MFA's stewardship spectrum

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Ask 100 different people the definition of “stewardship,” and there will probably be 100 different answers.

For MFA, however, stewardship is clearly defined in the cooperative’s core values:

“We take pride in applying business practices that respect the land, air, water and other resources. Our employees strive to protect the environment.”

Emphasizing stewardship helps to ensure that the responsible use of resources weighs in on decisions and recommendations made by MFA employees, said Matt Hill, MFA natural resources conservation specialist.

“Stewardship is a complete spectrum for MFA,” Hill said. “Putting it on paper as a core value is one thing, but it’s much more than that. The company, its employees and its customers live out stewardship every day.”

Spotlighting stewardship is appropriate for October, National Co-op Month. This year’s theme, “Co-ops see the future,” is what stewardship is all about, said MFA Chief Executive Officer Ernie Verslues.

“Stewardship is a long-term commitment to farmers and the land they farm,” Verslues said. “It’s thinking about the resources you inherited from previous generations and how you’ll manage them until it’s time for the next generation to take over. Both at our facilities and individual farms we visit, MFA has stewardship in mind. It’s big-picture thinking.”

The following examples are among the many ways stewardship is at work for MFA.

Application assurance

With today’s high-tech application equipment and highly regulated crop protection products, training sprayer and spreader operators has never been more important. And it’s a responsibility that MFA takes seriously.

“Stewardship is vital to the life of our business,” said Dave Boughton, operations supervisor at Emma Agri Services. “For us to prosper, we have to show that we are, indeed, good stewards—that we care about the product we apply, the land we apply it to and the customers we serve. They’re trying to leave their farms in as good or better shape as it was when they started farming. Our job is to see to it that we don’t do anything to damage their livelihood.”

MFA’s proactive approach to dealing with dicamba over the past couple of years is a prime example of stewardship. In 2018, MFA trained more than 1,200 applicators, chemical handlers and retail staff on regulations and application requirements for dicamba and proper use of the Roundup Ready Xtend crop system. The training focused on critical factors such as awareness of surroundings, placement of Xtend soybeans, weather conditions, boom height and best use practices.

Lessons learned from the 2017 spraying season allowed MFA to develop a better protocol, said Dr. Jason Weirich, MFA director of agronomy. A network of “sentinel plots” was established and scouted every Monday throughout the summer. MFA applicators were alerted to stop spraying when the majority of soybeans in their area reached the R1 reproductive stage, when dicamba injury can do the most harm to non-target plants.
Weirich said he considers the system to be a success.

“In 2018, we didn’t have nearly as many complaints as we had in 2017 and actually sprayed more acres of Xtend soybeans this year,” Weirich said. “We may have lost business to competitors who weren’t being as restrictive, but we didn’t want to take the risk. Based on our company’s core values, it’s important that we keep our customer-owners in mind.”

Input efficiency

Precision agronomy is another stewardship-focused service for MFA. Leading the way is MFA’s Nutri-Track program, which provides location-specific fertilizer recommendations through grid soil sampling and variable-rate fertilizer applications. This keeps growers from applying more fertilizer than can be used by the crop and keeping excess nutrients from washing into streams and rivers or leaching into groundwater.

“Nutri-Track is all about providing best recommendation we can, tailoring plant nutrients to every single acre in that field,” said Thad Becker, MFA precision agronomy manager. “We’ve been grid sampling since the mid-1990s, and it never ceases to amaze me how much variability is in our fields. Nutri-Track focuses on putting nutrients where they are needed and avoiding over-application in areas that won’t perform.”

Nutri-Track follows the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship—the right product at the right rate at the right time in the right place—and only if necessary. The same goes for MFA’s Crop-Trak program, which allows scouts to identify issues early with the crop for more efficient use of pesticides only when and where they are needed.

“I’ve been using Crop-Trak for several years now, and it’s a great help to me in managing and knowing what’s out there in the field,” said David Durham of Norborne, Mo., who farms 2,300 acres in Carroll and Ray counties. “There are years I don’t spray fungicides just from those recommendations. By making field-by-field decisions, I’m applying what I need, when I need it, rather than a scattershot program.”

