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In this August/September 2022 Today's Farmer

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Spread too thin

Like many livestock producers facing record-high plant food prices, Lloyd Jones cut back on applications to his hay and pasture ground this past spring, choosing to fertilize only a small portion of the forage acres on his farm near Houston, Mo.

This summer, as drought conditions settled over southwest Missouri and temperatures reached triple digits, Jones started to regret that he hadn’t fertilized more. By mid-July, the cat­tleman was already feeding hay—the earliest he remembers—and worrying that he will have to reduce herd numbers because of limited forage supplies.

“Because prices were so high, we fertilized maybe 300 acres where we usually do 900 or 1,000, and we only put on a 4-1-2 (N-P-K ratio). Just a pat and a promise is all it was,” Jones said. “And here we are, going into the fall after hardly any rain this summer. It’s burned the grass up. We’re in a pickle, and I know we’re not the only ones.”

He’s right. In late July, nearly 75% of the Missouri was in some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Several neighboring states were even worse, with more than 80% of Kansas and 100% of Arkansas under at least abnormally dry conditions.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued an executive order July 21 in response to the growing threat of serious drought. The measure calls upon the Missouri Department of Natural Re­sources to activate the Drought Assessment Committee and the drought impact teams.

“This situation for our cattle producers is dire from a forage perspective,” said Landry Jones, MFA Incorporated conservation grazing specialist. “A lot of folks didn’t fertilize at all this spring or at least didn’t replace all the nutrients that were needed. As a result, we’re seeing re­duced hay yields and stressed pastures. Now is the time to make a game plan for what to do.”

While producers can’t control Mother Nature, they can be prepared to help pastures recover and boost forage growth this fall—provided that conditions improve. Those plans should include fertilization, Landry said, even with higher-than-normal prices.

“We can’t make up for what we’re missing now, but putting fertilizer down in the fall will replace what’s been removed and keep from mining nutrients,” he said. “We have to pay back what we’re taking out, like a savings account.”

Grass pastures, particularly those with a large percentage of fescue, will respond to nitrogen in the fall if moisture is available, Landry said. Phosphorous and potash are also important for getting pastures back into productivity. Soil fertility helps keep plants healthy over the winter, encourages early spring growth and enhances water-use efficiency and root development, which are important under dry conditions.

“Fescue produces one-third of its overall seasonal growth in the fall,” he said. “If you allow it to accumulate—what we call stock­piling—in pastures and hay fields until dormancy, the forage can be grazed through the winter.”

Landry recommends clipping, mowing or grazing fescue to 3 or 4 inches around mid-August, and then applying nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from mid-August to mid-September. Applying stabilized nitrogen such as SuperU will help protect this key nutrient from volatilization, denitrification and leaching.

At a minimum, Landry said producers should follow tradition­al soil test results to determine fertility rates. Even better, MFA’s Nutri-Track grid-sampling program can provide precise recom­mendations and allow variable-rate applications to put nutrients exactly where they are needed. Lloyd Jones and his farm man­ager, Don Evans, enrolled in Nutri-Track six years ago, and the technology has allowed them to reduce weed pressure, improve forage quality and increase stocking rates in their pastures.

“We’ve seen such a difference in the quality of grass and the carrying capacity,” Don said. “On the 240-acre farm I manage down at Elk Creek, we went from 48 cows and feeding hay all winter to 75 cows and feeding no hay. We were able to back­ground enough grass to get by, and I’d say there’s been a 70% to 75% improvement in the number of weeds we’re fighting.”

“That precision thing is amazing,” Lloyd added. “It’s not just for the grain farmer. Cattle producers need to grow grass as efficient­ly as we can, too.”

While precision is fairly new for the lifelong farmer, Lloyd said fall fertilization is not. It’s been a standard practice on his farm.

“We’ve always done some fall fertilization because you can grow a lot of grass that time of year if you get the moisture and give it a little boost,” Lloyd said. “By getting that P and K on early, it has time to work, and the grass is ready to go in the spring.”

After fertilizing, producers should keep cattle off the stockpiled forage until they’re ready to graze, Landry said. In fescue-based pastures, the majority of growth will be complete by mid-October or first frost, providing high-quality forage with protein levels around 15% and total digestible nutrients in the low 60s.

“If you’re stockpiling properly, you’ve probably got more forage than cows need to maintain body condition,” Landry said. “One option for producers is to feed hay October through December, and then put cows on fescue from December to March or April. Those stockpiled pastures should still provide adequate nutrition through the winter months.”

