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Reflections on 2023 crops can enlighten next season

Choosing right seed genetics, managing disease are keys to protecting performance and yield

It’s hard to believe another harvest season is in the books and plans for the 2024 cropping season are well underway. The genetics in our corn hybrids and soybean varieties really helped carry us through this challenging season. Even so, this year’s yield numbers have been all over the board.

In MFA replicated plot trials for corn, which includes MFA’s MorCorn brand and partner brands Brevant, NK and DeKalb, yield ranged from 100 to nearly 300 bushels per acre for longer-maturity hybrids. Test weights were certainly down. In many spots, cooler nighttime temperatures during the summer allowed corn to recover more effectively.

As for soybeans, many producers have been pleasantly surprised with yield. Those August rains really paid dividends, despite the dry spring and summer. Many yield estimates are in the mid to upper 50-bushel-per-acre range, but the lows and highs range from mid-30s to upper 70s. In areas that struggled with extreme lack of moisture, some producers were forced to bale soybeans for forage. This mainly occurred in the east-central part of Kansas.

DougAs I reflect on the growing season, there were several surprises given the conditions we had. First, we hit an early onset of charcoal rot in spots, sparked by dry soil conditions coupled with warmer soil temperatures during the second week of April through the middle of May. This disease thrives in warm, dry environments, which we typically experience later in the growing season—more so in the reproductive growth stages when pods begin to fill (around R5). Including wheat in our crop rotation can help manage charcoal rot because wheat is not a host for the disease. Seed treatments to manage soybean cyst nematodes (SCN) can also help. SCN causes physical damage to soybean root hairs, creating an open door for pathogens to invade. In several cases this year, other diseases were present in addition to charcoal rot, and the combination of multiple pathogens contributed to declining plant health.

Tar spot movement into new areas also surprised me, even more so than my other observations this year. Most of our internal reports of the disease picked up during the second week of July when many fungicides were beginning to be applied. I think greater producer awareness of this newer disease has contributed to more sightings and documented cases, but reports of widespread devastation of the corn crop—like what has been documented in northeastern Kansas this year—fortunately did not develop in much of MFA’s trade territory.

What has been dramatic is the difference in visual symptoms of tar spot where foliar fungicides have been applied and where they have not, especially where leaf disease severity ratings exceed 5%. Producers had the most success in managing tar spot when tolerant hybrids are planted and when fungicides containing two or more modes of action are applied at the VT (tassel is fully emerged) to R3 (kernels filled with milky fluid) growth stages. Keep in mind, tar spot overwinters on crop residue and is not carried in from the south like southern rust.

The last thing I want to mention is to be aware that gray leaf spot, northern corn leaf blight and other diseases have not gone away. Be mindful of those diseases and historical trends in your own fields as you make cropping plans with your MFA advisor.

On the management side of things, having an initial cropping plan led to many producers having success this year. How success was ultimately measured or determined may have looked different from producer to producer and farm to farm depending on the goals set for the cropping season. Expectations were certainly modified for many as the season progressed. Not having a plan and letting emotion settle in caused challenges this year and potentially resulted in lost revenue and profit. Deciding not to replant in early June when much of the corn acreage was planted in April to early May could have been a costly mistake for some.

If conversations about the 2024 cropping season haven’t been initiated yet, I would encourage you to reach out to your trusted MFA advisor. Start working through some of the challenges you experienced in 2023 to make more bushels and lower your cost of production for next year.

Read More of the December 2023 / January 2024 Today's Farmer magazine Issue.

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Don’t let field edges drag you down

Nutri-Track can help maximize profit by increasing yield, lowering production costs

In my 12 years at MFA, I’ve seen a lot of changes in technology, farming practices, yield and yield expectations. When I started, it was pretty common for farmers to tell me their yield goals were 150-bushel corn, 45-bushel soybeans and maybe 50-bushel wheat. They would attempt to accomplish those goals with a flat rate application of nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

In 2023—now heading into the 2024 crop—I’m more likely to hear 190-bushel corn, 60-bushel soybeans and 80-bushel wheat followed by variable-rate applications of at least P and K and mostly likely the N, too. The hybrids, varieties and technology we use today make those yield goal numbers not only doable but also expected.

Are we aiming high enough or letting field edges drag down profit potential?

