Make room for monarchs

Written by Dr. Jason Weirich on .

It might surprise you to find me writing about monarch butterflies in this space. But I am. There has been a significant decline in the monarch population over the past few years. It is easy to point fingers to others, but it is time to admit that a shrinking habitat is likely the cause of monarch decline.

Monarch butterflies overwinter in central Mexico during the area’s dry season, which is right about now. Increased illegal logging in central Mexico has reduced the monarch’s overwintering habitat, but that is not the sole cause for its decline. The rapid adoption of non-selective weed control programs has reduced the amount of habitat in the butterfly’s summer breeding grounds. This is a factor in which our trade territory plays a vital part.

As a weed scientist, talking about planting milkweed goes against what I have done in the past. Milkweed has been considered a pest to most of agriculture, and we have sought to control or eradicate milkweed from our farms. Of course, I am not saying we need to totally upend weed management. However, there are some things that you and I can do to help make sure the monarch butterfly doesn’t get listed as an endangered species, or worse, go extinct.

Yes, it will involve planting milkweed. This isn’t the only thing the monarch needs in order to rebound, but it will play a key role.

As I look at the Midwest and see acres of CRP, community gardens, state and federal parks and our spacious backyards, I see places that make ideal candidates for monarch habitat and foraging.

Timely mowing and herbicide applications can also help protect the monarch population. Try to avoid mowing this kind of habitat when the monarchs are using it. This will allow them to continue the life cycle and make the trek north or south.

Common milkweed, swamp milkweed, butterfly weed, and whorled milkweed would be the species of choice in our trade territory. There are numerous facts available on the following links that can help you establish habitat for monarchs and pollinators.

While we might not see eye-to-eye on every topic, we do have a common goal: to sustain monarch and pollinator populations while using sound science for the foundation of our decisions. Look for more information in the coming months about monarch and pollinator issues.


Drive and learn

Written by Dr. Jason Weirich on .

One thing you can’t complain about as a farmer is the view. Whether it’s the sun setting over a freshly cut hay meadow or watching a whitetail buck dart across a field when he is spooked from a resting spot, there is a lot of beauty in the rural setting. We can debate just what kind of country scene is the most enjoyable, but I’ll suggest that of all the views on your farm, there is one that provides more useful information than most: the one from your combine cab.

What you see from the combine cab can tell you a lot about the cropping year, the success of your management practices and the success of the products you have used. How you’ve done with weed control, planter setup, and water management decisions are just a few things that you can really verify by paying attention to what your field at harvest is telling you.

Here are some tips for a successful combine ride.

Don’t devote 100 percent of your attention to your yield monitor

It can be easy to jump to conclusions if you are not focusing on the right things. For example, yield monitors are great, but often they become such a strong focal point in the cab that they blind you to other information that can provide real insight. The yield data that can be compiled and used for nutrient-removal recommendations along with other long-term trends is very valuable if looked at objectively. Watching the swings on the monitor from the cab can lead to rash decisions. Make sure your monitor is logging information so it can be analyzed later. Then dim the screen for a couple rounds so you can focus on what’s going on in the field.

Grade your planting job

One of the best ways to do this is to evaluate the consistency of corn ears as they enter the head. Not just consistency from one area of the field to the other, but consistency from one ear to the next. Ideally, every ear would be the same size, but fluctuations in timing of emergence or fluctuations of intra-row spacing can really influence ear-size consistency. After ear consistency, evaluate stalk consistency both in spacing from neighboring stalks and in size compared to neighboring stalks. The cause of a spindly stalk is sometimes obvious from the cab. If spacing is even, the plant probably emerged late. If spacing is uneven, intra-row competition is often to blame.

Grade your weed control

Evaluating how weedy a field is from the cab is a universal practice. But to say, “Boy, that field is a mess!” or, “Man, that field is clean!” is not enough. Try to note not just how severe the weed pressure is, but also how diverse it is. What weed species are present? Paying attention to weed height might give some clues about when they emerged. Also, look at the crop condition around the weeds. Was it late pressure due to a delayed or inadequate crop canopy, or is there something to evaluate in the timing or product selection of the herbicide program?