Considering the cost of inputs for hay production, feeding stockpiled fescue can be a more cost-effective option, Landry said. On a dry matter basis, with adequate moisture, he estimates about 90 cents per head per day to stockpile versus $2.25 to $2.40 for purchased hay.

“You see the cost for fertilizer and think you can’t spend $80 an acre for grass,” Landry said. “When you look at the economics of hay, it’s better to stockpile.”

Dividing pastures into smaller paddocks and using rotational grazing or strip grazing will make better use of the forage, he added. With this method, cattle will only waste 15% to 20% of the standing forage. If turned out on the entire pasture, 50% to 70% can be wasted. Plus, the herd will graze in more uniform pattern and distribute manure more evenly, which helps soil fertility by recycling the nutrients they’re consuming.

“The waxy cuticle of the fescue leaves protects the plant, which is why it survives over the winter,” Landry explained. “When the cattle walk on it, they break the cuticle and forage quality de­clines. Providing a smaller section to graze and moving the herd every one to three days keeps them from damaging and overgraz­ing any one site and gives the other areas time to recover.”

It’s a practice that Lloyd Jones uses on his farm, where pastures are divided into 18- to 20-acre paddocks for rotational grazing. All the best management practices in the world, however, cannot make it rain. The veteran cattleman said he’s holding out hope that the drought will abate in time for his pastures to recover from the summer stress and give him an opportunity to replenish much-needed nutrients for good growth this fall.

“If we get some moisture, the fertilizer truck is going to be running,” Lloyd said. “We have to do something since we missed the spring—N, P, K, all of it. That’s my plan. But I don’t know what the plan upstairs is. If we don’t get rain, we won’t be able to do anything but sell cows.”

For more information on creating a forage fertility program on your farm, visit with the agronomy and livestock professionals at your local MFA or AGChoice affiliate.

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High risk, huge reward

Sybesma Cattle Company. Eli Sybesma likes the sound of that.

With the support of his family—especially his mother, Melissa— Sybesma followed his passion to start his own beef operation two years ago in Cameron, Mo. Taking small steps into the high-risk cattle market, the 26-year-old is motivated by the encouragement he receives from neighbors, friends, family and his partnership with MFA Livestock Key Account Manager Brandon Sowers.

The eldest of three boys, Sybesma graduated from Cameron High School and ventured out on his own. After a few years of traveling for construction work, he met his wife, Katie, and they decided to settle down closer to home.

“I have always had a passion for raising and feeding cattle,” Sybesma said, “and I knew I wanted to be my own boss.”

After moving near Pattonsburg, Mo., however, Sybesma said his aspi­rations to make a living in the cattle business were hindered by lack of financial backing, land and cattle. He was not deterred. Sybesma took a job in Kansas City knowing that each day working for someone else was one step closer to having his own business.

Starting small, Sybesma saved enough money to buy a few bred cows and started his operation on 20 acres of rented ground.

“That was the moment I decided I wasn’t going to live without cattle,” he said.

He sold the calves from those first cows, and with that income, pur­chased more bred cows. After being denied the first time, Sybesma went back to the bank and received a loan to buy more cattle. He retained his second set of calves and decided to background them, while still work­ing his full-time job.

With each step, Sybesma was building confidence and a solid reputation. When owners of a local sale barn asked him if he was interested in buying a few high-risk calves, he was honest and said he didn’t have the cash. But with the success Sybesma was seeing by backgrounding his own cattle, he offered to do the same with these calves. The sale barn owners agreed.

The turning point in his career, Sybesma said, was when he lost a cow and calf during calving season. He was at his full-time job that day and knew that if he was on the farm, he could have saved them both. With his mind made up, he put in his two-weeks’ notice so he could devote his time and energy to the cattle operation.

It was a huge risk and a hard sell to his wife, but he said it was the right decision.

“Even though there was pressure to en­sure food was on the table and a roof over our head, Katie knew that this was my dream,” Sybesma explained. “Sometimes, after spending hours on the road and get­ting home when everyone is asleep, I second-guess my decision. But I know that with each challenge I am learning something new and really doing what I love.”

After the first few months, Sybesma’s family took on important roles in his full-time cattle operation. His brother, Wyatt, 16, helped him build a low-input working system consisting of hot-wire paddocks and dry lots with corral panels on a new farm. As the business grew, his brother, Abe, 22, and his family moved back home to help with the daily operations.

“Abe jumped in headfirst, picking up on all the things that needed to be done,” Sybesma said. “He brings more tools to the table, helping to take the business to the next level.”

