland ridgetops adjacent to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Continued research of University of Missouri Center of Agroforestry scientists has determined that chestnuts are not only an economically viable option for the family farm, but they may also have the capacity to become a major Missouri industry.

“The real reason for being for the Center for Agroforestry is to try to find alternative crops for the family farm,” Dr. Michael Gold, interim director of the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center (HARC), said. “There’s always been interest in the state for walnuts, and highway 24 is also on the northern edge of the natural pecan range, but the real winner with the possibility to build a strong industry in Missouri is the Chinese chestnut.”

HARC was established in 1953 near New Franklin, Mo., as one of the outlying farms of the University of Missouri. For its first 40 years, the farm consisted primarily of fruit trees, small fruits, turfgrass and tomatoes.

In the early 1990s, according to Gold, they began joining forces with the Center for Agroforestry. The work of the Center now heavily dominates the farm, and for 20 years, researchers have been investing a lot of time and research into nut breeding.

In 2009, former Missouri State Senator Bill Stouffer and his wife, Sue Ellen, made the decision to retire from commodity farming and move into specialty crops. Stouffer was elected to state senate in 2004, and for his first three years in office, he and Sue Ellen maintained their 2,500 acres of row crops and 200 head of beef cattle. But, as the couple looked into the future, they realized it would be too much for them to continue managing full time. Stouffer, who also is a former MFA Incorporated director, said he’d been watching the research coming out of HARC and was looking for a long-term solution for their 133-acre homestead, Cedar Hill Farms. Economically, for their situation, chestnuts made the most sense.

“I wanted to find something that would sustain the farm without being a burden on the kids or grandkids,” Stouffer said. “This will allow the farm to support itself and be an asset. If they want to manage it, they can, or if they want to hire professional management, there will be enough income here to do that.”

It was admittedly a change for them, Sue Ellen said.

“It’s definitely a different kind of farming than we’ve ever done,” she said. “I laughingly tell everybody that we traded in our air-conditioned tractors and combines for a hoe.”

In their first year of chestnut growing, the Stouffers planted 250 trees on five acres. Since then, their orchard has grown to 1,400 trees spanning 20 acres. They also established five acres of elderberries on the land that wasn’t as optimal for chestnuts.

In the past, they’ve intercropped pumpkins through the orchard, but this year they’ve planted winter wheat. Intercropped wheat yields average about 70 bushels per acre.

“The wheat uses the moisture in the spring when the trees don’t need it,” Stouffer said. “And then we mulch the straw. That ground cover keeps the moisture from escaping, and it doesn’t compete with the trees. It’s a good complement to the orchard, and it’s a way of making some income off the land while your trees are growing.”

The Stouffers’ orchard is made up of many of the same chestnut varieties that also grow at HARC. Out of 65 varieties tested over the years at the Center, six to eight cultivars have emerged as standouts for production, taste and quality. To establish their orchard, the Stouffers worked with now-retired master grafter, Dr. Ken Hunt. He took scion wood (branches cut during winter dormancy from the trees at HARC), and grafted them to rootstock the Stouffers had planted. The grafting process speeds chestnut production by roughly three years, and the “new” tree is a genetic copy of the proven variety.

Still, Gold said it takes 10 to 12 years for a grafted tree to reach full production, and planning a chestnut orchard takes a lot of consideration. Chestnuts require full sun. HARC recommends planting on a 30x30-foot grid, which typically amounts to about 50 trees per acre. Though not vital, irrigation is also recommended for consistent crop production.

The Stouffers have established their orchard by the book with just a few modifications to HARC guidelines. For example, their orchard has the recommended trickle irrigation system installed, but they are using fertigation methods to apply nitrogen. Their trees are spaced on a 20x30-foot grid, and they’ve offset their planting to maximize acreage. When the branches begin touching, Stouffer will follow HARC’s recommendation to remove some trees to help those remaining to increase production. Because of their sunlight requirements, pruning chestnuts in this way is critical as they age, Gold said.

“I’ve seen these trees at 50 and 60 and 70 years old,” he said, “where there are maybe only 12 per acre, but they’re big and they’re producing 300 pounds per tree.”