Look for causes, not just effects

There are hundreds of issues both positive and negative that can be picked up from the cab. There are thousands of variables that may have caused that issue. If there is lodged corn, get out and split some stalks. Are there tunnels from insects? Is stalk rot present? Is this a wet area of the field or a droughty area? Is the soil type the reason for a change in performance, or is the nutrient level? Very often the view from the combine will answer questions. It can also raise more questions. But raising those additional questions can still be a valuable part of finding the right answers to improve your stands and yield.

Take Notes

Finally, what I’ve mentioned above is the kind of information you use when you sit down to discuss a crop plan with your MFA advisor. Write it down so you can have it with you. When you bring your MFA precision representative yield data to analyze the notes you take from the field, these extra notes may be the key to really unlocking the information on that field.

Of all the points in the year, harvest can be one of the most enjoyable. However, to ensure that there are future, better harvests to enjoy, it’s best to take the information your field has to offer and make improvements on the lessons these fields provide. Those lessons and improvements must come from objective observations. Informed decisions are a best management practice!


Timing is everything

Written by Dr. Jason Weirich on .

I think we can all agree that the 2015 growing season was one for the record books. In the past few years, parts of the MFA trade territory have had abnormal weather conditions, but this year it was widespread. Many of you didn’t get to plant all of your acres, and much of what did get planted was damaged. But Mother Nature doesn’t stop to account for our complaints, so it is time to think about next year.

This past spring I had several calls on how to burndown fields that were infested with a wide variety weeds.

A common theme on these calls was that the field didn’t have a fall-applied chemical program. As a result, the callers wanted to know how to kill 2- to 3-foot tall marestail and winter annuals. Before they could act on that recommendation, it rained again.

The next call was, “How do we kill marestail and giant ragweed and pigweed.”

Sooner or later, with that kind of pressure, the best response was, “with steel.” But, as you know, this spring’s weather put producers in a difficult spot. You couldn’t get into the field to till, at least not in a timely manner.

The point is, in many cases, a fall-applied herbicide program might have been beneficial. When it comes to fall-applied herbicides there are a lot of different thoughts and theories on what makes the best program for each acre. Fall-applied chemical programs are not one-size-fits-all.

First off, fall-applied chemical programs aren’t being used to control waterhemp or Palmer amaranth. The purpose of a fall-applied program is to keep winter annuals controlled so next spring you can get in the field when conditions allow. Fall programs have little effectiveness on summer annuals. In some cases, you might see a residual effect on summer annuals, but it’s not enough to be considered effective weed control.

In a lot of calls I get, producers want to cut costs and use just a glyphosate/ 2,4-D mix as a fall program. While this program is effective at controlling weeds that have emerged, it doesn’t provide any residual for weeds that will germinate post-application and through spring.

Depending on the weather and germination of winter annual weeds, you may see significant germination after applying initial fall-program herbicides. That’s why I believe it is important to include a residual herbicide in the tank. This allows you to suppress winter annual weeds after application.

One of the main things you have to be aware of when planning a fall application is to account for the chemistries that you applied in the previous growing season.

It’s also important to ask, “What am I planting next year?” Each program comes with its limitations and restrictions. You don’t want to cause more headaches for next year’s growing season. I commonly recommend glyphosate, dicamba/2,4-D, and your choice of residual—depending on what crop you are rotating to next year. Always read and follow the label.

Not all fields are suitable for fall-applied herbicides. I don’t believe that highly erodible fields should be bare all winter. I would like to see some cover left on these fields to keep soil erosion at bay. Soil is a valuable resource. We don’t have the kind of time it takes to build it back.

If you have any questions about what specific herbicide program works on your farm, please contact your local MFA/AgChoice location for recommendations.


Top performers: MFA applicators earn respect from customers and MFA

Written by Dr. Jason Weirich on .