He says the strong work ethic of the Sybesma brothers was instilled in them by their mother, who raised the enterprising boys as a single parent.

“After her divorce, my mom moved us closer to her family. She worked nonstop to make sure we were taken care of,” Sybesma said. “Seeing how hard she worked, raising three boys on her own, is what motivates me—really, all of us—to make our business the best it can be.”

A well-known livestock buyer in the area asked Sybesma Cattle Company to custom-feed two loads of cattle. With this great opportunity, Sybesma wanted to get things right. He asked a close friend and mentor, Greg Robinson, to share his knowledge about the best diet and feeds.

“We cared and fed the two loads of calves, and once they gained the proper amount of weight, we hauled and shipped them out,” Sybesma said. “It all went so well, I knew things were coming together.”

After that success, he started taking in more loads of cattle, acquiring more land and building a name for the operation.

“But I don’t pretend to know everything,” Sybesma said. “I started talking with Brandon (Sowers) at MFA in Pattonsburg. We discussed different products and came up with a plan. It just clicked, and things started operating even better.”

Sowers said he learned about Sybesma’s cattle business and knew that the young producer’s values and philosophies aligned with MFA.

“He’s the kind of person we are looking to partner with,” Sow­ers said. “I introduced myself and discovered more about his operation and goals. I used the expertise of MFA’s veterinarian, Dr. Tony Martin, nutritionist Marc Epp and partner programs with MU to help put plans together to achieve Eli’s goals. He’s the type of person who will continually push to achieve a goal, and once achieved, already has the next one in place.”

Always looking at ways to improve makes Sybesma a “great guy to partner with,” Sowers added. “He is not afraid to look at any avenue to enhance his business, which has allowed me to offer ideas and insight plus bring in other experts to lend their knowledge.”

Sybesma said the collaboration has been a positive move for his growing cattle business.

“With MFA on board, it removed the guesswork when it came to the arrival protocols on what to feed and what to use in the water,” he said. “We have a high success rate with our cattle because Brandon is always making sure we have all the tools needed at the farm and that we are ready to go when new cattle arrive.”

The MFA Health Track and Nutri-Track programs fit nicely into the operation, Sybesma said. On arrival, he uses Shield Liquid and 4G crumbles in an isolation pen to boost the calves’ health. After that, he feeds Cattle Charge with Shield and Rumensin to put as much “good” weight on as possible before they go on to their next stage.

“I am proud of the work we do,” Sybesma said. “We buy a calf that most people think doesn’t have a high chance of living. We bring it here, give it proper care and nutrition, and turn that No. 2 calf into a No. 1 calf. We know that once that calf leaves here, it will perform and do well.”

When asked what sets his high-risk cattle operation apart from others, Sybesma said proudly, “I think our thriving cattle speak for us. Our success rate is second to none. The amount of care that we put into our animals is exceptional. We take every step needed in the process. Yep. Our cattle speak for us.”

Reflecting on the past two years, Sybesma said he could not have made his dream a reality without the help and encour­agement of the people around him—even when the going gets tough.

“Taking a step back and looking at what we’ve done with so little proves that you can have a very low-input system with no fancy equipment and make it successful,” Sybesma said. “In this industry there are always rough times and things you can’t con­trol, like the markets and the weather. I always have my people standing there telling me I can make this happen, pushing me just a little bit harder.”

“There are hundreds of people who do what we do,” he added. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re just trying to be the best at it. And I think that we are probably pretty darn close to it—at least in my eyes.”

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Elite wheat

Winter wheat was the first crop Wyatt Harris planted when he began farming on his own in 2007. He was 17, a senior in high school. The crop failed miserably.

“Temperatures got down into the low 20s sometime that May,” Harris said. “The wheat was all headed out and froze. What little was left, the armyworms took out the rest.”

It was a disappointment, but not a deterrence. The young farmer continued to include some wheat in rotation with corn and soybeans on his farm, which is headquartered near Hepler, Kan. When the weather didn’t cooperate and prices were down, wheat mainly served as a cover crop or grazing for his family’s beef cattle. In good years, Harris harvested it for grain.

“For years, we grew just a couple of hundred acres of wheat mainly to graze. If it turned out OK, we’d harvest it,” Harris said. “Then I started monkeying around with wheat as a cover crop. We ended up raising really good wheat, and the price came up, so it’s become a staple crop for our farm.”

Three years ago, buoyed by favorable markets, improved yields and new crop protection technology, Harris decided to dramatically increase his wheat acreage and the intensity of his management. He grew nearly 1,900 acres of soft red winter wheat in 2022—a little less than half of his total row-crop acre­age. He’s planning about the same amount for 2023.