Like raising any crop, chestnuts have their challenges. Japanese beetles riddled the leaves of nut orchards this year in much the same way they plagued soybean fields across Missouri, and the Stouffers sprayed pesticides to help prevent damage. Blossom end rot, which is a fungus that blackens chestnut burs and kernels, can affect yield, but typically resulting loss is not substantial. Missouri chestnut growers have been vigilantly scouting for a chestnut weevil, but Stouffer says all of these problems are controllable.

“They’re not as susceptible to many things as some other crops are,” he said. “Everything’s manageable.”

Likewise, Chinese chestnuts are resistant to the blight that has decimated the eastern chestnut forests of their American brethren for over 100 years. The fungal pathogen known as Cryphonectria parasitica is thought to have been brought into the United States in the early 1900s on an Asian chestnut species imported into the Bronx zoo. But, the Chinese chestnut co-evolved with that same blight on its native continent and is highly resistant to the strain.

“We have blight in these soils,” Gold said. “We have tested some European-Japanese hybrids that typically grow on the U.S. West Coast where they don’t have blight. Some of those have succumbed to it, which is fine, because we want to know that whatever Mother Nature has in store for these trees, they can make it.”

From mid-September to mid-October, the Stouffers and workers at HARC are in the orchards daily harvesting the nuts that have dropped. Chestnuts are best fresh, and a mature tree can produce anywhere between 50 to 100 pounds of nuts.

The Stouffers harvest their crops themselves by hand. Together they wash, package and ship their chestnuts to consumers across the U.S. In their eighth year since the initial planting, the trees produced 3,000 pounds of nuts, which they said is an exponential increase over the previous year’s harvest of 1,000 pounds.

“Conservatively, we estimated 50 pounds of nuts per tree at maturity,” Stouffer said. “But it’ll likely be more around 70 pounds. HARC has some trees that are doing somewhere in the range of 100 to 120 pounds per tree.”

With their current 1,400 trees, that kind of production could result in anywhere from 70,000-140,000 pounds of chestnuts a year. When their trees mature to that point, the Stouffers said they may hire additional help or purchase specialized equipment. HARC recently invested in a pull-behind chestnut harvester made by an Italian company called FACMA.

“When we’re researching our cultivars, we have to go under each tree and hand harvest with a Nut Wizard because we have to know exactly what each variety is going to yield,” Gold said. “But, we’ve had to test everything to know what works best—irrigation, spacing, mechanical harvesting versus harvesting by hand.”

At the cost of $30,000, the mechanical harvester will pick up 1,000 pounds in an hour. Minus the cost of the equipment, which Gold says isn’t really necessary until a grower is producing tons per acre rather than pounds, it is relatively inexpensive to get into the chestnut business compared to more traditional farming methods. HARC has estimated the cost of establishing 50 trees on one acre of land at approximately $3,200. Twelve years later, that same acre could be grossing $10,000 a year on average if the market remains the same.

In addition to all the other research done at the Center, Gold and his team have also developed chestnut nutrition studies and a financial decision tool and conducted extensive market research. Gold said the fastest-growing chestnut industry is along the eastern edge of Lake Michigan in an area known as the “Fruit Belt.” Because of sheer landmass in Missouri’s river hills and superior climate, however, Gold thinks the Show-Me State has the capacity to greatly surpass Michigan’s production.

Additionally, demand for chestnuts in the U.S. exceeds supply, with average retail prices between $4.50-$8.00 per pound.

“We’ve barely touched the demand from the average American,” Gold said. “If you’re from China or Japan or southern Europe, you know chestnuts from your parents and grandparents. But, many of us who have been here for 100 years or more, coming from western Europe or elsewhere, we don’t know them. We know the song, but we may have never tasted them and don’t know how to cook with them. As people are more and more exposed through chestnut roasts and things like that, people are willing to pay $6 per pound for a festive holiday.”

Though a potential boon by all accounts for Missouri farmers, a chestnut orchard is a long-term investment, the Stouffers warn.

“I guess the advice I’d give people who may consider entering the market is that you have to be patient,” Sue Ellen said. “It’s not like corn or soybeans. You’re not going to get a crop the first year. You’re not going to get a crop the second year. You may get a very small crop the fifth year.”

