'New era' for N Management

Written by Thad Becker on .

Last year, MFA took on a major field study to evaluate sidedress application of nitrogen on corn and some new nitrogen rate decision tools. Now that the results are in, I have been speaking about it regularly at many of our training meetings. Whenever I bring up the topic of sidedressing—especially when I talk about waiting until plants are knee-high to do it—a murmur starts somewhere in the back of the room and sweeps forward. I see people shifting nervously in their seats, anxious about the big “what if?” What if I don’t get the N on in time? What if the corn gets too tall? What if I stress the corn by waiting that long to sidedress?

Even with the big “what ifs,” our 2016 study gives us a big reason to re-evaluate the way we manage N for our corn crop.

The amount of N we need to raise a corn crop varies tremendously from year to year and from one end of the field to the other. In my presentations, I refer to a couple of university studies that show variations of 100 pounds per acre in rates needed for optimum yield. In early July, if you were to walk through fields that have a flat rate of 160 pounds of nitrogen applied, you’d likely find sections showing nitrogen stress that probably never had the potential to yield 140 bushels per acre. You’d see other areas that are dark green and beautiful that will end up yielding 200-plus bushels per acre.

Why do we have such variations? Really, it comes down to two things: water and soil. Nitrogen loss is controlled by the amount and timing of the water we receive from the time N is applied until corn takes it up. Soil properties control how much N our organic matter will provide and the predominant pathways for N loss. Rainfall fluctuates from year to year and drives our overall N rate variation, while the soil affects the in-field variability.

In the past, it has been difficult to quantify and predict these changes, so we’ve used the “better safe than sorry” rule. Based on local conditions and experience, we’ve learned that if we apply “X” amount of nitrogen (insert your favorite rate here), everything will be OK. This works great 80 percent of the time. We have plenty of N, and we make a good crop. However, that also means many years we apply more N than we really needed, and sometimes we run out of N at a critical time and yields suffer.

Research and development into N management is starting to pay off. Today, several services are available to better define our N needs. During the 2016 season, MFA compared three different nitrogen management tools (NVisionAg, Climate FieldView Pro and Adapt-N) head-to-head on 1,700 acres across our trade territory. The results were surprising. Overall these tools performed admirably well, with yield differences among all the programs and the check strip falling well within the margin of error.

All three programs recommended N rates much lower than I was comfortable with, but I was astonished at the results. One field made 240 bushels per acre on a 160-pound average N rate. But we must consider that many areas had almost perfect conditions for nitrogen last year. Early-season weather was warm and dry, which encouraged mineralization and minimized losses. Then we had moisture late in the season when the crop needed it. Overall the tools we tested were able to recognize the low N need, and when we applied accordingly, we were able to see a significant savings in our N costs.

I don’t expect those savings every year. In fact, we’re more likely to make money with the programs by improving our yields when we have a wet spring and have seen large N losses.

However, there is a catch with these programs. They all work better the farther we get into the season because water plays such a big part in determining how much N we need. The more we know about the seasonal rainfall pattern, the better the tools can predict what we need in post application. In last year’s study, we targeted corn at the V8 growth stage for sidedress application, which put us right at the edge of rapid plant uptake of N.

We also have to leave room for the tools to save us money, which means using low rates in pre-emergent applications. In our trials, we applied no more than 100 pounds of N before sidedress. This can lead to a tense June if weather conditions don’t allow for sidedressing, but high-clearance spreaders and airplanes are available in many areas to help extend the season.

Is it worth the risk? I think there are opportunities to save money and increase yield with these tools. With their performance last year, I am convinced we are on the brink of a new era for N management.

New crop technologies trigger new policies

Written by Dr. Jason Weirich on .

As the meeting season begins to slow down and the busy spring season gears up, I hope you’ve learned a few things that will impact your operation in a positive way. If you are a row-crop producer, I’m sure you have been informed about the do’s and don’ts with new herbicide technology—specifically, dicamba—that may be coming to your field or a neighboring farm.

When the subject has come up at meetings over the past six months, I’ve often heard someone say, “We’ve been through this before, and we did just fine.” I hope that that’s the case this time as well. However, compared to glyphosate, it takes such a small amount of off-target dicamba to cause visible damage to crops. Only milliliters of dicamba in a 1,000-gallon tank can cause problems.

