Feature

Friends in the field

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

A hand-written thank you note sits below Beau Britt’s computer monitor in his office at MFA Agri Services near Hannibal, Mo. It’s only four sentences, a simple gesture of appreciation for the service he and a fellow employee provided nearly two years ago, but for Britt the note is symbolic of something greater.

“This is a daily reminder of how I want all our customers to feel,” he said. “I don’t expect thank-you notes, but I want to create that kind of experience each time someone does business with us.”

A native of Philadelphia, Mo., Britt started his career at the Marion County location 12 years ago as a custom applicator and was tapped to be manager in the fall of 2015. During his decade in the field, Britt cultivated a hands-on, customer-centric approach that he brought to his role as manager.

“I like to deal with people, and I feel like I communicate very well with customers,” he said. “Service is the big thing here. If there’s one reason why our location is succeeding, I’d say it’s because of the customer relationships we have and the service we provide. They’re more than customers; they’re our neighbors and our friends.”

Those relationships matter to Ryan Hulse, a diversified farmer and member of the Marion County MFA board, who said trust is No. 1 when it comes to choosing an agricultural retailer.

“To some farmers, it’s just dollars and cents, but I want somebody I can trust,” Hulse said. “When Beau tells me something, I know it’s right, and if it’s not, he’ll make it right. I don’t have to check up to make sure things got done.”

Over the last few years, business has been steadily growing and, in turn, so has the staff, which now numbers eight employees. Tyler Mason, MFA regional manager, said the Marion County location is a prime example of how enthusiasm and hard work can change a business for the better.

“Beau takes a personal interest in the well-being of his customers and employees, and the staff is earning new business and bringing back old business,” Mason said. “Nutri-Track acres have grown; Crop-Trak acres have grown. Fertilizer and feed sales are up. The crew emphasizes the importance of pre-planning, visiting one-on-one with customers to develop fertility and weed-control programs and seed selections long before spring.”

That planning process is key to demonstrating value to customers, Britt insisted. Knowing what inputs and services are needed on the front end helps both MFA and its growers, he said.

“The biggest challenge for us is staying ahead of the game, trying to adapt to the changes going on in agriculture and continuing to be relevant in the marketplace,” Britt said. “That’s why we focus on getting crop plans put together early. We all want to be on the same page with their inputs and know what they’re thinking as they go into next year. Everybody is one team working toward the same goal.”

As a grower, Hulse said that proactive approach helps provide peace of mind.

“Agriculture has changed a lot in the last few years, and what MFA has to provide in terms of service has changed a lot, too,” he said. “Just think about all the things that we, as farmers, expect. It’s a lot more complicated than ever before. Having what we need, when we need it, is extremely important. The more I can go to MFA for everything, the easier it is for me.”

Part of MFA’s Northeast Missouri group, which also includes Canton, Kahoka, LaBelle and Memphis, the Hannibal Agri Services center serves a mostly agronomic customer base with an on-site fertilizer plant and custom application services. The business also offers bagged feed for livestock customers and a well-stocked showroom with a product selection geared toward walk-in traffic.

“We’re starting to see more people come in and buy crop protection products off the shelf and have a conversation with us,” Britt said. “They feel like they have somebody they can talk to here about what they want to accomplish in their yards or around their farms.”

The Marion County location added a pasture sprayer a few years ago, and its use keeps increasing among forage and hay producers, Britt said. On both forage and row-crop ground, fall applications of crop protection products and fertilizer are also becoming more popular, he added.

“It seems like everyone is planting earlier and earlier each year, so if you can be ahead of the game with some burndown or P and K applications in the fall, it gets you that much further,” Britt said. “Being as flexible as possible is what these guys are after, and it just makes sense to spend a little money in the fall to get a head start in the spring.”

With an increasingly competitive retail environment, Britt said MFA sets itself apart not only through its value to customers but also its values as a business.

“A lot of the competitors offer the same fertilizer and the same chemicals,” Britt said. “We’re differentiating ourselves by our honesty and integrity, our community involvement and our relationships with customers. There’s no way of avoiding issues. Something goes wrong every single year. But our customers know that if something happens, we’re going to take care of it.”

