Decade of demos and data

When MFA held its first Training Camp in August 2012, the event was billed as a real-world research site for some of the latest innovations in agronomic products and services as well as a hands-on teaching tool for employees.

Now in its 10th year, Training Camp continues to serve these important purpos­es but also provides something even more valuable for MFA and its customers—confidence.

“The ultimate goal of our research is to help growers make the best decisions on their farms,” said Cameron Horine, MFA staff agronomist. “We want them to know what products are out on the market that can help them boost production and improve practices. By taking a look at these things ourselves—in our own replicated trials, in our own geography—we can be confident in the results and recommenda­tions we make.”

More than 300 employees and industry representatives from across MFA territory attended the 2021 Training Camp field day on Aug. 16 at the 20-acre research site in the Missouri River bottoms outside Boonville. Participants viewed trials and heard presentations on MorCorn hybrids and MorSoy varieties, fungicides, seed treatments, foliar nutritionals, nitrogen stabilizers, late-season insect feeding, cover crops and more.

Horine, who coordinates Training Camp and more than two dozen other replicat­ed field trials across MFA’s trade territory, said the testing program not only includes studies designed by the MFA agronomy team but also evaluates emerging products from other agricultural vendors.

“We have two parts to all of our testing,” Horine said. “We work with a number of companies that are bringing in new products and want us to have a first look at them. Often, we’re testing a product while it’s still two or three years from the marketplace. That gives us a chance to get our own insights and determine whether or not we want to move forward in providing that product to our growers. We’re only going to sell something if we know it works.”

“The other reason for our trials is applied agronomics,” he continued. “How is this going to be beneficial to the producer? How can we make sure our recommendations make sense? And is it bringing an added benefit to the grower? Those are just a few of the questions we’re trying to answer every year.”

MFA’s small-plot research takes place at Boonville and another 35-acre site east of Columbia. Each study is set up in four-row plots that are 10 feet wide by 25 feet long, Horine explained, and they are replicated to reduce variability and provide multiple data points for a better statistical yield average. To further protect the integrity of the data, harvest is a very scientific process, he added.

“We use a special plot combine, and we only harvest the middle two rows, which provides a buffer between treatments,” Horine said. “The combine has a spe­cialized yield monitoring and weighing system. I stop at the end of each plot and wait for all the grain to go into the weigh bucket. It weighs the actual amount of grain, takes moisture readings and cal­culates test weight. All of those numbers flow into a statistical sofware program and are analyzed to de­termine if there is a significant difference between treatments.”

Typically, Horine said, the trials are set up for multiple years of study to verify results.

“I prefer at least three years because every year is different,” he said. “We don’t like to push out information after just one year, and even with two years, it’s hard to get a trend. Maybe we had a really wet year and then a really dry year, or maybe we had two really great years. In three years of trial work, generally speaking, we’ll get a whole cycle of what we normally see here in Missouri, and we can feel more comfortable about the data.”

Although details won’t be available until after harvest and analysis by Horine and the MFA agronomy team, here are a few highlights and observations from this year’s research and Train­ing Camp presentations. Look for more detailed information and charts in the March 2022 issue of Today’s Farmer.

FUNGICIDE TRIALS

Fungicides have been a key focus of MFA’s agronomic research for the past several years, with several different trials examining timing, variety response and product evaluations. These studies are not meant to merely show the value of fungicides but to delve deeper into how they can be used most effectively, said Jason Worthington, MFA di­rector of account management who coordinated the research program in his previous posi­tion as senior staff agronomist.

“At this point, we know fungicides work,” Worthington said. “You’re going to get yield benefit from them. Now, we’re interested in the nuances. Can we increase that benefit by applying fungicides at the right time or by putting something else with it to enhance perfor­mance?”

This is the third year for research on fun­gicides by hybrid and variety at the Training Camp site. All of MFA’s commercial MorCorn and MorSoy products were tested with fun­gicides, Trivapro on corn and Miravis Top on beans. They were applied at the same time—VT to R1 for corn and R2 to R3 for soybeans. Repli­cations of the same corn and soybean products without fungicides were used as checks. Visual differences were observed, and then yield data was used to measure the impact.

Results from these studies in 2019 and 2020 have shown a wide variance in fungicide impact, Horine said. On the higher side, some corn hybrids averaged increases of 8 to 15 bushels per acre versus untreated plots, while others only yielded a few bushels more. In soybeans, the differences were 4 to 6 bushels per acre versus untreated plants, but many varieties showed a less-positive impact. There were even some hy­brids and varieties that had zero yield advantages.

“The purpose of these trials is to see which varieties are responding to fungicides better,” Horine explained. “For producers trying to make decisions on when and where to spray fungicides, this information can be valuable and help them get a better return on investment.”