With everything going on in the industry today related to this new technology, I want to share MFA’s policy about dicamba:

  • MFA will not custom apply any old formulation of straight dicamba products (including Banvel, Clarity and Detonate). 
  • MFA will not sell over-the-counter any old formulation of straight dicamba products (including Banvel, Clarity and Detonate) between April 1 and Oct. 1 each year. These products will be available outside this timeframe.
  • This policy does not include blended products such as Range Star, DiFlexx and Status.

What does that mean? MFA will steward the new technology to the best of our ability. We will apply and sell new-and-improved formulations, and we will use them as labeled. We believe that this policy is the best for your cooperative. We have heard about all the risk associated with dicamba, and we want to make sure we are following the proper guidelines. I believe we can use these products successfully.

MFA will also participate in the Flag the Technology (see above), a program that the University of Arkansas started several years ago to identify what crop technology is in each field. MFA will provide black-and-white checkered flags with your MorSoy RXT soybeans. We ask that you place these flags in the RXT fields to not only remind you what is planted in that field but also to make your neighbors aware. This will hopefully avoid misapplication of chemicals or drift on your field. MFA personnel are not responsible for placing the flags in the field; you are.

In the past few years, we have seen an increase of LibertyLink fields in our territory, which has caused some issues with spraying the wrong herbicide on the wrong trait. You can guess the outcome. That’s why MFA is taking extra measures to avoid any confusion with the Xtend system. If we will be custom applying XtendiMax or Engenia to your fields, we ask that you communicate with your location in writing via email, text or written document stating what technology you are using. Simply bring in your planting maps, and denote what herbicide trait is in each field. If these documents are correct, and we make a mistake, it is our fault, and we will make it right. Communication among your neighbors, retailer and the applicator is crucial to success.

I’ve had some producers tell me they don’t think this policy will work. I’ve had some even ask me, “Why are we planting Xtend soybeans?” Well, they’re a tool—a great tool, in fact—that allows growers to utilize XtendiMax or Engenia in a burndown situation and plant without the typical plant-back restrictions. It also provides a weapon against weeds that escape our residuals if they are less than 4 inches tall.

With all that being said, we cannot forget the journey that led us here: resistance in the 1990s, glyphosate resistance in the 2000s, HPPD resistance and PPO resistance. It’s only a matter of time until we have resistance to new technologies as well. They aren’t like Roundup Ready. We won’t be able to kill pigweed 2 feet tall. For that matter, anything over 4 inches tall is questionable. We must continue to use residuals and overlapping residuals as I have written about in the past. I’ve heard a lot of chatter about abandoning residuals. This is a big mistake! If we abandon what we have learned, we will be right back where we came from.

If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to your MFA or AGChoice location or to me directly at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Hear Dr. Weirich speak about MFA's new policies regarding dicamba:


 Also, learn more about the flag system in the MFA Agronomy Guide here:


Soil is your farm's foundation

Written by Cameron Horine on .

Production agriculture is tasked with the challenge of providing enough food to meet our world’s growing demands. For producers in MFA’s trade territory, the ultimate challenge is to not only meet this goal, but to exceed it on less land and with fewer resources. To do it, you need to be efficient. You need to embrace technology. And you need to understand biology. The No. 1 resource for production agriculture is your soil. To be efficient and productive you need to have healthy soils to reach top yield potential and to protect your investment in land.

Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. This definition speaks to the importance of managing land so it is healthy and sustainable for many generations to come. To maintain and improve soil health, you need to be conscious of the fact that soils contain living organisms that perform functions required to produce food.

Soil is not a nonliving growing medium, but rather a living ecosystem filled with billions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes. The ecosystem within the soil can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth. Managed properly, it absorbs and retains water during dry periods and buffers against potential pollutants escaping crop fields. Soil is the firm foundation for agricultural activities.

Soil has both natural and active properties. Natural soil properties are the soil’s natural ability to function. For example, sandy soil drains faster than clay soil. Deep soil has more room for roots than soils with bedrock near the surface. These characteristics do not change easily.

Active soil properties are how soil changes depending on how it is managed. Management choices affect the amount of soil organic matter, soil structure, soil depth as well as the soil’s water and nutrient holding capacity. Soils respond differently to management depending on the natural properties of the soil and the surrounding landscape.

