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Delighting in dairy

First-generation dairy farmer Dennis Schnell finds harmony with nature, milk and cows

Sunshine makes happy cows and happy dairy farmers.

In the warm light of late spring, the grass grows, the mud dries up and Holstein cows graze green pastures to the delight of Dennis Schnell, a first-generation dairy farmer in Sturgeon, Mo.

“This has always been my dream,” said Schnell, who grew up in the area. “My father was a schoolteacher, so I did not have a farming background, but it was some-
thing that I always wanted to do.”

Schnell started his career in the construction industry, but his thoughts kept returning to working with livestock. In 1992, he and his wife, Becki, purchased a farm and began to build what was needed to make that dream a reality.

“There was nothing here when we bought it,” Schnell said. “We built everything from scratch and started milking at the beginning of 2000.”
For the past 24 years, Schnell has been learning new lessons about farming and running a Grade A operation that meets Dairy Farmers of America’s “Gold Standard” program guidelines.

“I’ve got to be honest, that first year of milking, we learned a lot real quick. I was greener than green. It was a challenge,” Schnell said. “There’s a lot to running a dairy.”
Calving was one of those lessons, he said. “I had some experience with beef cows and knew they calve pretty easily,” Schnell said. “Well, these Holstein cows like to build big calves. You have to live with them when they are calving.”

Schnell established his dairy farm with two herds—one from Southwest Missouri and the other from Kansas.

“We started with 55 cows that we didn’t know. You learn quickly which one is your trouble cow, which one is the good milker and which one likes to kick,” Schnell said. “Cows are like people. Each one has a different personality. Some you click with. Some you wish would go on down the road, but if she is a good milker, you keep her.”

Building relationships
Today, the Schnell Dairy herd mainly consists of Holsteins raised from those first cows he purchased more than two decades ago. Settling into a modest business model that has proven successful for their farm, the Schnells are currently milking around 70 cows once a day.

“The most we’ve ever milked was 150, and that was way too much,” Schnell said. “Sometimes you think bigger is better. That is not always true. A good number of cows for us is 80 to 100 because of the acreage we have and the bunk space. Seventy just works nicely.”

Healthy pastures and quality hay supply the bulk of the herd’s diet, with Schnell using multiple paddocks for rotational grazing.

“If it wasn’t for the grass, we wouldn’t be in business,” he said. “We try to graze at least nine months out of the year because it makes for happy cows. They are out there eating and naturally spreading the manure, which lightens the load in the barn.”

To help balance out his cows’ forage-based diet, Schnell also feeds a total mixed ration (TMR) to deliver all the necessary proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals for nutritious, quality milk production.

“We don’t push our cows, so we sacrifice some on milk production,” Schnell said. “I’m happy if I get 4 to 5 gallons of milk (per cow, per day). There’s a fine line there. How much feed do you throw at them to make it work?”

Schnell works with MFA Agri Services in Centralia and Clark, Mo., for spraying, seed and fertilizer for his forages and some feed for his cows.

“I appreciate MFA, and they help us complete the circle with our business. Our schedule just doesn’t allow us the time to do the spraying,” Schnell said. “Plus, with 800 acres, it really doesn’t make sense for us to own the big machinery, so we depend on MFA for assistance.”

During challenging times in the industry, Schnell has worked to improve the quality of his pastures and find ways to keep his feed costs down. One way is by using spent grain from two local breweries, Logboat and Bur Oak, and grape pulp from Les Bourgeois Winery in his ration.

“These relationships have proven to be invaluable,” Schnell said. “We thank them for their spent grain and pulp which helps supplement our TMR. When you drink locally made wine and beer, it benefits our cows!”

Milking it
The milking process begins early each morning and takes about three hours. The Schnells have a double-five herringbone parlor, allowing 10 cows to be milked at once. Schnell and his son, Alex, work together in the pit, cleaning and disinfecting teats before attaching each milking claw. The father-son duo manages each milking with a steady, efficient synchronicity. The humming of the machines and country music playing in the background add to the harmony in the barn.

“It’s a pretty simple milking system,” Schnell said. “We bought all used equipment when we started to help keep our costs low. It’s still running for us today.”
Every two days, a hauler collects the milk, which is delivered to Central Dairy in Jefferson City. Those bulk sales account for about 85% of Schnell’s product. The other 15% is sold directly to consumers as farm-fresh milk by the half-gallon or gallon. In Missouri, raw milk can legally be sold from a producer to an individual for personal use.

“About 10 years ago, I had a lady call me and ask if she could buy real milk from my dairy,” Schnell said. “She bought 5 gallons of farm-fresh milk each week, and I still sell to her today. The direct sale to our clients has been a lifeline for us.”

