Managing risk before emergence

Farming and risk have always gone hand in hand. The constant struggle with the unknowns associated with farming will never go away, but as we move into 2022 the stakes are higher now than they have ever been. Record input costs and supply chain disruptions have driven the estimated cost of production to new highs.

Locking in a known return on a percentage of your estimated production has always been the best option to minimize risk in farming. However, in a year when the average cost of produc­tion is as high as it is, the need to protect your investment is even more important.

From a historical perspective, the highest December corn futures will happen between March and June, while the highest November soybean futures will typically fall between May and August. Essentially, prices are highest when there are more variables affecting production, such as the number of acres planted or the weather during pollination. Once these variables have passed, the risk premiums associated with them begin to disperse and, at that point, we are completely at the mercy of supply and demand.

Therefore, it’s important to have discussions with your local MFA Crop Insurance agent to understand how risk can be further mitigated. These agents work hand in hand with MFA grain merchandisers to better understand the markets and help growers make informed decisions.

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Crop insurance: a vital input to consider in 2022

Trade restrictions, COVID, supply chain issues and labor costs are contributing to higher prices in our economy, and agricultur­al inputs are no exception. A common question among growers for the 2022 season is, “How can we save money without losing results?”

The strategies vary. Some growers are targeting corn acres on their more productive ground and cutting back total corn acres planted. Spreading out purchases might be another option. Using MFA soil sampling and variable-rate spreading might also be an excellent choice. Other growers are treating this as any other year, basing their decisions on the short supply of corn and soy­beans driving prices up.

In a time where the “knee-jerk” reaction is to cut costs on inputs, however, crop insurance cannot be the input that growers choose to cut.

To reflect, 2008 was a record year for most crop­ping inputs. The price of corn for June through December 2008 was $7.87 per bushel, and soy­beans from June through November were $15.74. At press time, December 2022 corn futures are $5.53, and November soybeans are $12.76. This is a far cry from 2008 prices. By the time crop insurance guarantees are set—based on month of February average for December 2022 corn futures and the November ’22 soybean futures—market analysts will not be able to see much movement.

The real question is, will prices cover the cost of production when the combines cross the finish line of 2022?

There are a couple of tools to use in managing risk when facing this type of economic environ­ment:

1. Crop insurance and the options it provides.

2. Forward contracting.

Many producers this year will not have guaran­tees that cover their cost of production. It is vital to consult with a crop insurance professional to help find cost-effective options to improve your levels of risk protection. Those options may include:

  • Using a mix of county-based programs with their Revenue Protection policies.
  • Exploring the opportunity to “purchase up” the price-per-bushel guarantee.
  • Staying status quo.

The latter is not a wise option and is more than likely the result of grower’s anxiety or stress related to crop insurance decision making. If you have a trusted crop insurance advisor, it does not have to be a stressful topic. It is important, now more than ever, to have these discussions, whether it’s how to utilize your policy to capture highs in the market or simply how your premium is being spent.

Here at MFA, we pride our­selves on keeping our agents educated on any changes in the crop insurance industry. For more information, visit with one of the many MFA crop insurance agents across our trade territory. Find your local representative at

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Supplement with sulfur for plant growth, health

Higher yields, earlier planting and successful clean air policies have increased the need for sulfur fertilizer and put a much-deserved spotlight on this often-overlooked nutrient. New research is being conducted at the university level and by MFA to determine the best management practices for sulfur on your farm.

Sulfur is a vital contributor to nitrogen efficiency, protein produc­tion and chlorophyll formation. In fact, sulfur is ranked only behind nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) in importance to crop production. Plants low in sulfur are often pale and yellow, symptoms that may be confused with nitrogen deficiency. Sulfur in the sulfate form does share sever­al characteristics with the nitrate form of nitrogen. It is mobile in the soil and subject to leaching, especially in soils with lower cation exchange capacity. It is also difficult to determine sulfur need through soil testing because of spatial and temporal variability.

However, unlike nitrogen, sulfur is generally immobile within plants. We recognize “firing” on the lower leaves of a corn plant as a sign of either N or K deficiency. This is because these nutrients are mobile in the plant and can be moved from old growth to new growth. Sulfur deficiency shows up on the young­est growth first and must be supple­mented from outside the plant.

