Family Farming

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

If there’s one area where Garrett Riekhof and Paige Pratt agree, it’s that communication is the secret to successfully farming with family members.

Garrett and Cara Riekhof grow white corn and soybeans near Higginsville, Missouri. They employ Cara’s brother Chad Copenhaver, and Cara’s cousin’s husband Justin Thompson.

“I work with a great team, but managing employees is the hardest part of running the business,” Garrett said. “It takes constant communication to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction on the rope.”

Paige and her husband Jason partner with Paige’s brother, Jace Johnson, Jace’s wife Amy, and Paige’s and Jace’s parents Gary and Jody Johnson. Together, they operate an Angus ranch near Dwight, Kansas.

“We work on communicating as a family every day, and run the place on consensus,” Paige said. “There’s no ramming your agenda through.”

With the Riekhofs and the Pratts, the older generation relinquished farm leadership, leaving the younger generation in charge. They agree, this helped make the transitions work. Their stories diverge from there.

Garrett’s employees work as a team

Garrett and Cara Riekhof are in their fifth year of taking over the farm. Garrett’s parents, Gary and Glenda Riekhof, were busy with their crop insurance business and gave up the farm’s management in 2011.

“Dad was ready to slow down and let me make my own mistakes,” Garrett said. “Cara and I are proud to be the fourth generation on the farm.”

Garrett worked with his dad full-time beginning in 2003 when Garrett graduated from the University of Missouri in agricultural economics. Over time, Gary slowly gave up bits of responsibility. “When Dad asked me if I was ready to take over, he caught me by surprise,” Garrett said. “I appreciate the way he stepped away financially and physically, but still offers constructive criticism.”

Mom and Dad didn’t foot the bill. Garrett obtained financing through U.S. Bank in Higginsville as well as FCS Financial. When it comes to equipment, he shops for the best financing, which often comes from the dealer.

Cara’s brother, Chad Copenhaver, worked as a herdsman on another farm before he joined the Riekhof team. Today he spends a third of his time at the Riekhofs, and his other hours working for his and Cara’s parents, Gary and Barb Copenhaver, on their cattle operation.

Justin Thompson, Cara’s cousin’s husband, specializes in spraying. Garrett’s high-school buddy, Brett Wahn, fills out the employee roster, handling equipment maintenance and earthwork, including tile trenching and terracing.

“Employing friends and family comes with more risk but more reward,” Garrett said. “All our employees have a sense of ownership and respect for what we’re trying to do.”

Garrett focuses on growing crops. He rents 1,400 acres on his own—half from his parents and the other half from his dad’s former landlords. “I’ve been able to continue working with most of them,” Garrett said, explaining that many renters worry about losing landlords. “In this time of high land sale prices, renting is the only path to making money.”

Garrett’s responsibility expands when you count the land he farms with two neighboring partners. Working with these partners also requires selflessness, trust and communication, he adds.
On any given day, Garrett’s team might work miles apart. One’s in the office, two work on separate farms, and a fourth repairs machinery. Cell phones keep them in touch, but Garrett tries to stay off the phone each evening when he gets home to the family.

Garrett and Cara keep nine head of cattle—enough so their children can show livestock. They’re raising Annika, 10, Makenna, six and the baby, Garrison. “At the end of every day possible, we go for a Gator ride to feed the cows or throw rocks in the creek,” Garrett said. “I love bringing legislators and consumers here for tours so they can see how we store grain and use equipment to operate our farm.

Garrett reviews his employees at least once a year, and asks the employees’ wives to attend. “Working Monday through Friday is a pipe dream,” he said. “The wife may not understand why I need her husband to work Sunday afternoon during a soccer game. I want her to know that if he works his tail off now, he’ll get four-day weekends later. I pride myself on being flexible and taking empathy into the equation when considering those who help me.”

The Riekhofs didn’t hire a transition facilitator, but Garrett is pleased that his parents shared their estate plan with him and his sister. Garrett continues to work with an accountant, a financial planner and an attorney.

While Garrett appreciates the progress made by previous generations on the farm, technology and precision farming drive his future. “I want the acres I have now to operate at peak efficiency,” he said. “That takes good communication with landlords about what we’re both willing to spend to improve the land.”