All in the numbers
As the number of Missouri dairies dwindles, producers like Schnell look for new ways “to make it work.” According to the University of Missouri Extension, there were 2,182 permitted dairy farms in 2001. That number shrunk to 525 in 2022, with only 393 Grade A farms.

“It’s difficult to compete with the big guys,” Schnell said. “Little farmers definitely help feed America, too, and we do what we can to hang on. Small family farms can provide food and products to communities, something we all saw during COVID.”

Schnell’s fresh milk business has grown by word of mouth, and he estimates some 50 to 60 customers visit the farm to purchase milk weekly.

“We’ve been through many ups and downs—droughts, extreme rain, financial crisis, COVID—so that forces you to think outside the box,” Schnell said.

After several different ideas, Schnell decided to purchase a refrigerated van and designate a location to deliver his fresh milk to customers. “We put out a really good product, and there are a lot of people who want real milk,” he explained. “I’m providing quality food for families, and that makes me feel good.”

For the past few months, Schnell has been running a “milk route” to deliver his farm-fresh milk to consumers in Columbia twice a week and Harrisburg once a week and is looking to add Centralia and Mexico. He charges $5 a gallon with a $5 deposit on his half-gallon jars.

The venture is one way Schnell is hoping to preserve the family farm for the next generation. Alex is finishing his college degree while helping his father with farm chores as well as milking every day.

“I have worked really hard for the past 24 years, and I would love for my children to take over the farm,” Schnell said.

“My Dad is one of the hardest-working people I know,” Alex agreed. “He started everything from scratch, and I’ve seen the amount of work and effort he puts in every day. I would be proud to eventually take over the farm, and that is why I am doing what I can now to be a part of the operation.”

Schnell invites visitors to learn more about how the dairy farm operates, as long as they’re prepared for a little mud and muck and to be put to work bottle-feeding calves. For more information, visit Schnell Dairy Farm on Facebook at or call 573-819-6122.

Read more of the June/July 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine HERE.


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Purposeful precision

Nutri-Track helps Darrell Ragsdale manage risk, improve forage production

When he first enrolled in MFA’s Nutri-Track program, Darrell Ragsdale was looking for gains—gains in production, efficiencies and yields for the forages and cattle on his farm in Seymour, Mo.

But it was a devastating loss that prompted him to take his management practices to the next level and bolstered his belief in using precision technology to improve pasture and hay production.

In December 2022, the “perfect storm” of drought-damaged pastures, toxic-endophyte fescue and 36 hours of extreme cold set up deadly conditions for Ragsdale’s herd. He lost 32 cows and 15 calves that winter to “fescue foot,” which occurs when the fungus in infected fescue produces alkaloids that restrict blood flow and cause the hooves to freeze.

“It was a combination of things,” Ragsdale explained. “We had sprayed Duracor on about half the pasture, which took out the clover, and then we had the drought. The cattle grazed everything to the ground to survive. The endophyte fungus concentrates in the bottom 2 to 3 inches of fescue, so they were loaded up with it. Then the cold spell hit. Temperatures got down to something like -12 or -14 degrees here, and it literally froze the feet off the cattle. It was a high-dollar learning experience.”

His emotions still visibly raw about the loss, Ragsdale vowed to never let it happen again.

“It was extremely hard on me, mentally, and changed how I had to think about things,” he said. “I knew I needed to do something different.”
In his purposeful new approach, diversification is key, Ragsdale said, “to keep from having all my eggs in one basket.” He plans to replace some of his traditional fescue pastures with novel endophyte fescue varieties that don’t have toxicity risks. He has also planted annual forages, such as oats, rye and pearl millet, and this spring, he worked with the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Native Forage Initiative to establish 10 acres of eastern gamagrass. This warm-season native bunch grass is known for producing large quantities of quality forage during the summer.

“I had always wanted to try eastern gamagrass,” Ragsdale said. “It puts out a lot of tons. I plan to use it for both hay and grazing—probably more grazing. The way it grows, it’s terrible on equipment.”

Site-specific fertility management—powered by MFA’s Nutri-Track program—is at the heart of Ragsdale’s operation. He relies on recommendations from MFA Precision Agronomy Specialist Brandon Hebbert to help improve the farm’s forage production, putting inputs where they are needed and pulling back where they are not.

“We see precision technology used more often in row-crop production, but most farms I see have more variability when it comes to forage production,” Hebbert said. “Forages have a high opportunity for returns when using practices such as variable-rate nutrient application. A high-production, cool-season grass hayfield is going to take about 400 pounds of fertilizer per acre per year. A good soybean field is going to take about 300 pounds. If you’re serious about forage production, you’re going to be using more inputs than in some row-cropping situations. Nutri-Track can help you place those inputs more efficiently for better production and better returns.”