Feed to succeed

When it comes to animal agriculture, stewardship means using environmentally sound practices in pasture and forage management as well as nutritionally sound feeding programs. MFA gives producers the tools, products, resources and expertise to do just that.

MFA Shield Technology fits well with a stewardship mindset. This all-natural, proprietary product helps prevent sickness and promote performance in livestock without antibiotics.

“Now that we’ve brought Shield Technology to our customers, we’re feeding about 95 percent of the hogs in our area,” said Paul Brune, manager of MFA Cooperative Association No. 2 in Washington, Mo. “One of our largest producers is getting more pigs per litter and sending an additional trailerload to market with the same number of sows but only using about 5 percent of the antibiotics they used to.”

That approach is important for today’s challenging agricultural environment in which farms are increasingly regulated, medicated feeds are being restricted and more consumers want to know what’s in their food. At the same time, global demand for meat is growing as the population continues to climb.

“In livestock production we have stepped into the technology era,” said Mike Spidle, MFA director of sales, livestock products and feed marketing. “That’s the only thing that’s going to feed people in the future. With Shield, we’re taking care of livestock and helping our farmers raise healthier animals. We’re going to have to produce more with less, and Shield is an avenue to help get us there.”

This commitment to nutritional stewardship extends to all MFA Feed Division manufacturing facilities, which are certified by the Safe Feed/Safe Food program administered by the American Feed Industry Association. The certification is only given to facilities that demonstrate best-in-class manufacturing practices that protect workers from harm and produce safe food for animals in compliance with current regulations.

“We have an obligation to produce a safe, nutritious product for farmers and consumers,” said MFA Feed Division Vice President Dr. Alan Wessler. “The Safe Feed/Safe Food certification shows that we’ve gone the extra steps to put processes in place and pay attention to detail. It helps to ensure the integrity of what leaves our feed mills and keep our workers safe while producing it.”

Conservation in action

MFA strengthened its commitment to stewardship last year by hiring Matt Hill as natural resource conservation specialist in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation and NRCS. In this one-of-a-kind position, Hill works with the partnering organizations and other groups to identify conservation methods and funding opportunities that will improve nutrient management, soil, water and wildlife.

The main goal, Hill explained, is to help farmers meet their stewardship goals by fostering collaboration among conservationists and their MFA counterparts.

“In both directions, there is great knowledge to be shared,” he said. “I want a wildlife biologist, for example, to feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling an MFA agronomist or location manager and vice versa. We’ve sent out contact lists of MFA staff to folks at the Fish and Wildlife Service, Quail Forever, MDC private lands conservation and so forth. Building better relationships could benefit everybody, and it certainly would benefit stewardship.”

For example, Hill is coordinating efforts to train and certify MFA employees as NRCS technical service providers. The designation will allow them to write nutrient management plans and integrated pest management plans for producers. It’s an intensive process, involving 30 hours of online training and a two-day, in-person classroom session in mid-October. To become a technical service provider, individuals must also have some combination of college degree, experience and professional certification such as being a Certified Crop Adviser.

“By the end of the year, we’ll have 30 of our agronomy employees certified as technical service providers and ready to write,” Hill said. “These plans will help farmers identify areas where they could be better stewards, and then we can work with them to find ways to mitigate those issues while keeping their operation efficient and productive.”

Stewardship naturally correlates to conservation practices on the farm, such as planting cover crops, using no-till methods, establishing wildlife buffers and putting in pollinator plots. While there is still work to be done in expanding these practices to more farms, Hill said producers and landowners should be commended for the progress they’ve made.

“We really need to give producers credit for the things they’re doing,” Hill said. “We don’t talk about contour farming or no-till or crop rotation because today those things are the norm. Twenty years ago, those were the conservation farming practices we were asking for, and producers have been doing all these things voluntarily because they know it’s the right thing to do. It’s not just about protecting the environment but also making sure their land is productive today and for future generations.” 

River, rail & road

Written by Kerri Lotven on .