When looking at fungicide timing, however, results have been fairly consistent, Horine said. MFA’s research reinforces the labeled recom­mendations of applying fungicides in the early reproductive stages of VT-R1 in corn and R2-R3 in soybeans.

“From the two years of data that we have so far—and we have the study again this year—on corn, that VT to R1 time frame is optimal,” he said. “We still see an added benefit by having a fungicide at the other timings. That’s just the sweet spot. We’ve seen the same thing in soy­beans. It falls right along with what’s on the label. That R2-R3 time frame is really where it’s consistently paying.”

With this summer’s severe outbreak of southern rust, visual differences in fungicide treatments have been especially striking in the corn plots, Horine added.

“This year, especially at our Boonville site, the fungicide timing trials have really shown what is working well against southern rust,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we harvest those plots.”

NITROGEN STABILIZERS

Studying the impact of nitrogen stabiliz­ers is nothing new for MFA agronomists, but this year’s research put renewed focus on the different options available to prevent loss of this critical crop nutrient through volatilization, denitrification and leaching.

“We have a pretty good understanding that we need stabilizers, especially when it comes to early-season nitrogen applica­tions, but we also do a lot of top-dressing on corn now,” Horine said. “The last few years we’ve had really wet springs, and even some wet falls. This summer, you could see nitrogen loss in fields every day just driving down the road. We want to reiterate the importance of stabilizers and show people the impact of how much nitrogen they’re potentially losing by not having proper stabilization.”

Thad Becker, MFA precision data manager, led a session on nitrogen stabilization at the Training Camp field day in August. He displayed a nitrogen-deficient corn plant to illustrate the visual symptoms and discussed the need for N throughout the crop’s growth cycle.

“Once we get to the silking stage, the corn has only taken up about two-thirds of the nitrogen it needs. We’ve still got a third to go,” Becker said. “So, we have to make sure a third of our total nitrogen is left in the gas tank to feed that plant, which means it needs to be around pretty late in the season. If that nitrogen source isn’t protected, you can’t be sure it’ll still be there.”

Whether a grower chooses to apply nitrogen in the form of anhydrous ammonia or granular urea, he continued, MFA has nitrogen stabilization products to protect that fertilizer investment. N-Serve and Centuro are two MFA-recommended products for anhydrous; N-Guard and SuperU are stabilizers of choice for urea.

“I will tell you, nitrogen trials are difficult to measure,” Becker said. “If you ask me which is better, I’d say we have not found much difference between them, but we’ve been pleased with what we’ve seen. The important thing is that we keep nitrogen available for the crop. If not, it can be one of the most yield-lim­iting factors in the field.”

COVER CROPS AND SOIL HEALTH

New to the offerings at Training Camp this year was a demonstration of cover crops, a hot topic in the agricultural community right now.

“There’s a lot of talk about cover crops, from carbon credits to the sustainability aspects,” Horine said. “We wanted to take a look at some of the added benefits of cover crops and understand more about the soil health aspects.”

The cover-crop plot at Training Camp consisted of a summer blend of forage sorghum, pearl millet, cowpeas and sunflowers. It turned out to be a timely demonstration in a year when many fields were flooded late in the spring and lay fallow over the summer, Horine said.

“Down in our river bottoms, we had a lot of guys who lost their corn crop, and this could be another option than just try­ing to replant beans,” he said. “If you’re a cow-calf producer as well, maybe you can use a summer mix of cover crops and get some forage or hay out of it.”

Adam Jones, MFA natural resources conservation specialist, led the cover-crop presentation with a visually striking demon­stration. He took soil samples from a continuously tilled field and soil samples from a no-till cover-crop field and dropped each into a clear cylinder of water with a grate at the top. The tilled soil disintegrated into the water, while the no-till soil stayed mostly intact.

“What’s the difference?” Jones asked attendees. “Biology. The only difference is how much biology is here. The soil from the cover-crop field retains its structure because it’s held together by living roots, root exudates, earthworm goop, mycorrhizal fungi, microbes. In the other sample, the particles have nothing to keep them together, so they detach and are at the whim of wherever the water is going.”

Planting cover crops and reduc­ing tillage are two ways to increase biology in the soil. “Our goal is to put living roots in that soil for as much of the year as we possibly can,” Jones explained.

The benefits of cover crops are well documented, he said, from reducing soil erosion and sup­pressing weeds to moderating soil temperatures and building organic matter. But, he cautioned, growers must have clear objectives and plans for terminating and planting into cover-crop fields.

“In the last 15 years, we would have solved a lot of issues if grow­ers had answered one question before putting cover crops on their farm: Why?” Jones said. “A lot of these scenarios have gone awry because we’ve lost focus of what the objective is. Knowing the answer to that question can guide decisions in the right direction.”

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