“Wheat really fits well in our rotation, and we’ve got the right climate for it here,” Harris said. “It’s like a cash cover crop, al­though I hate to say that, especially since we manage it for high­er yields. It also spreads our risk. Some years, when weather is on the drier side, wheat might be the best crop we’ve got.”

He’s not the only one putting more emphasis on wheat production these days. High demand and good prices have garnered the attention of growers who had previously cut back or cut out wheat from their rotation. The war in Ukraine, a top wheat-producing country, combined with low global supplies and drought in key wheat-growing areas have all contributed to the recent upswing in the market.

The USDA projects the average price in 2022 for wheat to be $10.75 per bushel, which is more than double the 2020 price. Back in March, when Harris was mak­ing a planned nitrogen pass, wheat was trading for nearly $13 a bushel. At press time, prices had dropped to around $7.60 with news of a Ukraine-Russia trade agreement that would provide a safe corridor for wheat to make its way out of the Black Sea region.

“I believe wheat acres will be up this fall if markets stay like this,” Harris said. “Some farmers who don’t traditionally grow any wheat may dabble in it, but I think the biggest acreage gains are going to come from growers just expanding their acres, like we did. The more money that there potentially is to be made, the more guys are willing to spend.”

While price certainly factored into his decision to grow more wheat this year, Harris said his management practices are just as intense when markets are more moderate. Ultimately, he aims for making 100 bushels per acre, a goal he often achieves. A wet spring kept him from reaching that target this year, with wheat yields averaging 75 to 80 bushels per acre.

“In the area I cover in southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas, 100-bushel wheat isn’t out of the question,” said MFA Staff Agronomist Shannon McClintock. “There are some pockets that are producing that kind of yield consistently. It just depends on the year. I think high commodity prices will encourage growers to better manage their wheat to reach that mark more rather than just throwing it out there and seeing what happens.”

To achieve higher-yielding wheat on his farm, Harris is attentive to key production factors that include proper planting, crop protection, fertilization and har­vest timing. A customer of AGChoice in Hepler, he is enrolled in the MFA Nutri-Track program for precision nutrient management and Crop-Trak, MFA’s full-service scouting and consulting service.

“It’s all about efficiency,” Harris said. “We do whatever we can to push yield goals and make our margins better. But there’s a stewardship side, too. We don’t want to apply more inputs than the crop needs. It’s wasteful, and it’s not cost-effective.”


Many practices that contribute to a great wheat crop happen before and during planting, such as proper seeding methods, rates and dates, said McClintock, who works closely with Harris in all aspects of his operation.

Careful variety selection is one of those practices. Like other cash crops, not all wheat varieties are created equal. McClintock said growers should compare disease ratings and make sure varieties are adapted to their soil, environment and production practices. Harris planted all his 2021-22 wheat acres in MFA 2633, which is suited for high-management production.

“Growers who create the potential for success at the start are the ones who will likely achieve the most profits at harvest,” McClintock said. “It’s important to know how many seeds per pound you have. If you purchase new certified seed, that num­ber is on the seed tag. If you’re using bin-run wheat, we recom­mend you get it tested for germination and a seed-per-pound analysis. Your planting rate is based on that information.”

For higher-yielding wheat, McClintock said the goal is to have 75 heads per square foot, which means a planting rate of 1.2 to 1.5 million seeds per acre. Drilling or planting with an air seed­er is recommended over broadcasting for a more uniform stand.

“Depth is important,” McClintock added. “You want the seed to be at least an inch deep and planted into moisture for good emergence. Be sure it’s not too deep, or the wheat will have a hard time coming up. Too shallow will make it more susceptible to winterkill.”

The ideal planting date for winter wheat in MFA territory ranges from mid-September to mid-October. Earlier planting can put wheat at risk from insects and certain diseases. Late planting may result in less tillering, more winter injury and lower yield.

Harris, whose farm is nearly 100% no-till, leans toward the earlier planting date for his winter wheat, if conditions allow. He typically uses an air seeder to drill the wheat into standing corn stubble, but he has also had great success with growing wheat behind soybeans if they were harvested early enough.

“I like to start planting in the middle of September, even when we’ll keep the wheat for grain,” Harris said. “Seed treat­ments are one reason we can get away with that now versus the old days when we had to wait till after the Hessian fly-free date, which is usually the middle of October. It costs a little bit more, but I like to get that extra growth in the fall.”


From the start, a winter wheat crop is threatened by weeds, insects and diseases. Protecting the crop, both before and after planting, is essential to achieving high yields, McClintock said.