In previous issues of Today’s Farmer, I’ve written about the challenging times ahead for weed control. We’re fighting weeds that evolve to resist whole families of chemistry. We’re lucky to have new crop protection technology to help with weed control, but they will bring challenges of their own. New herbicide systems such as Dicamba- and 2,4-D-tolerant soybeans will take increased oversight. With these systems, we expect high volumes of custom application. It will be paramount for whoever is spraying to understand the target crop’s surroundings. Tank clean-out procedures will take on new critical importance. Wind direction and speeds will factor heavily into where, when and how we spray. And there won’t be any leeway if the wrong field gets sprayed. At MFA, these are practices that we already pride ourselves in doing well. Still, they will become more challenging in the near future.

That’s why I want to take this space to celebrate some of our employees who take their job seriously and deliver real MFA service to our customers.

MFA had its second annual applicator training a few months ago. This training updates our applicators on the latest in spraying technique. Participants spend half a day to update their knowledge and learn about new procedures and technology.

One part of the program is to recognize our top applicators. We seek nominations from throughout the MFA trade territory to highlight custom applicators who really excel at their job and in their community. We use this program to propel nominations to a national competition sponsored by AGCO. The AGCO Operator of the Year is announced each year at the Agricultural Retailers Association annual meeting. It’s a popular program, with a lot of participation. And it is really tough to win. Aside from a trip to the ARA meeting, the AGCO Operator of the Year winner receives a top-end Harley Davidson or cash prize.

I don’t get to brag often enough on our applicators, so take a look at our 2014 MFA Incorporated Operator of the Year finalists. These are the guys that farmers request by name. They are doing a good job for you.

Region 1: Tim Hurst

AGChoice manager Jarod Graves said Hurst has been running custom application machines for a total of 16 years. “Tim will have everything on his machine in tip-top shape when he goes to the field.” As with most modern application rigs, Hurst has to be a good driver, but a computer technician as well, mastering RTK autopilot and multiple products. Aside from his mastery of the equipment, farmers trust Hurst for his instincts and agronomic knowledge. “Farms rely on him to make in-field decisions. Is it too muddy? Is there too much crop residue? Are rows sealing? When farmers know Tim makes these decisions correctly, it puts him in high demand.” Graves said there’s a simple way to describe Hurst: “He takes pride in what he does.”

In his spare time Hurst enjoys time with his three children. He likes to hunt and fish, especially with the kids, and he spends time following his son’s baseball team.

Region 2: Earl Huston

Canton MFA Agri Services manager Angela Schaller said, “Earl Huston is a hard working employee that I never have to worry about. I know he will take care of our customers.” Schaller added that Huston has a unique relationship with MFA customers. They call him personally to book fields that need fertilized or sprayed. Then they don’t worry about it, because, once the call is in, they know Huston will get it done.

“Earl takes a lot of pride in his work. He takes time to know not just the customer, but the customer’s entire family. He treats them how he’d want to be treated if he was in their shoes. He goes to every educational meeting he can, because he wants to know what will best benefit his customers. You’ll often see him spend time scouting a customer’s field because he knows that when farmers succeed, everyone at MFA succeeds. Customers value his opinion and know that he will be honest with them.”

Region 3: David Layne

When fertilizer season is in full gear, you can expect David Layne to be one of the first ones to work in the morning and one of the last to leave. 

“When David pulls in the lot in the morning, it’s all about business,” said Boonville MFA Agri Services manager Ronnie Anderson. “If a farmer calls and needs fertilizer on a field before he plants, and plans to start planting at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday, David is there before 6 a.m. getting the job done.”

Anderson said it’s that kind of commitment that has earned Layne the respect of area farmers.

“Customer trust and satisfaction are two of the most important aspects of this business. Anderson said that Layne knows how to push to get a job done. And he knows when conditions get too bad, whether from high winds or wet soils, the quality of work can deteriorate. And Layne understands the farming practices of his customer. He factors all of these variables into his work. “He wants to get the job done right,” said Anderson.

In his spare time, Layne loves to garden. When his garden crops begin to deliver, there is a steady flow of produce on the Boonville MFA Agri Services counter free for whoever stops in.

Region 4: Dave Lawson

Midsouth manager Matt Mauldin said that attention to details and being a life-long member of the community are a successful combination for Lawson. “Dave does an outstanding job. He keeps his truck in top shape. He is always courteous and does a good job spreading. He covers acres with zero customer complaints.”