DavinI use the term “field edges” loosely, referring to areas that do not produce like the more productive parts of crop fields. Whether those lower yields are caused by trees, compaction at field entrances and equipment-staging areas, low spots where water sits longer, or clay knobs or sandy knolls, you cannot positively impact the productivity of these areas without major physical modifications and investment. Maybe those physical changes need to happen, but, in the meantime, those areas may be limiting your true field potential.

One physical modification would be taking these acres out of production completely. You might participate in a government program such as installing pollinator habitat, or you could remove those acres from the equation of your farming operation. Fertility could then be placed elsewhere to boost yields in areas that might benefit from a few more pounds of N, P and K. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to put a pencil to those areas and determine if you might make more money by farming fewer total acres with better fertility placement.

MFA’s Nutri-Track system works because it helps lower your cost of production per bushel through improved placement of fertility and better management practices. When you enroll in Nutri-Track, your local precision agronomy specialist will sit down with you and use yield data to analyze your true profit potential in those fields.

Spatially collected yield data is the key to this whole process. Accurate yield data is essential to develop the best fertilizer recommendations, determine where we need to apply more or less to promote the highest yields, and achieve the best nutrient use efficiency values we can get. When doing this, it’s important to focus on the areas of the field we can impact and push yield there, while not over-supplying nutrients to areas where they would not provide an economic return.

Analyzing yield data to produce yield zones can help you maximize profit through increased bushels at lower production costs.

When you sit down with your MFA team to make your fertility plan for next year with a yield goal in mind, are you including those areas that have maxed out their potential? Consider this. If your field averaged 200 bushels of corn per acre, and you included 10 acres of a 40-acre field that only averaged 150, the other 30 acres averaged 217 bushels per acre—not the 200-bushel average. What would happen if you fertilized for that higher yield? My guess is you might push yield even higher than 217 bushels per acre on that ground, further maximizing your production potential and profit levels.

Higher yields at lower costs of production can add profit to your operation. The Nutri-Track system is one way MFA can partner with your operation to maximize your bottom line at the end of the year. Don’t let your field averages incorrectly frame your thought process when it comes to your crop fertility plan for next season.

Retail Central precision manager
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CLICK HERE to read more from this November Today's Farmer Magazine.

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Hindsight gives us better vision for future crops

Lessons learned from 2023 can improve management strategies for 2024

At MFA, we talk to our producers about the importance of planning ahead to achieve a successful growing season to come. Developing a sound cropping plan involves looking at the history of pest and disease activity at the field level along with a grower’s local geography. The knowledge builds year after year and culminates with what we have learned in the most recent season. It all works together to influence plans for next year. The 2023 growing season brought us familiar challenges along with some new ones that we will need to consider in future management strategies.

Certain pests do not overwinter in MFA’s trade territory and may not reach our latitudes every year. Southern rust is a disease that must move by wind currents from tropical areas each year to infect corn in our geography. While we commonly see southern rust throughout Missouri, this past year it seems to have mostly infected fields in a few northwest and northeast counties. While this potentially damaging disease didn’t have a big impact in 2023, history tells us that we still need to keep it in mind when planning for 2024.

Other pests do overwinter here, and, once they move in, will likely become endemic. Tar spot has been frequently discussed the past couple of years and has now reached many counties in MFA’s north and central regions. This disease is probably here to stay. Now that we have had a chance to evaluate its impacts in the field, our management recommendations have not changed. Planting corn hybrids that show a tolerance to tar spot along with supplying sufficient nutrients to the crop provide a solid disease management base.

Applying a fungicide containing multiple modes of action between VT and R2 has also shown to be very effective in preventing yield loss from this disease. The good news is that adding tar spot management to a cropping plan mirrors practices for many other foliar diseases for which we plan management strategies, such as gray leaf spot, northern corn leaf blight and even southern rust.

Sudden death syndrome (SDS) in soybeans is a disease that we have been managing for in our cropping plans, but 2023 may have proven that our strategies need to be enhanced. The fusarium fungus that causes the disease infects soybean roots early in the season and prefers cool, wet soils. In years past, growers avoided planting early and selected varieties that showed tolerance to SDS as a management plan. In more recent years, new seed treatments with SDS activity have been used and planting dates have moved earlier on the calendar to take advantage of the yield benefits of planting soybeans early and extending the growing season.