As for the future, Britt said his team is focused on retaining current customers, bringing in new patrons and looking for beneficial opportunities. For example, renting a hopper-bottom trailer allowed the Marion County location to source its own fertilizer materials to fulfill customer requests, and Britt said plant food tonnage has increased as a result. He also hopes to add a bulk chemical warehouse soon to better serve the crop protection needs of area growers.

“We’ve come a long way from when I was hired, but we’ve never had the mentality that we wanted to grow overnight,” Britt said. “We’re just continually looking for new ways to show our value and help make our customers more profitable. What’s good for the customer is good for us.”

Partners with purpose

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

Alda Owen was 60 years old when she got her first puppy.

Legally blind since the age of 10 and a recent breast cancer survivor, Alda had been struggling to figure out her future on the cattle farm she and husband, Rick, operate in Maysville, Mo. As she rode home in 2012 with the 9-week-old, newly named Sweet Baby Jo in her lap, Alda knew she was getting a second chance.

“After the chemo and double mastectomy, I was weak and mad and drained,” she said. “Getting Jo was quite the life changer.”

For 50 years, Alda had learned to work with her visual impairment, but the cancer and treatments were another story. She and Rick had farmed much of their lives together, but the illness further limited what she could do on the farm.

“He has always been a caregiver,” Alda said. “And at that time, he didn’t really want me to help on the farm because he was concerned about my health and safety.”

Not being able to help out and the lack of independence also took a toll on Alda emotionally, she said. She wanted to be a partner again. Knowing her mother’s internal struggle, Alda’s daughter, Kate, introduced her to PHARM Dog USA, which stands for Pets Helping Agriculture in Rural Missouri. The organization trains and places cattle dogs and service dogs with farmers who have disabilities. Established in 2005, the program became a 501(c)3 non-profit in 2012.

“The goal is to save the farmer time and energy,” PHARM Dog founder Jackie Allenbrand said. “We call them four-legged farm hands, because that’s really what they are.”

After bringing Sweet Baby Jo home, Alda worked with PHARM Dog’s trainers over the next year to equip the border collie with the herding skills necessary to help her on the farm. In the first year, Jackie and her trainers handle the basic commands and do simple exposure training exercises with the dogs, like riding in a truck. Alda followed the same protocol with Jo. After a year, they begin working with the dogs more intensely on specialized training.

Typically, dogs are at least 2 years old before they are matched with a farmer. According to Jackie, placing a puppy is unusual, but Alda said she knew it was meant to be that way.

“I can’t explain what she did for me mentally,” Alda said. “From that day forward, I was excited to get up. I wanted to take care of her. I wanted to take her out and work with her. It gave me purpose.”

Every dog’s training is a little different depending on the farmer’s needs. Border collies are trained to work with cattle and sheep, and Labradors learn service skills.

On the herding side, Jackie works with two trainers, Bobby Miller of Plattsburg, Mo., and Don McKay in Packwood, Iowa. For dogs trained with service skills, Jackie begins basic training on her own farm near Stanberry, Mo., then works with Sandy Rickey near Odessa for more specialized skills.

“We have some amazing trainers,” Jackie said. “Our border collies will learn directional commands like ‘way’ and ‘by,’ which moves the dogs to the right or left of the herd, and ‘walk up,’ where they will slowly move closer to the herd. The Labradors can be taught to retrieve tools, open gates, carry buckets or to brace and counterbalance for someone who may need that assistance.”

Life with limited vision

Alda lost most her sight at the age of 10 due to histoplasmosis, an infection caused by breathing in spores of a fungus transmitted through the droppings of birds and bats. The potentially fatal disease spread from her lungs to her ocular nerve.

“It was my job to take care of the chickens on my family’s farm,” Alda said. “That summer, the temperature and humidity were just right to form this fungus, and I ingested it.”

At the time, doctors told Alda’s parents she could take medication, but due to the side effects, she may only live into her mid-20s. Her other option was to do nothing with the likelihood that she would go blind or that the disease would lay dormant.

“The disease took parts of her vision,” Rick explained. “For instance, she may see a cup, but she may not see the handle.”

When Alda and Rick are out in public, he wears a specific type of hat so his wife can recognize him by the shape and silhouette.