On a stormy day in early September, Andrew Belza mans the wheelhouse of the Mary Lynn with five grain barges in tow—some of the first of the harvest season— down the Missouri River from AgriServices of Brunswick to St. Louis.

“This river is like no other out there,” Belza said. “All rivers are unique and present their own challenges, but this one changes more.”

Lightning flashes to the left as he steers the boat through a narrow bend. Belza and his crew can feasibly run nine barges up and down this river if conditions are right. Thirteen is the most they’ve ever done, but even nine barges make for a narrow channel on a river with tight s-bends and limited depth control.

Though usually the cheapest method when it comes to moving large volumes, the river is only one link in a logistics chain that must be multi-modal to get grain to export.

Managing that mechanism is no easy feat. Deciding when, how and where grain needs to go on any given day is a calculation that takes careful consideration.

“Grain marketing is nothing more than being the most efficient at transport,” said Tyler Francis, MFA grain merchandiser. “We have a unique position where we can have truck, rail or barge. There aren’t many other companies in Missouri that can do that.”

By having access to multiple modes of transportation, MFA spreads out risk. It can leverage the cost of one against another.

“Freight is just another commodity,” Mitch Dawson, MFA director of grain operations, said. “We trade freight logistics just like we trade grain. The cost of freight overall is probably the largest component that changes on an ongoing basis for us.”
Freight is subject to the same fluctuations in price governed by supply and demand, he added. Those fluctuations must be factored in on a daily basis.  

“We try to look at where the market is,” Dawson said. “We figure what we’re willing to pay minus our freight cost. Once we have that spread evaluated, we can determine the best avenue to ship grain from a certain point on the map to maximize the return to MFA and our customers.”

When farmers sell their grain to their local elevators, it will then be either sold domestically to facilities such as crush plants, feed mills and biorefineries, or it can go to export. In either case, that grain must travel by river, rail or road to the end user, whether that’s the poultry market in Arkansas, soy oil refineries in Mexico or Chinese swine feed manufacturers.

Because market prices and freight costs rise and fall with the market, there are many factors in getting grain there profitably. One shipment may change hands multiple times, and every barge company, towing company, rail company, trucking company, local elevator and farmer needs to profit.

“This is the beauty of the grain market,” Eric Williams, MFA manager of grain trading, said. “When prices rally, farmers can get a competitive price. As prices fall, they’ll decide to store their supply rather than sell. So that difference between what the cash price the farmer is getting and the relationship to the board starts to narrow. That’s where I come in. I buy it wide, and sell it narrow, which is how we can make money as a company and support our members.”

By River

Situated on the northernmost part of the Missouri River between Kansas City and St. Louis, AgriServices of Brunswick (ASB), which MFA partially owns, relies on barge transportation to move hundreds of thousands of tons of fertilizer in addition to grain.

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, however, drought conditions made the Missouri River unreliable for transport. Nearing retirement anyway, the two towing operators on the river at the time decided to get out of the business.

“At that point, we did a couple of different things,” Doug Bonderer, ASB operations manager, said. “ASB leased a boat and then had a couple of companies out of Paducah and Cincinnati crew it. We just gave them work. That kept us active on the river when nobody else was.”

About eight years ago, Bill Jackson, recently retired co-owner of ASB, took matters into his own hands and bought the Mary Lynn towboat. At first, ASB piloted the vessel and later leased it to Steve Engemann, who owns Hermann Sand and Gravel and Missouri River Towing. In 2016, Engemann purchased the Mary Lynn from Jackson.

“That was really Bill’s goal the entire time, to find someone who was dedicated to the river,” Bonderer said. “And the last several years we’ve also had great water conditions.”

Service on the Missouri River is a niche market, and there still are very few operators. However, more have entered the space slowly, said Engemann, whose family started in the gravel business in 1978.

“We’re a stakeholder on the Missouri River,” said Engemann, who serves as co-chair of the Missouri River Action Committee. “And it’s our focus to grow the business on the Missouri River.”