A self-starter, Lawson takes downtime as serious as time in the field. “He is always finding things to do. He never has to be told to do anything,” said Maudlin. He added that at the end of every day, Lawson washes his truck and inspects it from end to end. That’s a benefit to the company, but it’s a benefit to customers as well. It minimizes downtime. And it helps customers receive timely service.

In his spare time, Lawson likes to spend time with his granddaughter and hunt for arrowheads on the family farm. He is an avid NASCAR fan.

Region 5: Douglas Preston

Weir AGChoice manager Bill Garner said Preston has that trademark of good applicators: customers ask for him by name. “He is very professional when he interacts with customers. And he is knowledgeable about all of our products. Doug makes sure the equipment he uses is in top shape and working order. He keeps it clean and sharp.” In essence, said Garner, Preston’s performance and knowledge give customers trust in him to help make the right decisions for their operations. “Doug’s stewardship for the environment and his willingness to help customers be good stewards of their land really enriches our farming community,” said Garner.

In his spare time, Preston enjoys fishing and gardening.


Precision ag pays on pasture

Written by Jason Worthington on .

This summer, MFA will surpass 260,000 acres in its Nutri-Track program. Because Nutri-Track is typically based on a four-year sampling cycle, and given the pace of sign-ups, we hope to reach more than a million acres with the Nutri-Track sampling program in the next couple years. As you might guess, the majority of these acres are in corn, soybean and sometimes wheat rotation. However, one of the fastest growing segments of intensive soil sampling is pasture and hay ground.

There are good reasons for this surge in interest for site-specific fertility management on forages. Among them are higher cattle prices; increased scrutiny of fertilizer application and its environmental impact; and increased availability of variable-rate application equipment.

There is plenty to gain from precision nutrient management on hay and pasture land. Regardless of whether you grow corn or fescue, plants need balanced amounts of essential nutrients for optimum performance. Whether it’s brome or soybeans planted in a field, nutrients won’t be as readily available unless the pH is at proper levels. And for more intensively managed forage crops like alfalfa, money saved from variable-rate lime applications prior to seeding will offset the cost of grid sampling just as it will prior to row crops. Soil tests need to be taken in a manner that allows you to check nutrient levels, the soil pH, and the variability in the field. Whether your crop of choice is grain or grass, the basics of soil fertility stay the same.

Nutrient and pH variability change with many field-level factors, man-made and otherwise. In row crops, nutrients returned to the soil in the form of stover are usually spread through the combine uniformly and lands not far from where they were removed. In pastures, a major factor in nutrient variability comes from livestock. The nutrients cattle return to the soil via manure will be returned in places where cattle spend the most time. Those areas could be near feed bunks, ponds or waterers, mineral feeders or shade trees. A steer or heifer puts little thought into dispersing nutrients evenly, but with grid sampling, you can figure out the scope and severity of this disproportionate dispersal of nutrients.

Once you have accounted for the existing nutrients available to pasture and forage crops, variable-rate application of nutrients allows you to avoid over-fertilizing areas that cattle have already fertilized. Just as importantly, you can add the right amount of nutrients to optimize forage yield throughout the pasture.

Hay fields may not have cattle redistributing nutrients, but they come with challenges of their own. First, if you compare nutrient removal of 1 ton of cool-season grass hay compared to 67 cow-days on pasture, you will see that the only real equivalence is the amount of nitrogen required. For hay, phosphorous removal is doubled and potassium removal is tripled.

Moving harvested hay from hay fields to feed in a pasture is another form of nutrient redistribution you need to think about. The math gets complicated. Grid sampling helps you track these nutrients and fertilize accordingly.

Nutri-Track and variable-rate fertility are all about accuracy and efficiency. The program helps you put inputs where they are needed and pull back where they are not. These practices will not only save input costs on lime and more evenly distribute nutrients, but they can lead to increased productivity—you can increase stocking rates or grow more hay from the same acres. That’s one low-cost investment that can bring big returns on your beef operation.


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