And her husband agrees.

“There’s a Chinese proverb about when the best time is to plant a tree,” Stouffer said. “The answer is 20 years ago, and if you didn’t do it then, you need to do it today.”

For more information on chestnut growing, nutrition, recipes and products, visit centerforagroforestry.org.

To learn more about the Stouffers’ chestnut operation, visit cedarhillfarms.com.

Mill milestone

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Consider it lucky No. 7. This fall, the feed mill at AGChoice Feed and Grain in Emporia, Kan., became MFA Incorporated’s seventh site to be certified under the Safe Feed/Safe Food program administered by the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA).

That means all feed-manufacturing facilities operated by MFA Incorporated’s Feed Division now carry this prestigious designation. MFA has more Safe Feed/Safe Food mills than any other company in Missouri, according to AFIA, and the Emporia location is the only full-line dry feed manufacturer in Kansas to carry the certification.

“The feed industry, like most others, has been subject to increases in regulatory oversight,” MFA Feed Division Vice President Dr. Alan Wessler said. “Safe Feed/Safe Food gives companies like MFA an opportunity to lead with what we are already doing. We’ve made it our culture to continually improve our manufacturing process. Safe Feed/Safe Food allows us to move up one more notch and be recognized for our efforts.”

The Safe Feed/Safe Food certification is only given to facilities that demonstrate best-in-class manufacturing practices that protect workers from harm and produce safe food for animals in compliance with current regulations, explained Joel G. Newman, president and CEO of AFIA, the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to representing the interests of the U.S. animal food industry and its suppliers.

“MFA and its employees should be commended for showing outstanding leadership and excellence in making safe manufacturing their No. 1 priority,” Newman said. “Our industry prides itself on serving our local customers and supporting safe manufacturing practices in accordance with federal regulations.”

Safe Feed/Safe Food uses a third-party organization—the Safe Quality Food Institute—to administer the program. Launched in 2004, the voluntary program is regularly updated to help industry comply with new and emerging federal guidelines, such as the recent Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Since being signed into law in 2011 by President Obama, FSMA has been phased in throughout the feed and food industry until the final draft was enacted in 2017.

The centerpiece of the act is the requirement for all food, feed, ingredient and pet food facilities to identify food/feed safety hazards and develop written guidelines to control them—procedures MFA proactively put in place by participating in the Safe Feed/Safe Food program six years ago. MFA’s feed mill in Gerald, Mo., was the first to be certified in 2011, followed by the rest of the cooperative’s Missouri mills within a year. MFA began the process of getting the Emporia, Kan., mill certified after purchasing the facility in 2012.

“This is a huge accomplishment for the Emporia feed mill and for MFA,” said Tom Staudt, director of feed manufacturing for MFA Incorporated. “Since the Safe Feed/Safe Food program was adopted, we’ve been working toward this goal to get all of our quality control and regulatory programs up to the standards that meet certification. We’ve always manufactured safe feed, but this program gives us third-party verification. It’s another set of eyes coming into evaluate your facilities and procedures and provide that reassurance to our customers.”

Although beef feed is its predominant product, the mill at AGChoice Feed and Grain also manufactures a variety of feeds for other livestock, including dairy, swine, poultry, goats and rabbits. All the feed originating at the facility is bulk, but MFA bagged feed is available in its warehouse. The unique operation sells feed both wholesale to other AGChoice locations and retail to farmers and ranchers in eastern Kansas, northern Oklahoma and western Missouri. The mill’s 20 full-time employees will produce and deliver around 45,000 tons of feed this year.

“I’ve been here a little over 12 years now, and this is the best group of employees we’ve had,” said Darin Boline, mill manager. “Everybody understands what our goals are, and they’re working toward them.”

The Emporia mill has “come a long way” since MFA Incorporated purchased the facility in 2012, added Boline.

“When MFA bought us, we were still operating with a lot of old equipment—some of it original from when the mill was built in 1956,” he said. “MFA knew they had a challenge here, but they’re not afraid to invest in a facility. One of the first things they did was put in an automated mixing system and a brand-new mixer, which helps with efficiencies and getting feed mixed to specifications. We also have better rolling stock, so we can stay on the road and serve our customers.”