Inland waterways transport more than 60 percent of U.S. grain exports. One 15-barge tow can carry 787,500 bushels, the equivalent of 200 rail cars and 870 large semis. MFA began using the river again in 2014 after a 10-year hiatus due to the same factors that forced ASB to buy a boat.

There are benefits of moving grain or fertilizer by barge, said Dawson. Typically, it’s cheaper. Plus, it reduces truck congestion, uses less overall fuel and emits less carbon dioxide, according to a study by the National Waterways Foundation.

“One big advantage is you’re selling to the world out of your local area,” Engemann said. “The Missouri River is a world highway, and farmers are competing in the world market. It gives them the opportunity to ship or sell their grain globally.”

The decision to move by barge is typically an easy one to a certain degree, Williams explained. When storage is full, MFA locations near the river need to move grain in large volumes. It becomes more complicated when it’s time to calculate freight costs.

“Barge freight is very liquid,” he said. “It’s constantly trading. For instance, if there aren’t any buyers, the price reflects that almost immediately. Whereas, if no one is moving rail cars on a specific line, the price is infinitely slower to react.”

Even loads with direct routes via train may still end up on a barge because the liquidity of the market may make it cheaper and more efficient to do so, Williams added.

“Right now, barge rates are traded in St. Louis as percent of tariff,” he said. “These tariffs were published over 100 years ago and haven’t changed. So, for example, right now if you’re trading in St. Louis, the tariff is $3.99 per ton for every 100 percent. So if something is trading at 375 percent of tariff, you take 3.75 multiplied by that number. So 3.75 times $3.99 means that barge freight is going for about $15 a ton in St. Louis.”

Most barges can hold around 2,100 tons of grain. Multiply that by $15 a ton, and barges were going for $31,500 on that given day. Those 2,100 tons equate to a roughly a 12-foot draft, which corresponds to the depth of the river. Thus lies one major issue with Missouri River transport. Some years, the river is shallow.

“The Corps of Engineers is required to keep a navigable channel at 8 foot, 6 inches,” Williams said. “Six inches in a barge is a difference of 110 tons. That barge is $31,500 whether we fill it or not. That’s 110 tons we either pay dead freight on or don’t. On something like a rake barge, which fills to a 12-foot draft, that could be more like 500 or 600 tons of dead freight if water levels are low. If we load 200 barges a year, that’s 100,000 tons of dead freight. In years when the river is shallow, it can become pretty inefficient.”

And efficiency and speed are the driving forces changing the industry, Bonderer said. “Grain handlers have put a lot into their facilities, and we are all getting more grain in from farmers. It’s forced us to deal with it faster. Through that process, we also have to make it more efficient.”

Last year, partially with the help of a Missouri Department of Transportation grant, ASB improved its river facility to increase both speed and efficiency. A new loading spout, conveyors and operations room were installed. Over the last couple of years, ASB has been utilizing more winches and installed new bins next to the river for additional working storage. It took a year of careful planning to determine optimal times to complete the work.

“Yearly, we probably bring in 100-120 barges of fertilizer,” Bonderer said. “We’ll clean them out and ship out about the same number. It previously took us seven or eight hours and several employees to load a barge with grain. Now we can do it in two and a half hours with a couple of people.”

It’s an interesting perspective rolling down the river, pushing barges through hilly terrain of rural Missouri on this winding, ancient waterway that bisects the state. Belza, who began working on the Mary Lynn in 2010, has roughly 30 years of experience, including running big tows on the lower Mississippi from Cairo, Ill., to New Orleans. He said the Missouri is similar to the lower Mississippi, but on a smaller scale—free-flowing, free of any locks or dams, and free of man’s control.

“Everything is kind of in slow motion here,” Belza said. “There’s a lot of weight on there, especially with nine barges. But look at where my office is. We’ve basically got this whole river to ourselves. People pay money for this kind of view.”

By Rail

When dealing with the efficiencies of volume, rail is the next best bet to the river, which is subject to seasons and weather events and limited to a few of MFA’s facilities.

“Rail is becoming fewer and fewer shippers with 25 cars and under,” Dawson said. “Not many destinations are set up to handle those anymore. The end users have realized that to be cost-effective, the best structure is these big 100-car shuttles like we handle at Hamilton.”