“I can see some things,” Alda said. “I can see the shape of the trees, but I can’t see the distinct leaves or bark until I get right up to it and touch it. If we’re out in a field, a 300-pound calf may look like an evergreen tree or a multi-floral rose. I have no way of detailing until something moves or I get right up on it.”

A few years ago, Alda worked with Missouri Rehabilitation Services for the Blind to get specialized glasses and take a low vision driving test. She now has the ability to use an all-terrain utility vehicle around the 260-acre farm where she and Rick run a black Angus cow/calf operation.

“A lot of people don’t realize, but people with visual impairments memorize,” Alda said. “I have my comfort zone. I memorize the landscapes, but I’ve been here all my life. If you dropped me off in a city or even a hospital I didn’t know and asked me to find a specific room on a specific floor, there’s no way I’d be able to do it.”

Now 6 years old, Jo rides in the back of Alda’s ATUV while she does daily chores.

“Before Jo, if I had said, ‘I’m going to go move the replacement heifers from this lot over to this lot,’ not in a million years would Rick have been comfortable with that,” Alda said. “But the other morning, that’s what we did. Or we’ll go put mineral out, and he doesn’t have a worry in the world because he knows I have Jo with me.”

Both Alda and Rick have learned to take Jo with them for the protection she provides while they are working cattle.

“There was one time when we didn’t have her with us, and it cost me,” Rick said. “During calving season, I had a cow roll me. She hit me three times. By the third time, I thought I wasn’t going to live through it.”

“There has also been a time or two where she’s hopped out of the Kubota and herded a cow off,” Alda added. “She knew before we knew that it was going to happen.”

Cattleman’s companion

A PHARM Dog also provides added security for Troy Balderston, who raises row crops and backgrounds cattle with his wife, Sher’rie, on 240 acres near Beaver City, Neb. A 2010 car accident left Troy paralyzed from the neck down.

“I’m what is called quadriplegic incomplete,” Troy said, explaining that he has partial damage to his spinal cord on the C4, C5 and C6 vertebrae.

Since the accident, Troy worked to regain some function in his arms. He’s able to operate an all-terrain wheelchair and drive a tractor modified with hand controls. He works as a ranch hand at a nearby farm owned by Chris Harting across the Nebraska state line south of Norton, Kan.

Having had cattle dogs previously, Troy thought a dog might be able to help him both on his own farm and at his ranch job.

“We were working through VocRehab and Nebraska AgrAbility at the time,” Troy said. “I told them what I thought I needed. I knew I wanted a working dog. They found Jackie, and we’ve been good friends ever since.”

In 2013, Troy was introduced to Duke, a rescue dog donated by a family who found him on the streets in St. Joseph, Mo. When dogs such as Duke are ready to be placed, Jackie and the trainer travel to the farm to help the new owner grasp all the commands and make sure the pair will work well together.

“We want the dog to be helpful, not a hindrance,” Jackie said. “So we think it’s important to go to the farm and stay a couple of days to make sure they understand the basics and feel comfortable. When we got to Troy’s, there were seven or eight farm hands standing around plus me and the trainer, but when Duke got out of the car, he worked his way around all the people and landed right in front of Troy where he belonged.”

Since then, it has been a day-in, day-out partnership.

Duke now helps Troy sort and load heifers onto trailers for transport. Before, Troy had an incident in which cattle ran over him while he was in his chair. Now, if things go awry, Duke is there to help provide a buffer.

“He’ll keep me safe at work,” Troy said. “Sometimes the cattle will come back at you, and he’ll keep them away from me.”

Farming and raising livestock can be dangerous for anyone, but even more so when a person is at a physical disadvantage, Jackie said. PHARM Dogs can provide added safeguards.

“There was one day last summer when the girls and I got home from the pool and couldn’t find Troy,” Sher’rie said. “Our daughter, Brenna, noticed that the chain was off one of the gates, and it wasn’t supposed to be. It was 104 degrees that day, and we were driving around looking everywhere when Duke suddenly popped up over a hill. I said, ‘Duke, where’s Dad?’ and he took off back over the hill and led us to Troy. His wheelchair had gotten stuck, and he’d thrown himself out of it to lay in the shade next to the chair. He must have been out there for two or three hours in that heat.”

