Making hay the Nutri-Track way

As the elementary school principal in Grant City, Mo., Chuck Borey works hard to ensure his 150 students have healthy, productive environment for growing and performing. He’s doing the same thing for the 180 head of beef cattle on the nearby farm he operates with his wife, Janice.

Ultimately, being a good principal—and a good farmer—means being a good manager. In both roles, Borey is responsible for providing inputs, creating effi­ciencies, setting goals, monitoring progress, adopting new technology and using resources wisely.

That’s why he was willing to try MFA’s Nutri-Track program when it was recommended by his stepson, Jared Harding, MFA district precision manager in Northwest Missouri, to help improve the farm’s forage production. The precision nutrient program manages soil fertility on an acre-by-acre basis, giving farmers the information and technology needed to adjust fertilizer application rates by zones.

“I knew a little about Nutri-Track, but I had always assumed it was for row-crop farmers,” Borey said. “One day, I was talking to Jared about the variability in our hay ground, and he said Nutri-Track could help even out the hot spots and weak spots. Instead of applying a flat rate of fertilizer like we had been doing, now we put it just where it’s needed. Our hay production has been much more consistent ever since.”

Precision agriculture may, indeed, be more commonly associated with row-crop production, but Harding said forages often have the highest opportunity for returns when using practices such as variable-rate nutrient application. In fact, he pointed out, hay and pasture ground consistently has more variable fertility than crop fields.

“Our grasses need precision just as much as row crops—maybe even more,” Harding said. “We have to replace the nu­trients removed through grazing and haying, but a shotgun approach isn’t the most efficient way. Cows do put some of those nutrients back, but they’re not very good at applying them evenly. They tend to gather around waterers, feeders and shade, so those areas have high fertility levels, while areas that have the best potential for forage production tend to be deficient. Nutri-Track is designed to help that uneven distribution of nutrients.”

Borey prudently began with 80 acres in the Nutri-Track pro­gram six years ago, but the positive results were so obvious that he decided to enroll 720 acres of hay ground and pastures.

“After Jared signed us up, we limed those first 80 acres on a variable-rate basis, and the grid-sampling paid for itself with that application,” Borey said. “I could see the benefits of Nutri- Track right from the start.”

While lime savings are common with Nutri-Track, Harding said producers shouldn’t expect to use less fertilizer with pre­cision applications. Those applications will, however, be more accurate and effective.

“What we’re trying to do is be more efficient with your fertilizer dollar,” Harding said. “We’ll put inputs where they are needed and pull back where they are not. With margins tighter and tighter for growers, efficiency is the name of the game.”

For Borey, the benefits have continued to abound. 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. Balanced fertility also promotes stand persistence. Healthy plants are better able to withstand traffic and tough conditions, whether due to a drought or a severe winter.

“We haven’t added more cows—although we could—but we’re now able to graze our pastures until early January every year,” Borey said. “During the drought a few years ago, instead of selling off some of the herd because we couldn’t support that many head, like some producers had to do, we were able to keep the cows we had. I think Nutri-Track is what made that possible for us.”

While the abundance of grass means he may not need as much hay, Borey is nonetheless harvest­ing more bales from the same acreage. Harding said the difference is particularly apparent on the initial 80 acres the pro­ducer enrolled in Nutri-Track.

“It was essentially his worst-producing hay field, and he’d rarely gotten a second cutting off it,” Harding said. “After we got the fertility leveled out, he’s consistently getting second cuttings. It’s producing so well that he is able to fence off about 25 acres and use it for extra grazing days.”

No matter what type of acreage is enrolled, the Nutri-Track program begins with grid sampling to create a baseline for soil nutrient levels. Grid sampling uses GPS mapping to break the field down into smaller management units from which several soil cores are taken for analysis. The soil-test results guide MFA’s precision agronomy staff in building fertility recom­mendations based on the producer’s goals.

“We pull the soil samples on 2.5-acre grids to get a good representation of the field and find out what’s going on in the soil,” Harding explained. “Then we can sit down with the grower and go over all the spots in the field that are showing high, optimum or low soil-test values. Then we start addressing those areas with variable-rate fertilizer application from our MFA locations.”

Correcting soil pH with precision lime applications is typically the first priority, he added, because pH plays such a critical role in availability of nutrients and overall performance of the forage crop. Addressing phosphorus and potassium fertility is also important in maintaining quality pastures.

“Nitrogen is important and does increase grass yield, but if phosphorus and potas­sium are ignored too long, you will see diminishing returns,” Harding said. “If the soil is low in these nutrients, your pasture will never reach full yield potential regard­less of how much nitrogen is applied.”

The grid-sampling process is repeated every four years to evaluate the progress, determine if any other deficiencies or excesses need to be addressed and adjust recommendations accordingly. Unlike row-crop growers, forage producers don’t have the benefit of yield monitors to precisely measure harvest.

“With grasses, we have to make an educated guess about much fertility we’re removing that season, so we like to revisit yield goals every year, making sure we’re not overshooting or under-producing,” Harding said. “Then every four years, we want to sample again, get another picture of what’s going on and see if there’s some­thing we need to improve. If producers are following recommendations, the low-test­ing spots four years ago are going to rise, and spots that were high four years ago are going to drop.”

That’s exactly the trend Borey has seen since joining the Nutri-Track program, and the benefits are not just agronomic and economic but also environmental. Preci­sion fertility management helps reduce nutrient loss and waste by targeting inputs to specific areas, and Borey said such stewardship is important to the future of the farm, which has been in his wife’s family for generations.

“You want to invest your money in something that will give you a return, and there are so many ways Nutri-Track is paying off,” Borey said. “As much time as you put into farming, you want to do what’s best for it. We feel that by using the Nutri-Track system, we’re doing what’s best for the land and what’s best for our cows.”

For more information, visit mfa-inc.com/PrecisionAg/Nutri_Track and click on “Contact” to find the precision specialist nearest you. You can also watch Nutri-Track in action on Chuck Borey’s farm at mfa.ag/nutri-trackpasture.

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