Despite that trend, MFA still uses entities such as the Kansas City Southern, the Norfolk Southern, the Canadian Pacific, and the Missouri and Northern Arkansas railroads that serve more local destinations. The poultry industry in southwest Missouri, northwest Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma is one such market. Other short-run lines may service MFA’s own feed mills.

“No one year is the same as the next,” Dawson said. “There have been times when some of our facilities on the Missouri and Northern Arkansas line, which has an agreement with Union Pacific, will send wheat all the way into Mexico on these smaller trains. So, there’s a lot of different ways on a yearly basis where the cost of freight or abnormal demand may allow us to ship in smaller volumes.”

MFA owns or partially owns 15 rail facilities in total, most of which handle 25 cars or less. The lion’s share was acquired through acquisitions over time. Prior to the large, shuttle-loaders that opened over the last couple of years in Hamilton, Mo., and Central Missouri AGRIService in Marshall, Mo., the last rail facility MFA built was in Vandalia, Mo., in the early 2000s.

“At the time when these older facilities were built, 25 cars was the largest capacity you were going to use,” Dawson said. “But the market has expanded and changed to these larger shippers, and we recognized that we had to get into that game.”

By Road

Trucking is the most known form of transportation, Dawson said. “You can always put something on a truck and haul it, and in a lot of ways, it fills in the gaps. It’s how MFA is able to move grain from location to location or to nearby rail and barge facilities.”

But in some ways, Dawson admitted, whether to choose truck transportation becomes a much harder question.

“You have to consider the balance of owning your own trucks versus going out and finding private entities to haul your grain,” he said. “If you own your own fleet, it’s typically not just for grain, but also for hauling fertilizer. It doesn’t make sense solely from the grain side to take on the front-end cost exposure of buying the equipment, amortizing it over time and hiring full-time drivers.”  

Currently, MFA uses private operators for a majority of its grain trucking, explained Todd Rauch, MFA manager of dry fertilizer and grain trucking logistics.

“We have 786 contracted carriers that we can work with,” Rauch said. “Some are brokers, some are individuals, some have five or six trucks. We also have 88 hoppers owned by our locations that are used for both hauling fertilizer and grain.”

Though there are still primary seasons for moving grain and fertilizer, those seasons seem to be expanding. Typically, when an MFA location needs to move some of its grain, the staff will call MFA’s Grain Division to check rates. Dawson, Francis or Williams will give them a breakdown of freight rates based on access. If they need to move something by truck, Rauch will post those loads on a website where truck drivers can then call in and pick up those jobs. Like barges, if a truck goes to a location with fertilizer, it may be cleaned out and loaded with grain to avoid “deadheading,” or driving with an empty trailer.

“What managers need to know from us is the value of their grain, when their best sales are, and what they need to move based on their facility’s capacity,” Dawson said. “Then they can determine when and how they balance that with the demand to sell. It’s a three-way interaction. The freight department, grain department and location all share information and work together to make sure everybody stays on the same path.”

Looking ahead

While trucking is a perennial staple in MFA’s transportation lineup, rail and river routes both require investments for the future, Dawson said.

“The Hamilton shuttle facility was a long-term play in logistics,” he said. “That gave us an opportunity by rail to hit markets we typically couldn’t get. We had to plan forward for what we believe is going to be the marketplace in the future.

Whether it’s Mexico, Arizona or California, those are all markets we wanted to reach in the long term. The only way to get there is to be cost-efficient with these large shuttle facilities.”

MFA’s barge facilities may be next on the list for improvement. With some facilities nearing 40-plus years old, MFA is looking to increase efficiency in many of the same ways ASB did.

“At some point, we would like to upgrade our river facilities,” Dawson said. “We feel the river is a long-term marketplace we need to be in.”

The MFA river terminal at Glasgow Agri Services, for example, typically loads 16 barges annually, but General Manager Mike Watring believes that number can be more than doubled if improvements are made. Proposed upgrades such as electric-powered winches, new mooring dolphins and conveyor upgrades will help give the Glasgow facility a competitive advantage in price and speed, Watring said.