“Duke definitely helps me out every day,” Troy added.

A meaningful mission

The PHARM Dog program sustains itself exclusively through the efforts of its volunteers, donations and small grants Jackie writes.  

“None of us makes a salary,” she said. “My goal was always that the farmer wouldn’t have to pay anything, but we do ask that once a dog has been placed with them that they make a donation back so we can continue to help other farmers.”
Jackie hopes one day they’ll be able to expand the program, pay their volunteers and build a training center to be able to use in the winter or during inclement weather.

“We’d love to have some type of corporate sponsorship, and I’ve had some ideas for that,” Jackie said. “But you get paid in other ways. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘If the only life you are worried about improving is your own, then you are truly not living life.’”

Since the program’s outset, PHARM Dog has placed 16 dogs with farmers throughout the Midwest.

“Our latest placement was in Sedalia,” Jackie said. “The farmer there only has use of one arm due to a PTO accident 29 years ago. He said when it happened, he was screaming and yelling and no one came. I asked him how someone finally found him, and he told me his neighbors had an old hound dog that heard him. The dog started howling and barking until they went over to find him. I said, ‘Don’t you think it is unusual that a dog saved you 29 years ago, and now you’re getting one to help you today?’ He told me, ‘Yeah, a dog was on my bucket list. I think we’re going to be pretty good partners.’ It’s those types of things that really touch you.”

Before Jo and PHARM Dog, Alda said she kept quiet about her disability. But now she’s one of the program’s greatest advocates and frequently attends events with Jo to help promote the organization.

“I never would talk about my vision or my cancer,” Alda said. “I had different jobs on and off, and I wouldn’t tell anybody at work. But, through Jackie’s encouragement and the exposure she’s given me, I’ve met so many people who have worse issues in life than I’ll ever care to. I don’t know how they do it, but the program has helped me get out of the closet and speak, hoping that I can help others understand. Every one of us will tell you we’re just so grateful to have the helping hand.”

To find out more about the PHARM Dog program or donate, visit www.pharmdog.org.

Gaining Ground

Written by Kerri Lotven on .

Though nearly halfway through April, it was still unusually cold on Michael Martin’s farm near Thompson, Mo.

“It’s the 101st day of January,” Michael joked as he studied the cattle grazing cereal rye in the field adjacent to his house. “I heard that the other day and thought it was appropriate.”

“It’s definitely still winter here,” his son, Lane, 28, agreed.

The longer winter meant the grass on their property still lay dormant, but the Martins were able to avoid some additional feeding costs for their herd because their cereal rye cover crop had started growing. For the last five years, the two have planted rye in the fall after harvesting soybeans or corn silage on the 22-acre field closest to their house. The rye greens up faster than fescue, making it useful for early grazing.

“I always plant rye behind silage for two reasons,” Michael said. “It cuts down on erosion, and the taller it is when the cows get on it, the more good it does for you. And this stuff grows like crazy.”

The Martins use the rye field for spring calving, rotating 124 cows through this pasture during the season.

“We want them in our backyard when they’re calving,” Michael said. “That’s why we have all of our facilities over here. We want to be able to get to them quickly. Those mamas need a steady supply of food, no matter how long the winter is.”

Cereal rye is commonly used as a cover crop because it’s inexpensive, easy to establish and does well even on ground that may be less than optimal. As ground temperatures begin to rise in the spring, rye will mature more quickly—even under a snowfall—if the soil conditions are conducive.

With cumulative forage shortages from last fall through this summer, having alternative feeding options will be more important than ever this winter, said Matt Hill, MFA natural resources conservation specialist.

“Crops seem to be maturing quite a bit earlier than they normally do this year,” Hill said. “An earlier-than-normal harvest will provide an excellent opportunity to plant a diverse mix of cover crop species soon enough to develop plenty of growth to be grazed going into the winter months.”  

About an hour away from the Martins’ farm, Bob Ridgley has been incorporating cover crops into his own forage management plans for several years. The row-crop producer and cattleman sells beef off the farm and works with a local processor to distribute meat to a restaurant in St. Louis. With roughly 250 acres of total pasture and 130-140 cows, Ridgley began rotational grazing in the early 1990s.