The Nutri-Track program begins with soil-sampling in 2.5-acre grids to check nutrient levels, soil pH and variability in the field. This baseline guides MFA’s precision agronomy staff in building fertility recommendations based on the producer’s goals. The grid-sampling process is repeated every four years to determine if any other deficiencies or excesses need to be addressed and adjust recommendations accordingly.

“Once we find out what’s going on in the soil, then we can sit down with the producer and go over all the spots in the field that are showing high, optimum or low soil-test values,” Hebbert explained. “Then we can address those areas with variable-rate fertilizer applications.”

Ragsdale started on the Nutri-Track program in 2015 with a 13-acre hay field that he and his wife, Amy, had recently acquired and knew little about its soil health. When Hebbert presented those initial grid-sampling results, he told Ragsdale, “You’d better sit down.”

“It was pretty far out of whack,” Ragsdale said.

It didn’t take long, however, to start seeing results. Two years later, after following Hebbert’s recommendations, Ragsdale harvested 182 round bales from that field. He now has 130 of his farm’s 250 acres enrolled in Nutri-Track and says “the rest of it will be eventually.”

“I wanted to get better production, get more efficient and push yields harder without wasting money,” Ragsdale said. “And it’s paying off, big time.”
Because pH plays such a critical role in availability of nutrients and overall performance of the forage crop, Hebbert said correcting soil pH with precision lime applications is typically the first priority. It’s also one of the most valuable benefits of the Nutri-Track program, he added.

“Lime around here is typically going to cost $60 an acre with application,” Hebbert said. “People in the Nutri-Track program are usually spending more like $40 or $50 per acre.”

As an example, Ragsdale pointed out a field in front of his house that was grid-sampled and then limed with variable-rate application.

“The back side only needed about 1,500 pounds to the acre,” he said. “In front, it needed over 6 tons per acre. If it hadn’t been for Nutri-Track, we’d have pulled a spot here, a spot here, a spot here and a spot here, threw them in one bucket and stirred them up. The test would have said we needed 3 tons of lime across the whole field. The back side would have had way too much on it. The front side wouldn’t have had near enough. It paid for the testing just in lime savings.”

Ragsdale also said there’s value in the peace of mind that comes with knowing Hebbert is just a phone call away when he has questions or needs advice.

“The service you get from MFA, that’s worth a bunch,” Ragsdale said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to Brandon this year, asking questions on chemicals and planting and such. A farmer can’t know it all, so he better know someone who knows more than he does.”

In other benefits, Ragsdale said his pastures and hay fields are much cleaner because the flourishing forages outcompete the weeds. He’s able to graze his cattle longer and feed hay for fewer months. And the healthier stands have been more resilient to the drought conditions in the region over the past couple of years.

“I didn’t lose a stand in any of the Nutri-Track acres, but we lost a lot of grass in some fields that had not been on the program yet,” Ragsdale said.
Dry conditions have, indeed, wreaked havoc on many pastures and hayfields across MFA territory, Hebbert said. Compounding the problem is the fact that high fertilizer prices caused many producers to cut back on nutrient applications.

“The last two years of the drought, it’s just been hard for people to invest in hayfields and pasture, so we’ve taken out a lot more nutrients than what we put back,” Hebbert said. “The people who had built up their fertility before the drought were the ones who came through it better. I’m seeing increased interest from producers wanting to reseed pastures and hayfields and rebuild their fertility levels.”

Now’s the time to consider enrolling acreage in Nutri-Track, Hebbert said, because soil-sample results can be analyzed and recommendations created in time to make a difference for the next growing season.

“The sooner you get on the list and get something sampled, the sooner we can service the lime to correct pH. And all your fertilizer is going to work better once we get that piece knocked out,” Hebbert said. “The more we can do in the fall, the better results you’ll see in your spring grass production.”
Ragsdale said he encourages fellow producers to try Nutri-Track and see firsthand how the program can improve production, strengthen resiliency and decrease risk in their forage operations.

“Pick one of your hayfields, get with MFA, turn them loose with it and see what it will do,” he said. “Let them do the full extent on it for a couple of years because you’re not going to see the results in one year. Look at it as a long-term program that’s going to allow you to cash dividends at some point. Trust me. It pays.”

For more information on Nutri-Track and MFA’s other precision agronomy services, visit online at or talk with your local MFA representative.

Read more of the June/July 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine HERE. 

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In Full Bloom

MFA grant helps Willow Springs ag students experience the growing cycle from start to finish

Many students will say that spending time outside the classroom is where they would rather be during the school day.
At the Willow Springs School District in south-central Missouri, high school agriculture students are realizing that wish and benefiting from the experience. Agricultural instructors and FFA advisers Grant Talburt and Shiloh Walden offer an engaging learning opportunity that involves lessons outside of the classroom and inside the greenhouse.