However, SDS infection was widespread in 2023, and the disease was present in soybeans that used the newer treatments. This past season has shown that if soybeans are to be planted early, seed treatments alone may not be the answer for SDS control. We still need to carefully consider variety ratings when making seed decisions. While planting early may be fine, we still need to look at soil conditions. Infection is more likely when conditions are cool and wet at planting time.

We can’t forget about soybean cyst nematode (SCN) either. Sudden death infection is more likely to occur when SCN is present due to wounds that the nematodes make to soybean roots. This indicates we also need to look at soybean varieties with SCN-resistant genes and consider additional seed treatments that provide nematode control.

While diseases in 2023 will certainly influence cropping plans for 2024, don’t forget about weeds. The drought provided many challenges with weed control. Using multiple effective modes of action and overlapping residual herbicides for our target weed species is still a must, but looking at water solubility ratings on the residual products will play a bigger role in creating a cropping plan. Products with a low solubility tend to be more effective when soils are wet, while high-solubility products tend to be more effective when conditions are dry.

When it comes to insects, 2023 brought its fair share. Stinkbugs, Japanese beetles, dectes stem borer and corn earworms/soybean podworms were some of the pests causing problems in MFA territory this past season. While not technically an insect, spider mites were also found in soybeans, and these can only be controlled with a few specific insecticides.

A lot goes into creating cropping plans for 2024, and now is the time to start working on them. MFA’s team of location managers, key account managers, local agronomists and precision specialists are equipped with the knowledge needed to help, so please contact them for assistance.

senior staff agronomist
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Lights cast a shadow over conservation

Studies show night glow contributes to decline of nocturnal birds and pollinators

Stretching from St. Louis to Kansas City, bustling Interstate 70 is among the busiest highways that crisscross Missouri. But one thoroughfare that is just as busy is the migration highway of birds that fly through the Show-Me State.

More than 250 bird species navigate over our heads during their migration’s day and night hours. That may seem like a hefty number, but Missouri also has a vast network of insects—a number that cannot be quantified. Looking at bees alone, there are more than 450 species in the state, surpassing the number of bird species. That is a lot of little furry insect bodies to count. The habits of these insects can also be a mystery, one that we are starting to shine a light on.

As you drive I-70 or other major highways, you may have noticed that your windshield requires less cleaning these days. The night skies are becoming increasingly crowded with the glow of light pollution and not insects. Just in the past few years, it has become increasingly apparent that much of the world lives under this sky glow. With more light pollution, it’s not only becoming harder for us to see the Milky Way galaxy, but birds and insect populations are also feeling the struggle. Studies show how light is a contributing factor to bird and insect decline.

Just like birds, night pollinators use the moon and the stars to navigate their surroundings. With moth species outnumbering butterfly species, this may be a concern. Moths also pollinate, and many species of plants, such as the Missouri primrose, require the assistance of such nocturnal insects to help them reproduce. In fact, when butterflies check out for the night, moths and other insects pick up one-third of plant pollination.

Sadly, predators easily feast on moths that get caught in an endless flying loop around streetlights, and more migrating birds get misdirected due to sky glow. Other confused travelers are the swarms of mayflies laying eggs on reflective streets rather than streams and creeks.
People who live in rural areas might assume they don’t have to worry about this issue. But look around. The city glow is becoming brighter and closer each year. Storage units are popping up along country roads, rural warehouses are becoming beacons, and discount retail stores are being constructed in what seems to be the middle of nowhere.

Another big question is whether this light pollution has any effect on our crops such as soybeans, which are short-day plants that require a certain number of dark hours to flower. Most artificial light is blue light, which chlorophyll A and B need to capture energy and transfer it to the plant for photosynthesis. The Illinois Center of Transportation has conducted a study suggesting that pollution of blue light does cause development delays, yield reduction and height increase of soybean plants.

While more studies need to be conducted on how this may affect soybeans in Missouri, especially those next to highways and industry, it is not hard to connect the dots. The detrimental effects of blue light to human health has been in the news as smartphones and computer screens become increasingly a part of our daily lives.

One remarkable thing about light is that, unlike other pollutants, it is a relatively easy fix and can even save you money. Talk about a win-win for everyone! Directing outdoor light downward instead of sideways reduces the contribution to sky glow. Another simple change is using red-spectrum lights. These emit warm tones, instead of LEDs that replicate the blue light we get during the day. Making the switch to dimmers, motion sensors and timers at night will also save money by cutting out unnecessary expenses. Consider exploring the various solar-powered options to potentially enhance your savings.