“It was probably ’95 or ’96, though, when I really started taking these pastures and dividing them up,” said Ridgley, who recently retired as a district technician for the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District. “I have one farm with 60 acres all divided into three-acre paddocks. In the summer, I move the cows every two days.”

Several years ago, Ridgley began incorporating cover crops into that rotational grazing schedule. His management strategy is intensive. After his wheat crop is harvested in June, he bales the straw to use for bedding in his finishing hoop building. He then has a mix of small cover crop seeds—radishes, turnips, millet and rapeseed—spread with his fall fertilizer. Shortly thereafter, he drills in oats, soybeans and either corn or milo.

Ridgley said he’s had good luck with this method because the small seeds need to be planted about a quarter-inch deep, and the other seeds need to be deeper, about an inch and a half. Though he previously had the cover crop seed flown on the field, Ridgley said he’s been utilizing this particular planting practice for almost five years.

“It works well because when I go in and plant the other seeds, the drill will push the little seed down into the ground,” he explained.

Ridgley has about 80 cows on his main farm, and roughly half of those will calve in the fall.

“If I get the cover crops in early enough, I’ll get two or three grazings out of it,” he said. “Sometimes even through the wintertime.”

This strategy requires a mild winter and a little management, but Ridgley said there have been years when he has been able to graze nearly year-round.

“Where I have these cattle at the main farm, I will graze the cover crop that I plant after wheat,” Ridgley said. “During that time, I will stockpile my fescue for winter use. If the cattle graze the cover crop down, I will move them back to grass until it grows back. Then I’ll graze that again. Hopefully, by then, around Thanksgiving, the rye drilled into corn stalks will be big enough that I can graze it.

If I need to go back to grass once that has been grazed down, I will. If not, I might start them on some milo and strip-graze that through the winter.”

After the milo, Ridgley said he’ll use stockpiled fescue and finally his hay, if necessary, until the rye greens up again in early spring. Depending on his fescue quantity, he may feed hay for 60-75 days. Some years, however, his cattle have been able to graze without hay supplementation or additional feed—even in drought conditions.

“In 2012, I didn’t feed any hay during the summer drought,” Ridgley said. “But I was moving cows every day, and Mother Nature really has to cooperate for that to happen. She gave us some rain in August left over from a hurricane, and the grass took off, so I had stockpile that winter.”

Ridgley follows the same cover crop protocol on his corn fields to prepare them for the next year’s bean rotation. To compensate for potential late harvests and make the most of his cover crops, he typically plants an earlier corn hybrid.

He estimates that he bales and feeds half the amount of hay he used to in the winter, and he’s also seen his soil health begin to improve.

“We haven’t taken soil samples in about two years; we’re on a three-
to four-year schedule,” Ridgley said. “But we’re seeing the organic matter build up. I think introducing the livestock into those fields helps. It puts manure back on the ground, and I’ll take the bedding straw out of the hoop building and spread that back on there, too. We move those nutrients around the farm ourselves, so it doesn’t get concentrated in one spot.”

According to Hill, in the last few years, harvest has been too late to get the full benefit from cover crop mixes, except for a species such as cereal rye, because farmers haven’t been able to get them in the ground early enough. Due to early maturation in some areas of the state, however, more options are available to interested farmers.

“It depends on the species and the operation, but in general most cover crops can be grazed multiple times in a growing season,” Hill said. “MFA will have a variety of cover crop species available this summer and fall. There is cost-share assistance available from Soil and Water Conservation Districts, NRCS, and Missouri Department of Conservation for the purpose of establishing these cover crops.”

Hill advises that warm-season mixes can be planted as early as May 1 through mid-July. Cool-season mixes can be planted as early as Aug. 1 up until Nov. 1.

For more information regarding these potential opportunities, contact Matt Hill at 573-876-5382 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Protecting peace of mind

Written by Madison Byrd on .

The decision to get livestock insurance was simple for Grand River, Iowa, cattle producer Hayden Hostetler. When the cattle market reached its high this March, he wanted to take advantage of the peak price, even though he hadn’t planned to sell his calves until May.

