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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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