Living organisms in the soil are important for crops. Mycorrhizae, a microbial extension of plant roots, help our crops uptake nutrients in the soil such as phosphorus and zinc—minerals that can be bound tightly within the soil. Rhizobia bacteria in the soil are necessary for leguminous plants to form a symbiotic relationship that produces nitrogen. Earthworms and insects play a critical role in maintaining soil structure and water filtration as well as maintaining the organic material in the soil profile.

Planting cover crops provide many benefits to producers and improving soil health. Cover crops can influence and actively change soil properties such as structure along with water and nutrient holding capacity. The plant material cover crops produce, if properly managed, can increase soil organic matter and regulate water loss in the soil.

Healthy soil gives us clean air and water, bountiful crops, productive grazing lands and diverse wildlife. Soil does all this by performing five essential functions:

  • Regulating water
  • Sustaining plant and animal life
  • Filtering and buffering potential pollutants
  • Cycling nutrients
  • Physical stability and support

Understanding soil health means assessing and managing soil so that it functions optimally now and is not degraded for future use. Monitoring changes in soil health, a producer can determine if a set of practices is sustainable. By using soil health principles and farming systems that include no-till, cover cropping and diverse rotations, your soils will increase organic matter and improve microbial activity. As a result, you will be improving and maintaining soil health, all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.

The benefits and challenges of cover crops

Written by Dr. Jason Weirich on .

This time of year I like to assess the previous growing season and see what lessons we can bring forward. The 2016 planting season started early and finished fast for most of our territory. One thing I noticed is now that cover crops have become more popular, growers are finding a few management challenges to consider.

There have been a several factors driving the adoption of cover crops. There is an incentive from local farm agencies ranging from $20 to $35 per acre, depending on what county you are in and what cover crop mix you plant. There is also increasing evidence of weed-control benefits from cover crops. And finally, I see an increase in general conservation efforts focused on runoff prevention and soil quality. Dr. Kevin Bradley and his team with the University of Missouri have been looking at cover crops for the past few years to determine what weed control benefits producers are seeing (you can see their work here:

In the past, I have mentioned on this page that using Italian ryegrass as a cover crop is a bad idea. That still holds true today. Italian rye can become a major weed with the ability to evade common control tactics, including evolving into a multiple herbicide-resistant plant. Although its growth characteristics are ideal for cover crops, its cons outweigh the pros.

During the spring of 2016, growers ran into challenges with cover crops planted the previous year. Some producers were planting into standing rye, partially killed rye, dead rye, clovers, etc. You name it, someone was doing it. This year these efforts worked. They worked better than I thought they would. I saw several fields planted in challenging conditions that ended up with ideal crop stands, emergence and weed control. I also saw several fields that looked much less than ideal. I am a firm believer that you need to have cover on fields in the off-season. I believe that cover crops allow us to meet that objective. I am, however, in favor of killing that cover crop before planting into it.

Here’s why. Early in the spring, it can take a while for cover crops to die from herbicide applications. I had the chance to walk a field this year and see something that I have only read in textbooks: a recently planted corn field where the corn was emerging, then dampening off. Upon further investigation, I found the grower had terminated the cereal rye, waited two weeks, and then planted corn. The trouble was with the corn that got planted at the base of cereal rye plants. These corn seedlings were dying off. As I looked over the field, I noted that the cereal rye was still green at the base. Cereal rye has been documented to have an allelopathic effect on corn. My recommendation is to avoid cereal rye before corn—use a different cover crop to avoid the risk of a yield hit. Additionally, if cereal rye is used before going into a non-corn crop, make sure the cereal rye is killed at least two weeks before planting the crop—not just sprayed two weeks prior. The cover crop should be dead, and I mean graveyard dead.

Another aspect that may be overlooked after a flourishing cover crop are the effects it might have at harvest. Last fall I got the opportunity to see some of the on-the-go learning that comes with cover-crop management. When it comes to cover crops, harvest disruption is something you probably don’t hear about too much. In this case, a cereal rye crop was balling up, causing a slower harvest than one would like. Of course, this wasn’t by design, but it was a struggle nonetheless.