Paige’s family hires a facilitator

More than two years ago, Paige’s parents offered her and Jason the opportunity to move their Angus operation from Jason’s family farm in Virginia to the Johnson farm in Kansas. Gary and Jody hired a family farm transition facilitator, and the entire family met with her several times over 10 months.

“We wanted to make sure this was the right opportunity for us before we moved,” Paige said. In the end, Jace and Amy, Paige and Jason, and Gary and Jody formed Johnson Farms LLC. An older brother, Chad, opted to farm on his own.
Paige and Jason purchased the cattle and equipment from Jason’s parents in 2011. “Jason and his father negotiated a price and we took out a note to pay them,” Paige said. The couple owned and operated Echo Ridge Farm in Virginia until they moved to Kansas with their cattle and equipment more than a year ago.

“The facilitator taught us the importance of communication,” Paige said. “Amy and I have off-the-farm jobs which don’t allow us to participate in the operation on a daily basis; that doesn’t mean we aren’t interested. We have family meetings regularly and make big decisions together.” They share a family calendar listing things like soccer games for Jace and Amy’s son Jhet, and try to make sure the parents can attend.

The family raises feeder cattle and purchases stocker calves—high-risk animals that may have been mismanaged and sell at a lower price. “We give the stockers vaccinations and antibiotics if needed, and feed them for 45 to 60 days,” Paige explained. The family also grows some feed—they grind hay, shell corn and chop sorghum for silage. They shop for the best price and quality on distiller’s grains.

While they do things like put up hay together, everyone has a specialty. Jason enjoys raising the cow/calf pairs with Gary. Jace likes working with stocker cattle, raising crops and maintaining equipment. The guys feed the cattle each morning while Paige goes to work as district administrator with the Kansas Farm Bureau, where she covers the northeastern corner of the state. She attended Kansas State and earned a Ph.D. in cattle genetics from Texas Tech.

The Pratts love raising their children on the farm—Elizabeth, age two and Garrett, who’s almost one. “We want to leave a legacy for them,” Paige said. “But we earned the right to be involved in the farm, and we want our children to do the same.”

Paige encourages older farmers to develop estate plans that seem fair to the younger generation, whose members work long hours with little pay. “For example, my brother could make good money as a mechanic,” Paige said. “He needs to know what he’ll earn down the road.”

In addition, Paige thinks parents must bring up the estate plan first—it won’t work if the children prompt the discussion. “If the parents don’t develop and share their plan and there’s a fight over the farm, the young people can lose everything in a heartbeat,” she said. “The only winners in those cases are the attorneys. Our parents had the foresight to give us the best shot to be successful and carry on our farming tradition.”

Val Farmer offers his secrets

Psychologist Val Farmer has spent his life helping farm families. For years, his syndicated advice column appeared in local newspapers throughout the Midwest. Today he’s semi-retired and living in Wildwood, Mo., but continues to mediate with farm families, helping them manage the transition to the next generation.

Before leading a mediation session, Farmer speaks to each family member by phone to learn of any sore points. Then he meets with the entire family in person for a day and a half, teaching listening skills while using the sore points as topics.

  • Everyone is given the chance to speak.
  • The speaker may express any feelings, but must control nonverbal communication such as tone of voice.
  • Listeners cannot interrupt.
  • The listener then summarizes what he/she heard from the speaker. He may not agree, but demonstrates that he understands the point of view. “As a coach, if I catch the listener giving an opinion, I remind him that it’s his job to show understanding,” Farmer said.
  • The listener asks open-ended questions to draw out the speaker’s feelings. “Some people ask questions like a lawyer, waiting to smuggle in their opinion,” Farmer said. “I want the listener to be curious about what the speaker says.”
  • All sides should minimize details and focus on the big issues.
  • The speaker can transfer the floor when he’s done. Or the listener, after echoing the speaker’s points, can ask to speak.
  • Once ground rules are set and the meeting starts, no one can walk out.

“The key to negotiation is to understand both sides,” Farmer said. “You can’t solve problems until you do that. It may take a lot of pain, but then you can brainstorm solutions together.”

In addition, Farmer said, the older generation should develop a game plan long before they’re 65; their health could break down, or the spouse’s interests may extend beyond the farm. “The worst-case situation comes when an older farmer doesn’t develop an estate plan, making the next generation doubt what will happen next.”