When Walden and Talburt started teaching at Willow Springs six years ago, they saw incredible potential to expand the ag curriculum with the two existing greenhouses. “The ag department has been operating Greenhouse 1 for more than 20 years, and we knew it needed some work,” said Walden. “Greenhouse 2 has been operational for the six years that Grant and I’ve been here, but we knew we could do more.”

To help fund some of the greenhouse enhancements that were needed, Talburt applied for an MFA Incorporated Charitable Foundation grant in 2022, an opportunity he learned about from Dawn Sigman, MFA Willow Springs Agri Services manager.

StudentsAbove top: Teachers from the Willow Springs School District stop by the greenhouse to purchase plants before the big sale.   Above: Michael Williams, left, and his agricultural instructor, Shiloh Walden, search the aquaculture tank for the tilapia they are raising. The fish waste is used as a fertilizer for the plants in the greenhouse.“We have a great relationship with our local MFA,” said Talburt. “Dawn was interested in selling plants at MFA that our students grow in the spring. We had some plants, but we didn’t have the facilities to accommodate a true wholesale and retail operation. MFA’s grant, plus one through the Missouri Department of Agriculture, allowed us to make the many upgrades needed to expand our operation and the educational opportunities for our students.”

MFA’s $5,000 grant was used to update Willow Spring’s plant science curriculum by modernizing the current greenhouses. Improvements include the installation of irrigation controls, capillary matting, cooling panels and hydroponics.

“It’s been tremendous,” Walden said. “The grant has helped fund something really valuable to our students. While preparing our kids for a future career in plant science, we are using up-to-date technology and allowing them to learn in a real greenhouse setting.”

The school’s agriculture program fosters the development of a multitude of skills. At the start of the school year, the greenhouse management class usually has eight to 14 students.

“We start with greenhouse safety, teaching how they function, how they operate, different tools, different parts—basically how it fully works,” Walden explained. “A safety test must be passed, then we get to the greenhouses and start right away.”

Once in greenhouse, the real fun begins as the students are taught multiple planting techniques. “We propagate our hanging baskets, usually in September or October, through stem and leaf cuttings,” Walden said. “We grow a lot of different plants using that method. We also plant from seeds and cuttings purchased from other vendors.”

During the fall and winter seasons, the greenhouses are popping with greens and vegetables for staff and student consumption. Throughout the late fall, winter and early spring, the greenhouse classes provide fresh, new produce for the school’s cafeteria.

“The fall is when we start from seed the greens and vegetables that we grow for the school cafeteria,” said Walden. “The students harvest the greens and then wash, rinse and bag them. It’s been a really awesome learning experience.”

“We supply the school’s cafeteria with enough vegetables and salad greens for a nice salad bar,” Talburt added. “We are harvesting every two weeks, and we’re always planting more seeds.”

When spring hits, the growing season is in full swing. The first week of April is usually when the greenhouse opens for retail sales to the public.
“We don’t spend much time in the classroom at that point because it’s all out here in the lab,” Walden explained. “The students learn useful, hands-on skills that they can take with them anywhere and get a job.”

“The greenhouse experience for our students is extremely important,” Talburt added. “It teaches them so many life skills, like time management, maintenance and facility management, and the importance of proper presentation for customers.”

Finances and budgeting also come into play. Students are responsible for looking at the operational costs and determining what price is needed to be profitable when selling the products wholesale and retail.  

The MFA grant also enabled Talburt and Walden to update and improve the aquaculture system, which allows students to learn how to produce tilapia.

“When I got here, there was an aquaculture system that did not function,” Walden said. “That was one of the first tasks that I took on. We’ve had several different fish species over the years to try to figure out how to best utilize the aquaculture program. Right now, we have about 30 tilapia that are maturing. We hope to breed them and then be able to have a school of fish that we can routinely harvest from.”

The class uses the fish waste as free organic material to fertilize their plants and cut down on greenhouse expenses.

The community plays a vital role in the success of the school’s ag program, Walden said. Each spring, MFA and a local grocery store buy a variety of plants wholesale from the school and, in turn, sell the locally produced plants to their customers.

“The kids really get to see the whole circle,” Talburt said. “They develop a product, they prepare the product, and it goes to a market where it’s sold.”

“We are selling a quality product, and our students are putting in the hard work,” Walden added. “The community loves to support us, and we are able to raise money to go to leadership conferences and the FFA national convention. With the grants and community support, we have been able to turn the greenhouse project into something that we could only dream of, and I think it’s only going to get better from here.”

The MFA Incorporated Charitable Foundation’s mission is to improve the quality of life in rural communities by supporting organizations that are dedicated to education, youth and problem-solving. Since its establishment in November 2005, the Foundation has awarded more than $2.3 million and is proud to create partnerships within the rural communities it serves. For more information on grant opportunities, visit

Read more of the June/July 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine HERE.

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