“Fall weed control is very important,” he said. “You need some sort of burndown in front of wheat. There are spring options, but you’ve got to at least get the main weeds in the fall. If not, you start decreasing your chances of higher yields.”

Before drilling wheat, Harris said he burns down with gly­phosate plus Finesse, a herbicide that provides pre-emergence and postemergence management of broadleaf weeds and yield-robbing grasses.

“It works really well and keeps the wheat clean all winter,” Harris said. “There’s a lot of yield drag associated with winter annuals in wheat, even if they don’t look that bad.”

Fungicide and insecticide seed treatments are also important, providing a cost-effective way to protect young wheat plants from common fungal soil-borne diseases such as pythium, rhi­zoctonia and fusarium rot and pests such as aphids, cutworms and Hessian fly. Later in the season, foliar fungicide applica­tions help prevent diseases such as common rust and its more aggressive cousin, striped rust, as well as fusarium head blight or “head scab,” which is extremely detrimental to yields.

“In the past, fungicides may have been viewed as optional for wheat, but most growers now consider them essential, especial­ly if they’re looking for better yields,” McClintock said. “And it goes beyond yield. The benefits to quality and test weight more than justify their use.”

Depending on disease pressure, Harris usually makes at least two fungicide applications at critical times in the crop’s growth—one at flagleaf and one at flowering. If early diseases are detected, he may also apply a fungicide at green-up.

Regular scouting helps detect any problems before they can rob yield, especially as the crop comes out of dormancy in late winter. Insect pests and diseases can come on fast, and timing is critical for preventive measures. For example, fusarium head blight can only be controlled with an application during the small window of flowering, although new fungicides such as Miravis Ace allow a wider application window that begins at 50% head emergence.

“Miravis Ace is one of the reasons, other than the market, that we really reintroduced wheat back into the operation,” Harris added. “Head scab is a major issue here every year. Any time you get moisture at flowering, you run the risk of head scab, and we always seem to have moisture at flowering. The old products had a very narrow window. Miravis Ace opened that window, and it’s changed the game for head scab fungicides.”


Wheat exhibits a robust response to proper fertilization. While phosphorus and potassium are critical crop nutrients, adequate nitrogen levels must be available to the wheat plant at all phases of development. Splitting N applications generally improves use efficiency.

Harris’ fertility program begins in the fall with an application of P and K along with some nitrogen, based on soil-test results, and then continues with two passes of nitrogen in the spring—one at green-up, based on population, and one at jointing, when the bulk of the season’s N will be applied.

“Typical nitrogen management for wheat here in southeast Kansas is to apply DAP in the fall, which gives you 25 to 30 units of N. That generally will get us through the winter,” Mc­Clintock explained. “It’s all about tiller management. You don’t want to over-tiller, and you don’t want to under-tiller.”

Sulfur is another nutrient that often gets neglected in wheat production, he added. Sulfur helps improve wheat quality and makes the crop more responsive to nitrogen. A general rule of thumb is to apply 1 unit of sulfur for every 10 bushels of yield, McClintock said

“When shooting for higher-yielding wheat, sulfur can be a limiting factor,” he said. “We recommend adding it along with nitrogen at the jointing pass. Sulfur is just as mobile in the soil as nitrogen, and the plants need it around the same time.”


The best management in the world won’t do any good if the crop isn’t harvested in a timely manner, McClintock said. Wheat is less forgiving than other crops when left in the field. Weathering, shattering, lodging and other factors can add up to significant losses. Growers should harvest the crop as soon as possible to protect yield and maintain good-quality grain.

“We tend to start harvesting wheat when it’s a little greener than some would like,” Harris said. “If the sun is shining, and it’s the perfect weather, I’m going to go cut wheat, even if we’re taking a little moisture dock. I’m probably going to lose less shrink there than on the back end if the wheat stays in the field. Inevitably, we’ll get a big rain event about harvest time, and the quality just starts to dwindle from then on. Better to get it out when you can.”

Plus, the sooner the wheat gets out of the field, the sooner double-crop soybeans can go in. If conditions allow, Harris is typically chasing the combine with the planter. The ability to double crop is one of the major benefits of including wheat in rotation, he said.

“Well-managed wheat, even when the price goes down, is still going to make sense to grow, especially if you plant a double-crop bean behind it,” Harris said. “It’s like any other crop. The best way to make money is to raise as much of it as you can.”

For more information on best man­agement practices for wheat, visit with the agronomy professionals at your local MFA or AGChoice affiliate.

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