“We anticipate improvements here could reduce our load time by one hour to an hour and a half,” he said. “In the middle of harvest season, that will make a big difference.”

With harvest coming to a close after a drought-challenged growing season, many farmers in MFA territory are facing low prices combined with low yields and uncertainty in the export market. In light of trade disputes such as recent increased tariffs on exports to China, it becomes particularly important to know what’s happening in the worldwide logistics chain. Williams said he thinks it’s likely some U.S. beans will still make their way into China. The question is just what route they will take.

With this perfect storm of unfavorable factors, price potential and decisions to sell or store are even more important.

“It’s uncertain times like these when we have to make decisions on the fly,” Dawson said. “But grain is always logistics. Are we 100 percent right all the time? No, but we hope we’re better than 50 or 60 percent. Those are just some of the opportunities and risks that we have to take so we can profitably move grain for our customers and make more space, because the more grain we can take, the more efficient we can become at running it through our facilities.”

Supplemental solution

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

When MFA’s Feed Division developed two new Performance First supplement tubs earlier this year, the timing couldn’t have been better for livestock producers who were experiencing dry pastures and short hay supplies.

Generally, supplement tubs provide protein, mineral and vitamins in a highly palatable formulation that can fit into most grazing situations. When forages are lacking in quality or quantity, however, tubs can serve as a solution to assure cattle receive essential nutrients that may be missing from their diet.

Supplement tubs have been an important part of MFA’s feed selection for many years, but the new Performance First products are unique, said Mike Spidle, MFA director of sales, livestock products and feed marketing. The products are made exclusively for MFA by MFA at the feed mill in Mexico, Mo., rather than a third-party manufacturer. And they are the first tubs to contain Shield Technology, MFA’s proprietary blend of essential oils and other additives that help prevent sickness and promote performance without antibiotics.

“This is our formula, our products, made exclusively for MFA customers,” Spidle said. “They are the first of their kind.”

Performance First Tubs with Shield Technology are available in both a 20-percent protein pressed formula and 16-percent poured version. The tubs are specifically formulated to achieve a targeted intake level of 2 pounds or less per head, per day, Spidle added, unlike other brands of tubs in which consumption can be more than double that amount.

“Because the cattle are consuming less of these tubs, the product could cost less per cow on a daily basis, even with the added value of Shield Technology,” Spidle said. “Plus, you get Shield’s health benefits on top of the mineral supplementation.”

On-farm demonstrations support those claims. David Callis, who raises cattle and row crops in Sedalia, Mo., was among a test group of producers trying out the new Performance First tubs in real-world conditions this summer. Over the summer, two groups of heifers on the Callis farm were supplemented with MFA Performance First 20% Tub with Shield Technology.

“One group was first-calf heifers, and we were feeding them every day to improve the chances of breeding back. They only ate about one-third a pound, per head, per day of the tub,” explained Callis, who serves on the MFA Incorporated board. “The other group was heifers we are breeding that have never had a calf. We’re not supplementing them like the other group of heifers; they’re just on grass. They went through about 2 pounds a day.”

During the trial, Callis said he fed four of the 200-pound tubs—one to the group of first-calf heifers, which consisted of 25 pairs, and three to the other group of 35 cattle.

Contained in a distinctive purple tub, the Performance First products contain all the trace vitamins and minerals cattle need for a balanced, healthy diet. They’re also fortified with macro-minerals such as phosphorus, which is often depleted in stressed fields. In addition, Performance First tubs contain appreciable amounts of essential trace minerals such as copper, magnesium, zinc, iodine, cobalt manganese and selenium.

“Both the 20% Tub and the 16% Tub have enough minerals that producers wouldn’t need additional mineral supplementation,” Spidle said. “Plus, they’re a convenient way to deliver that nutrition.”

MFA feed specialists recommend providing one tub per 10 to 20 head, feeding free-choice continuously along with a plentiful source of average to good-quality forage and clean, fresh water. Consumption may vary depending upon animal body condition, quality and quantity of forages, seasonal weather conditions, and most importantly, feeding locations of tubs with respect to loafing, grazing, feeding and watering areas.