Family farm mediators may be in short supply, Farmer reports, but they’re available.

In this Issue

Written by TF Staff on .

Multi-variety planters bring another layer to precısion agriculture

Written by Thad Becker on .

Equipment engineering is catching up with an idea that has been floating around in the precision agriculture industry for a while—the ability to switch seed varieties on the fly.

For years seed experts have told us that if you put the right variety in the right part of the field, you will seldom be disappointed with its performance. We spend a lot of time analyzing plots and picking the varieties we want on our farms, but we have to manage for our average acre, not our best or worst ground.

If you’re like me, there is always the urge to plant that “Corvette” corn hybrid and push it to its limits to see just what yield can be achieved. But more sober moments arrive: I remember that slope with thinner top soil on the far half of the field. I think about what a wreck that variety might cause over there if the weather isn’t just right. With that thought in mind, I pull back from the highest yield scenario and choose a more durable “farm truck” hybrid instead.

MFA has good soil in its trade area that can support those Corvette hybrids. Unfortunately it seems to come in 5- to10-acre chunks. Multi-variety planters will give us the opportunity to stay on the gas in those good areas with a high performance variety, but still pull through in the tough spots with a workhorse variety.

Currently there are two ways to get a multi-variety planter. You can buy a new planter from Kinze. Last year they released the 4900 Multi-Hybrid. Or, you can have VSet Select from Precision Planting retrofitted on your current planter.

The mechanics behind the retrofit involve putting two independently driven seed meters on each row. The seed meters are driven by electric motors and a controller in the cab. The controller tells each motor when to start and stop. It also can vary population on the go. The seed meters sit face-to-face and both drop seed down the same seed tube—allowing for seamless transitions from one variety to the next.

There may not be many farms with a multi-variety planter this year, but I believe we need to start preparing for the technology. Here in MFA territory, we deal with some of the most variable soils in the United States. We may, for once, have more to gain from this variable-rate precision technology than other row crop regions. To use these planters effectively, though, we need clearly identified management zones to locate the variety transitions in the field. Finding those zones takes some time and effort, but it is the same information that underlies other precision management on your farm.

First, the variation in your field needs to be identified, typically using historic yield data or imagery. Once you can identify areas of high and low yield, you need to identify the root cause of those variations. At MFA, use a handful of tools to find the cause of variability. Soil testing, electrical conductivity data, landscape, and perhaps most importantly, grower experience help to solve the puzzle. It’s only once we understand the root cause of crop performance differences in the field, that we can identify varieties that excel in those conditions and place them correctly.

I believe that in the not-too-distant future multi-variety planting will become standard practice. Research from South Dakota State shows a consistent 6-bushel-per-acre response in corn—and that is with currently available varieties. In the future, I believe we will see seed that is targeted to specific soil conditions, which will make per-acre gains larger.

These are exciting times. To make multiple-variety planting work, though, will take an investment in equipment and time. It will take teamwork between you, your seed supplier, equipment dealer and agronomist make the investment pay.

MFA is uniquely situated and taking steps to make sure that we can do just that.

Fescue seedhead suppression

Written by Austin Black on .

Summer fescue pastures can be a problem for cattle producers. When the plant matures, it stops growing leafy foliage and sends its energy to stems and seedheads. Nutritional values decrease and toxins in the seedhead can negatively impact cattle health. Suppressing seedheads reduces toxins and improves forage quality, allowing for an extended grazing season.

Last summer, Dow AgroSciences introduced technology to suppress fescue seedheads using Chaparral herbicide. Huntsville, Mo., cattleman and director of MFA’s Health Track program, Mike John partnered with Dow to conduct a field study on his ranch. John sprayed a 10-acre strip of pasture with two ounces of Chaparral while fescue was in the boot stage. The boot stage occurs in early spring when the plant produces a flag leaf. An adequate number of leaves are present to provide plenty of surface area for the herbicide. Application timing is crucial. Spraying too early can damage the fescue. Spraying too late can reduce effectiveness of the herbicide.

John said seedhead suppression and weed control was more than evident in his field study. “Not only did the treatment control weeds and seedheads, but other cool-season grasses showed up,” John said.