Livestock Risk Protection gave him that opportunity. Hostetler insured 11 of his 33 head of cattle through the policy offered by his local MFA Agri Services, and he said the decision gave him peace of mind knowing that he didn’t have to constantly worry about the markets.

“For pasture insurance, there has to be a disaster for it to work,” Hostetler said. “With livestock insurance, it doesn’t have to be a disaster. If the market goes down 5 cents, you still get your 5 cents back.”

MFA entered the crop insurance business in 2017, but its livestock insurance component is still unknown to many producers, said Principal Agent Mike Smith. The policy creates a safety net to cover input expenses of livestock production, including cattle, swine and lambs. Seventeen certified agents across MFA’s trade territory sell livestock risk protection along with crop insurance.

“It is natural for people to do business with people they already know,” Smith said. “I think that is the biggest selling point for us.”

To handle the risk management, underwriting and claims, MFA works with AmTrust Ag of Leawood, Kan., a well-established financial services company with a division specializing in multi-peril and crop hail insurance policies.

Similar to Hostetler, Lloyd Bruns and his son, Chad, knew they had to make a change in their Centralia, Mo., livestock operation when the market crashed two years ago. Feed lots in the area were full, leaving them without many options. After purchasing livestock insurance through their local MFA for 75 head of cattle, they were able to hold the calves longer and put more weight on them. The cattlemen said they wouldn’t have been able to do this without livestock risk protection.

“It made us more relaxed. We weren’t worried about the markets collapsing,” Lloyd said. “When the markets went back up, it kept us from losing money.”
Livestock risk protection sets a floor price so producers know what the insurance cost will be. It gives them the option of protecting their price rather than taking their cattle to the sale barn and hoping for the best, explained Tanner Vantress, Centralia MFA Agri Services’ crop insurance agent.

“This is just a way for producers to sleep better at night,” Vantress said.

There is no blanket coverage through the policy. The insurance only covers the market price with no minimum on how many head are insured, so it protects even small-scale producers. It does not, however, cover the death or loss of animals. Whether a producer insures one or 50 head of cattle, the price for the risk protection will always stay the same once they sign up for the policy.

Mike John, director of Health Track Operations at MFA, said that the markets have been more volatile in the past several years, a trend he thinks is here to stay.

“Producers who are serious about livestock production will have to start considering some type of risk protection,” John said. “We are seeing more and more people using these tools.”

Farmers are price-takers in livestock production, John added. They can’t change input costs and don’t have much control over their price in the market. Livestock risk protection gives them back some control by allowing them to lock in a price. Because the risk protection is based on the futures market, however, it is important for producers to check the markets regularly and pay attention to the price offered versus the protection, he said.

While the concept of livestock insurance is relatively new to farmers, the federal Livestock Risk Protection program has been around since 2002. Many producers just don’t know of its existence or haven’t had it explained to them, Smith said. One reason is that livestock insurance cannot be sold during business hours. It has to be sold after 4:30 p.m. and before 9 a.m. the next business day. At 4:30 p.m., the market closes and there is a set price for the insurance, so the price varies from day to day. The policy also has to be paid up front, whereas crop insurance can be paid at any time depending on the crop and county.

The Livestock Risk Protection program is subsidized by the USDA, Vantress added.

“Many producers don’t know what they can purchase and what is available to them as far as government subsidies and how livestock insurance can help them make a profit,” he said.

Chuck Clark, crop insurance agent from MFA Agri Services’ Iowa group, said he believes better awareness will encourage more producers to use this tool as part of their farm management practices.

“At MFA, we’re doing our best to promote livestock risk protection through educating producers,” he said. “MFA Crop Insurance hosts producer meetings to get the word out and talk about the ins and outs of livestock risk protection. With proper education for producers, I think the program has the potential to become more popular in the future.”

These producer meetings help MFA build on previous relationships with farmers, Vantress said. MFA already offers expertise in farm inputs and services, he pointed out, and providing crop and livestock insurance adds another resource for customers.

“We are selling insurance, but at the end of the day, we are providing products that could keep the family farming for generations to come if there is some sort of disaster,” Vantress said. “That is why I love what we are doing at MFA and what we are trying to promote with livestock insurance.” 

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