In addition to the complete vitamin and mineral package, having Shield Technology available in an MFA-branded tub makes sense, said Callis. He’s witnessed the benefits of Shield firsthand in MFA Cadence and Cattle Charge feeds and Ricochet mineral he provides his primarily Angus-based herd.

“Other than their standard vaccinations, we haven’t had to treat any of our spring calves since weaning,” he said. “That’s remarkable.”

Recently, quality feed and minerals have become even more important to Callis, who this past June embarked on a new venture—introducing Akaushi bulls to his herd. The Akaushi breed, a type of red Wagyu Japanese cattle, was imported to the U.S. in the mid-1990s and is known for its carcass quality. Callis expects his first half-blood Akaushi calves to be born next spring.

“Our goal is to produce the best-quality beef we can,” he said. “That’s why good nutrition is so important.”

Shield Technology can help cattlemen such as Callis do just that, Spidle said. Benefits include improved feed efficiency, daily gain, immunity, rumen function and breedback. Producers have found feeding Shield leads to fewer open cows, more full-term pregnancies and newborns that get up faster, he added.

Now, with Performance First Tubs, producers have more options to deliver Shield to their herd while ensuring the cattle are receiving proper nutrition.

“By adding these tubs to our lineup,” Spidle said, “producers have a complete selection of products with Shield Technology to fit just about any feeding situation.”

For more information on Performance First Tubs, visit with the feed specialists at your MFA or AGChoice location. 

Season of extremes

Written by Allison Jenkins on .

Drought is nothing new to Larry Belshe.

The 69-year-old has endured many dry spells on his family farm in Gallatin, Mo., where he raises corn, soybeans and hay. Still, it never gets easy to watch crops wither at the mercy of the weather.

“We’ve been through all the ups and downs of the ’70s and ’80s, so we know how to watch our dollars and get through tough times,” said Belshe, who farms in partnership with his younger brother, Steve. “That’s just the way we were brought up. You work hard trying to grow a family and a farm, and you just keep going—even in years when you realize you’re not getting anything in return.”

This is one of those years. In the worst growing-season drought for Missouri since 2012, the Belshes only harvested about half the hay they normally would cut and bale. Corn fields that typically yield more than 200 bushels per acre averaged around only 50 bushels. Soybeans benefited from some late-season rains, but the brothers estimated the crop would only produce a dismal 15 to 25 bushels per acre.

They’re not alone. Most of their northwest Missouri neighbors are in the same shape. At the end of August, Daviess County was in the D4 “exceptional drought” classification—the most extreme level on the U.S. Drought Monitor map—and nearly 70 percent behind on rainfall.

John Davis, manager of MFA Agri Services in Gallatin, said many area farmers gave up on their corn crops and cut them for silage to feed livestock. Cattle producers culled herds, and some put their animals on dry lots and began feeding hay two to three months earlier than normal.

“By the time July rolled around, we knew plants were hurting and yields were going to be down,” Davis said. “Whether it was grass or crops, nobody’s efforts were coming to fruition. Guys were baling corn stalks and chopping silage, anything to make a feed source. There was nothing we could do to impact the weather. All we could do was adapt.”

Though more extreme in the northwest, the drought was widespread across Missouri. At the drought’s peak in August, more than 88 percent of the state was experiencing some degree of abnormal dryness. Eastern Kansas and southeastern Iowa were also affected. Much-welcomed rains in late August and early September helped improve conditions, but it was too little, too late for most crops.

As of Sept. 9, the USDA rated 44 percent of Missouri’s corn and 27 percent of soybeans as poor to very poor. Compounding the predicament are low commodity prices and prospects for high yields in other parts of the country, which may lead to over-supply.

Hay and other forages were also rated poorly, with 79 percent in short or very short supply, and stock water supplies were 46 percent short or very short. Pasture conditions were rated as 44 percent poor or very poor.