While adding Safe Feed/Safe Food stipulations didn’t mean drastic changes to the mill’s quality-control procedures, Boline said it has ramped up recordkeeping.

“It means a lot more paperwork and more sets of eyes on things, but what I keep telling my employees is that this will prevent mistakes from becoming problems,” Boline said. “We’re human, so we’re not going to be perfect, but if we can keep those mistakes internal, it’s something we can identify and fix. If it gets out to the farmer, it will be a much bigger issue.”

In addition to an emphasis on recordkeeping, the Safe Feed/Safe Food program also provides guidelines in the areas of employee training; facility planning and control; manufacturing and processing; use of monitoring devices; building, equipment, and grounds; ingredient purchasing and controls; identification and traceability; and controls of non-conforming products.

“It starts at the beginning, from the ingredients that come in from our suppliers all the way through production until the product goes out the door,” Staudt explained. “It even involves transportation. Our trucks are cleaned and inspected before we put product in them.”

Before joining the AGChoice staff two years ago, Arlen Ashburn, who manages the warehouse and bagged feed side of the business, spent more than 30 years in quality-control positions for concrete, asphalt, soils and structural steel industries. He said that his past experience proved just how important safe procedures are to a company.

“Quality control is a big issue, and it’s getting even bigger in the feed industry,” Ashburn said. “It makes a lot of difference to our customers to know that we care about what we do, and I think this certification will help give us a step up on the competition.”

By receiving its certification, AGChoice Feed and Grain joins more than 500 facilities across the country that have earned Safe Feed/Safe Food status. Livestock feed and pet food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers, integrated producers, meat processors, feed purchasers, livestock producers, renderers and others can participate. Facilities with the Safe Feed/Safe Food seal must be inspected and recertified every two years in addition to annual self-inspections. These audits include everything from pest control to traceability documentation to biosecurity measures. 

“This isn’t something you do once and move on,” Staudt said. “You have to do it daily. It’s an ongoing process.”

Joining the exclusive group of Safe Feed/Safe Food facilities takes time, effort and teamwork by employees at each plant, said David Weidmaier, MFA quality control and feed regulatory specialist.

“No doubt, it is a challenge,” Weidmaier said. “It takes everyone at our feed mills to make this happen. The program is completely employee-driven. We give them the roadmap, and it’s up to them to follow it. No matter what MFA feed mill you visit, you’ll see a prime example of employees taking pride in what they’re making and what they’re doing.”

For more information, visit safefeedsafefood.org.

2018 Survival Guide

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Like most producers these days, Sam Dove, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on 2,000 acres near Green Ridge, Mo., is keeping a wary eye on the current state of the agricultural economy. After all, this first-generation row-crop farmer has a lot at stake.

Dove has worked hard to build his farm from scratch, starting near the end of the farm crisis in the late 1980s. When he and wife, Nancey, married in 1990, he was farming around 300 acres while working three jobs to make ends meet. The most recent down-cycle isn’t the family’s first experience with belt-tightening times, and they know it won’t be the last. But the Doves also know they’d like the operation to be around for the next generation if their sons—Ryan and Logan—and daughters—Libby and Emily—choose to farm.

“The ’80s, when I was trying to get started, were terrible,” Dove said. “Banks wouldn’t even loan money to established farmers, much less young farmers trying to get started. I did whatever I could to pay the bills and kept picking up acreage here and there. All through the years, there have been cycles, both up and down. We had some good years recently, but grain prices are down now, and we’re feeling that like everyone else. But hopefully, they’ll rebound.”

The irony is that for Dove and many of his fellow farmers in MFA country, 2017 was a great growing year. Yields came in well above average in most places, with corn reaching 200-plus bushels per acre and soybeans pushing 55 to 65 bushels, according to MFA Incorporated Senior Staff Agronomist Jason Worthington. Such positive production tends to push prices downward, and many agricultural experts, including CoBank’s Tanner Ehmke, believe that U.S. farmers will continue to struggle to generate net income in 2018—the fourth year in a row of a weakened farm economy.