Spraying fescue during the boot stage stops seedhead production. The result is more leaf production and decreased endophyte toxicity. Decreased endophyte reduces heat stress, increases weight gain and improves reproductive efficiency in cattle. Increased leafy matter provides more digestible tonnage and improves forage quality. Dow AgroSciences range and pasture specialist Brant Mettler said some producers misunderstand this factor and are disappointed when their overall tonnage decreases. But when they test forage quality, nutrition and digestibility of the leafy matter is higher than stems and seedheads. The increased number of leaves provides more digestible tonnage and helps extend the grazing season into summer months.

“There’s no question we had more tonnage and forage quality,” John said. More digestible tonnage allows higher stocking rates and more efficient beef production.

Mettler said field trials showed 1 to 5 percent higher levels of crude protein and 7 percent higher total digestible nutrients on average in treated pastures.

In normal pasture conditions, cows will selectively and often unevenly graze a pasture. Mettler said the trials showed cattle graze treated pastures more evenly and smoothly than untreated. Cattle will also graze during midday hours. He said cattle will overgraze treated pasture so it’s important to watch the available forage.

For producers who harvest fescue seed, this technology can diversify the operation. Mettler said producers can use Chaparral on fescue pastures that are too rough or too difficult to access with a combine. John said producers need to evaluate the economics of each method to determine the best approach.

Using Chaparral to treat fescue pastures isn’t the right approach for every operation. It requires precise mixing, timely application and the ability to rotate cattle for deferred grazing.

There are no grazing restrictions when using Chaparral. However, in preparation for treatment, Mettler said producers should consider grazing their cattle early in the spring before rotating to a different pasture during spraying. Cattle can return to the treated pastures a month later for summer grazing. Spraying Chaparral will stress fescue plants for about two weeks, causing a yellow tinge in the foliage temporarily. Moving cattle to other pastures helps to not overstress the fescue and allows it to grow back in time for summer grazing. Chaparral will kill legumes, but producers will see more grass species appear in the pastures. Mettler said growing conditions will dictate if spraying is appropriate. In drought years, spraying might hurt forage production due to extra stress.

If producers can’t rotate their cattle, Mettler said to adjust stocking rates and manage grazing pressure. Interseeding cool-season grasses and annuals also helps. Mettler said overgrazing treated pastures will result in reduced plant health.

John said it’s important to know when spraying needs to occur and notify your local MFA Agri Service ahead of time. Chaparral is non-volatile and has a 45-60 day residual activity. For more information about using Chaparral, visit your local MFA Agri Services to plan your treatment.

Silently killing beef profits

Written by Nancy Jorgensen on .

Dr. Tony Martin, staff veterinarian for MFA Incorporated in Columbia, Mo., says anaplasmosis is nothing new. But in 2014-15, he fielded more questions about the disease. He heard of clinical cases earlier than normal, and received a number of reports of dead cows testing positive for the disease.

Dr. Gregg Hanzlicek, director of production animal field investigations at the Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, saw more Kansas counties with cattle testing positive for anaplasmosis in 2015 compared to previous years—especially in eastern and central Kansas. His lab tracks cases on its website, and the map reveals that more cases are being discovered in western Kansas (ksvdl.org; click on the Disease Trend button).

“Local vets called me saying they were seeing dead adult cows in pastures—even bulls—which is really unusual,” Hanzlicek said. “Some larger herds had from seven to nine dead animals.”

As Hanzlicek explained, if the cattle producer asks a local veterinarian to conduct a necropsy (akin to an autopsy on humans), the vet usually sends a sample to the state veterinarian laboratory asking for an anaplasmosis test.

Martin speculates that wet weather in Missouri in 2015 may have increased the number of ticks and flies spreading the disease. “External parasite concerns occur every year for livestock producers,” he said. “Years with good moisture and humidity make for larger, heartier populations of the insects that are harder to control.”

Hanzlicek reports that Kansas may not have been wetter than usual in 2015, but he thinks any increase in the disease may tie to a spurt in cattle coming into the state from drought-stricken places like Oklahoma and Texas in recent years. The disease has been found in every state except Hawaii, but is endemic to western Missouri, southeastern Kansas and parts of Montana and Idaho, he added. It strikes dairy as well as beef herds, but normally doesn’t affect other livestock in the U.S.

Both veterinarians also point to increasing awareness as a possible cause for what appears to be a rise in reported cases. Extension experts are educating producers about the problem in meetings, and producer publications are covering it. The high price of cattle may also be prompting producers to take more notice when they lose cows.