Yes, I am a firm believer in cover crops. I believe they bring multiple benefits. It’s not just a soil conservation benefit, but moisture, weed control and organic matter, too.

A cover crop rotation can bring benefits, but there will be lessons along the way. Right now, agronomically speaking, I think we may have more questions than answers, but I believe you should give them a try. Start on a small field. Your top choice might be a highly erodible parcel or a field with the low organic matter. It’s a place to start.

There are a lot of resources available online, but this one will lead you down the right path:

If you have any further questions, please feel free to visit with your local MFA or AGChoice location.

Know your soil's biological history

Written by Jason Worthington on .

If the topic of fungi, bacteria or other microbes comes up regarding crop production, we tend to think of them as something that might harm a crop. We think of pathogens, challenges to plant health and lower grain yield. That’s a natural thought process. From fungicides to varietal resistance and cultural practices, disease management is a top priority. On the flip side, we seldom think about how to impact our beneficial bacteria—but it appears that awareness is growing. And that’s a good evolution.

In 2015, Missouri had over 1.5 million acres of prevented planting. If much thought was given to how 2015 fallow acres impacted the 2016 crop, it was generally centered on keeping weeds under control. Another consideration was how to adjust soil fertility. But there wasn’t a great amount of consideration on what might have happened to beneficial microbe populations. In 2016 we were reminded just how important the beneficial microbes in our soil are, and prevented planting acres from 2015 may still impact cropping decisions in 2017.

There is a common term used by plant pathologists to describe the necessary components for a disease to exist. It’s called the disease triangle. The three sides of the triangle are: 1) the infectious agent; 2) a host plant; and 3) favorable conditions. Without any of the three sides, the triangle is incomplete, and a disease does not advance. The same goes for beneficial microbes. They are infectious agents requiring a host plant and favorable environment. The only difference is they provide benefit to the host rather than harm. In 2015, on prevented planting acres, the host plant was removed. The result, in many cases, was that beneficial microbe populations plummeted. One possible result of reduced microbe populations is a condition called fallow corn syndrome.

Fallow corn syndrome received a lot of attention in 2016. While there is little doubt that fallow corn syndrome existed, to what extent is debatable. Fallow corn syndrome can easily be confused with nutrient deficiencies in the soil, herbicide injuries and common conditions associated with cool, wet weather. Fallow corn syndrome is a phosphorous and zinc deficiency in corn growing in soil that has adequate levels of those nutrients. The plant is deficient of these nutrients due to an inability to retrieve phosphorous and zinc. This failure results from a significantly reduced population of mycorrhizae.

Mycorrhizae microbes work as an extension of the corn’s root system helping to reach and solubilize nutrients that are highly immobile in the soil. Mycorrhizae have the ability to colonize many different plant species and do not necessarily need corn as a host to maintain populations. Planting cover crops in fields that would otherwise lay fallow is one prevention measure, and weeds are a host that can support populations. The most likely locations where fallow corn syndrome may have existed fit some specific parameters. They were non-planted fields where growers actually did a good job of controlling weeds, didn’t plant a cover crop, and planted corn in 2016. The actual impact of fallow corn syndrome depends on how quickly mycorrhizae populations recover. Biological products like Quickroots or Cue (designed to either inoculate seed with mycorrhizae or stimulate growth and reproduction of beneficial microbes) may speed mycorrhizae population recovery.

An issue that may be more common in 2017 than 2016 is reduced soybean nodulation in fields that were fallow in 2015. Like mycorrhizae, rhizobia bacteria, which fixate N for soybean plants, form a symbiotic relationship with the crop. Unlike mycorrhizae, different rhizobia species are require specific plants to survive. Rhizobia japonicum, the species associated with soybeans, will not maintain adequate populations to provide significant nodulation when soybean plants are not present. While inoculating soybean seed annually is an excellent practice, it becomes increasingly important during extended absences of soybeans. Because crop rotations were disrupted with non-planted acres, there are fields this year that may be planted to soybeans for the first time since 2014.

As time pushes on, we tend to forget about the impact some weather deliver and how they can continue to affect our soil. Past cropping practices don’t just have longterm effects on things like the weed seed bank, or soil compaction. They also affect the biological activity of soil. As always we need to remember the needs of this crop year. However, it pays to remember what fields have endured past years and what we expect of them into the future.


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