“USDA predicts net farm incomes will be up slightly in 2017, thanks mostly to improved profitability in the livestock sector,” said Ehmke, senior economist at CoBank, a $126-billion cooperative bank serving rural America. “Unless market prices for corn and soybeans post significant increases—which is highly unlikely given current commodities surpluses—then farm profitability likely will remain flat in 2018.”

Despite record exports in 2017, expanding production in both crop and livestock sectors as well as large carryover grain stocks make it difficult to be bullish on improvements in farm profitability anytime soon, Ehmke continued. The good news, however, is that “we’ve likely reached bottom” in commodity prices, he said.

“Unless there’s a significant weather-induced supply shock somewhere around the world, prices will continue trading in a fairly sideways pattern,” Ehmke predicted. “Otherwise, net farm income will be in the hands of the farmer and his ability control costs, increase yield and take advantage of brief market rallies.”

To help his farm survive the economic downturn, Dove says he watches expenses and looks for efficiencies, practices and services that will not only save him time and money but also maximize production.

He’s purchased add-on GPS-based equipment for his planters and combine and uses precision agronomy and application services, including MFA’s Nutri-Track program. Dove started by having his soil grid-sampled by MFA Agri Services in Sedalia, and four years ago the farmer began applying nutrients and chemicals at variable rates.

“It all adds up, and my investment has paid off,” Dove said. “There so much soil diversity here. I’ve seen yield even out on my fields since I started using precision tools. It also helps me be more efficient with inputs like fertilizer because I’m only applying what’s needed, where it’s needed. Same thing with seed. I have automatic row shutoffs on my planter to prevent overlap.”

“The equipment also helps with record-keeping,” he added. “I can track seed varieties and planting dates, adding info such as when and where I side-dress corn, and plug in yield information.”

Blaine Beissenherz, MFA agronomist and crop consultant, helps interpret soil samples for Dove and scouts his fields enrolled in the Crop-Trak program. With this program, Beissenherz evaluates fields after plants emerge to take counts and determine if replanting is needed. As the growing season progresses, he checks fields weekly for signs of disease, insects and weed pressure and provides recommendations to Dove on how to address issues.

“We work with Sam to develop a four-year plan to build nutrients in the soil,” Beissenherz said. “We go over cropping plans with him each winter to make sure we are making the best decisions for the given fields and we are on the same page for timing of applications during the growing season.”

In addition, Dove uses treated seeds, purchases crop insurance and hires grain marketing experts—all investments that help protect his farm profitability. Planting cover crops has also helped improve yields, weed control and erosion.

“Year in, year out, we find that cover crops are good for the soil,” he said, “and taking care of the ground just makes good sense.”

Mike Catron, operations supervisor at MFA Agri Services, says that Dove is a good farmer and “progressive in adopting new technology.” Dove deflects that praise and credits his partnership with MFA for helping him along the way.

“A lot of guys do more than I do with precision tools,” Dove said. “I focus on planting and harvesting, and depend on MFA to do most of the agronomy and application. MFA has been good to work with.”

The practices Dove employs on his farm are among those recommended by the ag experts we interviewed for this “Survival Guide.” Here are 10 ways producers can improve efficiencies, profitability and performance on the farm in today’s challenging environment.

1. Cut costs. It’s crucial to work with your accountant to analyze your cost of production and fix inefficient farm practices, CoBank’s Ehmke emphasized. “History tells us the low-cost producer wins,” he said. For example, if you can buy used machinery or delay the replacement of your current machinery line, that’s an easy win on lowering cost. Also, consider negotiating to cut rent and financing costs.

2. Increase yield. Increasing yield is the fastest way to lower your per-bushel breakeven cost of production, Ehmke said. “I’m not a fan of cutting corners on yield-enhancing technologies like traited seed or crop protection.”

3. Advance your marketing plan. Work with a market advisor to develop and execute a marketing plan based on your cost of production. “The market almost always provides an opportunity to sell at a profit, so it comes down to a farmer’s willingness to let go of commodities,” Ehmke said. “That’s often an emotional rollercoaster. If you’re good at farming and growing crops and livestock, focus on that.” He added that it may be a good idea to put someone else in charge of executing the marketing plan, such as a spouse or other family member.