As drought monitor levels triggered government relief programs, MFA Natural Resources Conservation Specialist Matt Hill worked to make sure MFA’s member-owners were aware of grazing and haying programs to provide assistance. For example, the USDA Farm Service Agency offered cost-share to establish emergency water resources for livestock and released CRP ground for emergency haying and grazing. The Soil and Water Conservation District Commission allowed grazing on easement acres that are enrolled in conservation practices.

“Everybody pulled together, I feel like more so than in past years, and got ahead of things,” Hill said. “I have to give these agencies a lot of credit for that. It’s really something that hadn’t been done in Missouri before.”

One of the most popular forms of assistance was an emergency EQIP program from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which allocated $2 million for forage development, specifically planting cover crops. Hill said NRCS was overrun with requests for the cost-share funds and quickly obtained another $2 million, which still wasn’t enough to approve all the applications.

“NRCS leadership saw the need, and as much as a government agency can, they cut a lot of red tape and made this program happen rather quickly and painlessly,” Hill said. “A lot of cover crops were planted with cost-share money as a result. The overwhelming response to the program really shows how great the need was for help.”

To spread the word about these programs as well as forage management strategies and alternative feeding options, Hill facilitated a series of drought information meetings for MFA patrons at Agri Services locations in Kirksville, Gallatin and Ozark.

“We wanted everyone to understand their options,” Hill said. “We invited staff from the county FSA office and NRCS along with Missouri Department of Natural Resources and Soil and Water Conservation Districts. [MFA Director of Nutrition] Dr. Jim White discussed forage and livestock nutrition strategies for drought. And I talked about cover crops and how to manage forage during the drought and plan for recovery when it rains.”

Davis said the information gathered from the meeting held at Gallatin Agri Services was appreciated by his staff and their producers.

“It’s good to know we had people watching out for us and relaying information,” he said. “The atmosphere has been pretty negative this summer, and we’re doing our best to keep these guys positive and show them that MFA is sincere about helping them solve their problems, not just passively offering suggestions.”

MFA personnel, at the corporate and local levels, also collaborated to keep plenty of supplies such as tanks, waterers, temporary fencing and cover crop seed on hand, Hill said.

“We wanted to make sure folks had what they needed to get through these tough conditions on their farms, whether it was through cost-share or not,” he said. “We need our customers to have successful operations, because without them, we don’t have a future either. I’m really proud of how everybody’s worked together, especially when things are happening fast and furiously.”

Further assistance came later in the summer from Gov. Mike Parson, a cattleman himself, who issued an executive order declaring a drought alert for 47 of Missouri’s 114 counties. The order also reactivated the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ Drought Assessment Committee, a coalition of state and federal partners who worked together to provide struggling farmers unprecedented access to public lands for accessing water and harvesting hay. The committee also put together a website to serve as a comprehensive drought information resource at dnr.mo.gov/drought.htm.

“It was our job to identify what resources were currently available and figure out what additional help we could offer,” said DNR’s Kurt Boeckmann, who leads the committee’s Agricultural Impact Team. “Haying in state parks and pumping water from conservation areas, for example, were somewhat new ideas. In times like these, farmers needed us to come together and provide other options.”

Despite these relief efforts and rainfall brought to Missouri by Tropical Depression Gordon in mid-September, producers will be facing the effects of this summer’s devastating drought for some time to come, Hill said, especially those with livestock.

“Normally, farmers hope they don’t have to feed hay any earlier than October, but even in the wetter spots, we’re still two to three months ahead of time feeding it,” Hill said. “Just about everyone is in a forage shortage, with very tight supplies to make it through a normal winter before grass starts growing next spring.”

Going forward, he advised, farmers must switch from short-term survival mode to long-term plans to fortify their operations against dry weather.

“Working together to get through this year is the main thing for now, but we want to be forward-thinking, so we don’t have to be reactionary during the next drought,” Hill said. “In the future, I think you’ll see better water resources in many pastures, more efficient grazing systems and the establishment of some warm-season grasses, which shine during dry weather. Let’s learn from this and be in better shape next time.”

Aug Sept 2018 Today's Farmer

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