With these relatively straightforward measures, you can do your part to help curb light pollution. The result will not just benefit you and your family but will also improve the health of our yards, farms and parks for animals, insects and plants.

-Emily Beck
Natural Resources Conservation Specialist for MFA Incorporated
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Dry times are trying times for cattle producers

Think rationally, not emotionally, when weighing options to manage forage shortages

For much of MFA’s trade territory, the past 12 months have been a challenging time for livestock operations, to say the least. Drought has kept its hold on our Kansas producers and spread and intensified in Missouri. Many producers had their fingers crossed that spring would give us the moisture needed to recharge the ground. Instead, what we got was a very cool, dry spring. By the time it finally warmed up and some rain did arrive, most forages were already in survival mode.

WatsonThe dry conditions have exacerbated nutrient deficiencies in pastures and hay fields. The farmers who hustled and applied their fertilizer this spring were helpless as they watched it sit and not go to work. For those who tried to combat high fertilizer costs last year by cutting back normal rates or simply not applying any nutrients have seen the biggest reduction this year. Many dedicated hayfields still had cattle grazing them well into May, telling me that those producers were out of hay and those fields were their last option. So far this summer, hay harvest is resulting in less than half of normal production, and I would dare say most are one-third of normal. The hay that made it into a bale has few leaves and lots of stems.

Faced with these challenges, what’s in store for livestock producers this summer and fall? What options do they have? What can be done to help get through the unknown?

When I was approached to write about the current situation many livestock producers are experiencing, I was also asked to share how I help make decisions for my own cattle operation that I run with my family partners. I had to give some thought about how we do that. For us, we tend to look at return on investment, considering what the payback will be for the actions we take. We also use logic and focus on the need while taking emotion out of the decision-making process. This can be hard to do, but, in most cases, produces a better outcome.

Last summer on our family farm, when discussing what we needed to do stretch, find or produce more forages for the winter, there were two obvious options: Either buy more hay or fertilize for fall stockpiling. For one group of cows, we had already bought the hay we needed to get them through an average winter with normal fall pasture growth. After some discussions, we felt that we had better do more to protect ourselves if average rains and improved growing conditions didn’t come. We evaluated and calculated how each option would benefit our operation and how much it would cost. In the end, we went with fall fertilizer. 

We applied a 25-34-40 analysis in the middle of August. A grand total of 2.8 inches of rain fell on those pastures before a killing frost stopped growth. The stockpiled pastures took those cows almost to the end of January before we began to feed hay. This was a huge success. We were able to feed those cows a lot more efficiently while also realizing “backside benefits” (a phrase I heard from MFA Conservation Grazing Specialist Landry Jones). Those benefits included less wear and tear on equipment, reduced fuel and better herd health. The big one for me was more time doing other things.

During our deliberations, I kept thinking that spending the money on hay that was available and having it sitting in our bale lot would make me feel better. In the end, it would have cost us a lot more money, and we would have never realized the other benefits. By starting earlier with the decision-making process, we had time to weigh the options and to sleep on it. It also allowed us to implement the plan sooner and apply fertilizer much earlier than normal, which helped extend the growing days for our pastures.

I obviously cannot tell you when our normal rain patterns will return, but what I can tell you is that sitting down now and analyzing your situation is a great start. Determine your options. Is there hay available, or do you need to fall fertilize? Look at the cost of fertilizer and the asking price for hay. Currently, fertilizing for more pastures seems to be a better buy, even with limited rain. Estimate the cost of activities associated with hay. Will there be benefits of not baling, hauling and feeding hay? All these activities play into the cost of doing business.

Another option to consider—and many cringe at the idea—is whether you need to reduce the herd. Will selling now before others flood the market be a better option? Remember to think rationally.

The takeaway from this article is not what I did to help get our herd through last winter or what I am going to do going forward but to encourage you to have an early plan based on good business decisions and not emotion. Stick with that plan to achieve the goal. Get help and advice from your MFA key account manager, precision specialist or location manager. Any one of them would love to get together with you to help you get through these dry times.

CLICK HERE to read more articles from this August/September 2023 issue of Today's Farmer Magazine.

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