No one knows how many cows have died from anaplasmosis. “Many die from the disease without any diagnostic effort being made,” Martin said. “A lot of deaths, especially if it’s only one or two per herd, may go totally undiagnosed and are assumed to be normal losses.”

What are the symptoms?

Martin and Hanzlicek say you should watch for these early signs of the disease in cows:

  • Lethargy and slowness, falling behind others, stumbling and acting weak.
  • Open-mouth breathing.
  • Yellow around the eyes.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • A declining body condition score.
  • Pale or yellow gums.
  • Becoming hard to handle.

Martin offered a scientific description of what’s happening. “The disease is caused by a blood-borne parasitic organism that attaches to red blood cells and leads to their destruction. Red blood cells are destroyed faster than the animal can create new ones, and the blood can carry less oxygen.”

Even the most docile bull or cow can become dangerous when infected, Hanzlicek warned. “I’ve had to run from infected animals several times. They’re basically anemic; their brains are starved for oxygen and, therefore, they don’t function correctly.”

Hanzlicek said animals of any age can be infected, but you rarely see clinical signs except in animals at least two or three years of age. He warned that even if the animal recovers, it will carry the disease for life but will never again show symptoms—these are the carriers and the sources of infection for uninfected animals in the herd. This means that as blood is carried from the infected animal to others, the disease continues to spread. Anaplasmosis spreads only through blood.

How can you fight it?

Feed antibiotics. Martin’s top recommendation: “To aid in the control of an active anaplasmosis infection, Tetracycline is often fed continuously, at the label-approved dose, from shortly before the insect vector season starts until after the first killing frost when insect populations die off.”

Provide good nutrition. Martin emphasized that it takes an intact, strong immune system, supported by good nutrition and a good body condition score to fight off diseases like anaplasmosis and to make use of antibiotics to effectively control and prevent the disease.

Control ticks and flies. Hanzlicek said that insects carrying the disease include horse, deer and stable flies, dog ticks and maybe mosquitoes. Martin suggests you take a broad, integrated approach to minimizing insects, including fly tags, sprays, back rubbers and face dusters.

Avoid transferring the disease yourself. Both veterinarians warn against reusing injection needles. Make sure you properly disinfect tattoo pliers as well as castration and dehorning equipment.

Test cows when adding to your herd. Blood tests are available for farmers to diagnose anaplasmosis carriers. Hanzlicek says you must quarantine new animals for 30 days while waiting for test results from the state veterinary diagnostic lab. “Producers need to be sure of the health status of any new herd additions,” Martin said, adding you should include your local veterinarian in the discussions.

Call your local vet when you find a dead animal. “The animal may have died from other diseases,” Hanzlicek said. “You need to find out the cause so you can prevent future problems.”

Consider using the vaccine. Developed and manufactured at Louisiana State University, the anaplasmosis vaccine has been approved in Kansas, Missouri and other states for use by veterinarians. Hanzlicek hears most stories about dangerous animals when ranchers bring animals in from the pasture to administer the vaccine. “Cattle become stressed when moved and they can die on the way in,” he said, “Move them slowly.” Some vets don’t even recommend treating, as moving cattle to the administration site may cause more problems than the disease—and most animals will recover on their own, he added.

When and how can parasites affect your herd?

Hanzlicek reported that the disease takes on average 28 days to incubate, so you typically won’t hear about cases until late summer or early fall.

“Cases are typically more prevalent in fall and winter as the nutritional quality of grazed forages decline, body condition slips a little, and, too often, use of Tetracycline is stopped too soon,” Martin explained.

Opinions vary about the cost of the disease. Martin and Hanzlicek have seen estimates showing the cost of treatment at more than $400 per animal. “An even greater cost most likely comes from effects that can reduce reproductive success, decrease milk production, or increase culling and death rates,” Martin said. With cow and bull prices reaching thousands of dollars, the cost of dead animals runs pretty high.

Beyond external parasites, other major pests that affect cattle in our area include internal parasites such as worms, coccidian and, occasionally, flukes, Martin concluded. In the winter, when animals spend more time close together, lice prevention and control come into play.

Contact your local MFA-affiliated Agri Services and AGChoice locations for additional information on products and procedures to control pests.


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