4. Purchase crop insurance. The crop insurance safety net helps assure that you can survive to farm another year in the event of a catastrophe, said Mike Smith, MFA Crop Insurance principal agent, who oversees MFA’s crop insurance program launched in 2017. In addition, you can use crop insurance products to place floors on market prices for grain and livestock. To learn more, including sign-up deadlines, talk with your local MFA crop insurance agent or visit www.mfa-inc.com/Services/MFA-Crop-Insurance.

5. Ensure proper field fertility. Every time you harvest, you remove nutrients from the soil, and recent high yields especially hammered fertility levels, said Thad Becker, MFA precision agronomy manager. “Proper fertility plays an essential role in reaching full yield potential across the field and from year to year,” he said. “A field with good soil test levels better handles adverse conditions.” According Becker, 25 percent of MFA producers have adopted technology that combines soil testing with precision nutrient application, and the trend continues to grow. Although knowing an average yield can allow agronomists to estimate the level of nutrient removal, yield monitors allow for more accurate measurement. “We can combine the data with soil tests to recommend the best nutrient replacement plan,” Becker added.

6. Precision plant. Whether you’re planting, applying nutrients and chemicals or monitoring yield, you don’t need to purchase brand-new machinery to improve accuracy, Becker said. “This is especially true of planters,” he explained. “With add-on aftermarket products from AgLeader, Precision Planting and others, as long as the planter’s frame remains in good shape, you can rebuild a 30-year-old planter to make the most efficient use of seed. More accurate seed placement boosts yield, and you save costs by reducing overlap.” Row shutoffs on your planter generate some of the fastest payback, Becker added.

7. Choose the right seed. Today, seed represents some of the most innovative technology and profitability opportunities available, MFA’s Worthington said. Every year, new hybrids and varieties provide greater yield and more protection from the environment. MFA crop specialists can help producers navigate those choices and make the right decisions for their soil type and disease risk. Seed treatments also add protection against disease threats, he said.

8. Hire expert agronomists. Working with crop scouts and consultants can help growers identify areas where inputs can be used most effectively and profitably. MFA’s Crop-Trak program takes those services to the next level, said Worthington. “We go beyond normal field inspections to evaluate stands as well as weed, insect and disease pressure,” he explained. “Proper timing of nutrient and chemical applications makes a huge impact on crop performance. Too often, poor product selection takes all the credit or blame when, actually, proper timing of herbicides, for example, can often be the difference between a clean field and a disaster.”

9. Improve cattle health and feed efficiency. Disease and death losses in livestock production are expensive. Preconditioning programs such as MFA Health Track can help build immunity through timely vaccination, high-quality nutrition and parasite control. It also reduces sale-day shrink and helps eliminate discounts that can accompany unweaned calves. “When you combine today’s lower feed prices with feed efficiency provided by MFA Health Track, your cost of gain can run below 60 cents a pound,” said Mike John, MFA director of Health Track. In addition, feeds and supplements with MFA’s proprietary Shield Technology can improve livestock health and performance with less dependence on antibiotics. “Shield and Shield Plus have shown benefits such as improved feed efficiency, daily gain, immunity and rumen function,” said Mike Spidle, MFA director of product sales and feed. “Shield Technology leads to fewer open cows, more full-term pregnancies and newborns that get up faster. Dairy cows produce more milk in summer with more protein and butterfat. Swine producers see more pigs per litter, and some have cut back 80 to 100 percent on antibiotics.”

10. Keep better records. Whether you’re growing crops, raising cattle or doing both, record-keeping is an essential tool on the farm. “You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” said John. MFA offers tools to make record-keeping more convenient and useful. For example, MFA’s PowerCalf app allows producers to record data in the field on a mobile device—even without wifi or cell service—including breeding, pregnancy checks, weaning and preconditioning information. “You can sort, edit and analyze the data, including profitability measures such as pounds weaned per cow,” John explained. “The analysis helps you improve conception, calving and weaning rates and stay ahead of the competition via benchmarking tools.” For row-crop producers, MFA’s Nutri-Track web portal provides access to all the information agronomists gather on producers’ farms, such as GPS-based soil test results along with nutrient recommendations. “If you provide planting and yield-monitoring information, we can organize and display that as well,” Becker said.

November 2017 Today's Farmer

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