Clean air policies have done an excellent job removing sulfur from the atmosphere, resulting in much less “acid rain” than in the past. As a grade-schooler in the 1980s, I was regularly taught about acid rain and its negative impact on the environment as well as the damage it inflicted on man-made objects such as machinery, buildings and other structures. Acid rain is rarely discussed today. There is still some sulfur in rainfall due to pollution and the natural activity of volca­noes, but it is much less compared to previous years. This is obvious­ly a positive, but the free 15-20 pounds of sulfur that Midwest fields received in the past have been reduced to 5 pounds or less and must be replaced with fertilizer.

Sulfur fertility is delivered in three main forms: elemental sulfur (90%, dry), ammonium sulfate (21-0-0-24S, dry) and ammonium thiosulfate (12-0-0-26S, liquid). Ammonium sulfate and ammonium thiosulfate are readily available to crops. Elemental sulfur must be ox­idized or “broken down” before it is available, so for a quick response in front of or over a crop, ammonium sulfate or ammonium thiosulfate should be used. That is why these products are our primary sources for wheat top-dress.

Another source of sulfur utilized by growers is Croplex, which has an analysis of 12-40-0-10S-1Zn- 0.3B. The sulfur in Croplex is a combination of elemental and ammonium sulfate. This “best of both worlds” approach helps assure there is plenty of sulfur throughout the growing season.

Sulfur is often associated with wheat top-dress and for good reason. Wheat needs sulfur when it breaks dormancy and begins to green up. Much of our sulfur comes from the soil’s organic matter through the mineralization process, and the cold soils of late winter/ early spring are not conducive to this activity. However, wheat is not the only crop that uses and needs sulfur. In fact, it is not the crop that needs it most. Producing 80-bushel wheat takes a total of 18 pounds of sulfur, but 180-bushel corn will use 29. Soybeans will use 27 pounds of sulfur to make 60-bushel yields, while 5-ton alfalfa uses 25 pounds.

Recognition of the need for increased sulfur has prompted recent research into the nutrient. Purdue University in Indiana has several years of plot data that shows response to sulfur, not only in corn but also in soybeans. Sulfur applied near planting (from planting to V2-V3) to early-planted soybeans resulted in significant gains. More surprisingly, this occurred on soils with higher-testing (greater than 3.5%) organic matter. The cool, wet soils that early-planted soybeans encounter seem to be the catalyst for these gains.

Magazine articles discussing this research last year generated interest and questions in MFA’s trade terri­tory, so MFA added soybean sulfur studies to our field trials in 2021. We did not have early-planted soy­beans in our trials last spring so we were unable to do that research, but we will look at it in the future.

If you are planting soybeans early this year, I would encourage you to consider an at-planting or early postemergence application of sulfur to evaluate this practice in your own fields. I would also encourage you to make sulfur a part of your overall fertility program, giving special attention to crops that are planted earlier into cool soils and to fields with lower organic matter values.

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Crop protection plans can’t be an afterthought

The 2022 growing season is just around the corner, and herbicide planning is more important than ever this year. In the previous issue of Today’s Farmer, MFA Director of Agronomy Doug Spaunhorst touched on potential supply chain challenges with some common herbicide products. In particular, supply looks to be tight for widely used products such as glyphosate, glufosinate and 2,4-D. There will likely be situations where we need to carefully look at a field’s weed spectrum to identify the need for these products and find alternative herbicides.

While glyphosate and glufosinate are used to control susceptible weeds that are already emerged, in 2022 it will be critical to prevent weed emergence from occurring in the first place. In addition to using these types of herbicides in our first pass, it will be equally important to use residual chemistry in our second pass for continued weed prevention. If we have successfully prevented new weed emergence and have a clean field three weeks after the first pass, we can apply the next round of residual herbicides and eliminate the need for herbi­cides that only control emerged weeds.

To determine the correct herbi­cides that will be required, thorough and timely scouting is essential ahead of both the burndown pass and the in-crop application. Many products used for the first herbicide application ahead of corn already contain active ingredients that have excellent activity on broadleaf weeds, including those that are difficult to control.

However, this is not necessarily the case for grass weeds. On the bright side, many common grass weeds can be controlled with a low­er rate of glyphosate than needed for broadleaf weed control.

For instance, giant foxtail up to 20 inches tall can be controlled at a 75% rate of most glyphosate products when compared to rates needed to control many broadleaf weeds. While MFA will never rec­ommend reducing rates required by label, this is an example that would reduce glyphosate usage while still using a full labeled rate to control a target weed.

Newer soybean herbicide traits offer additional opportunities to re­duce the use of herbicides that are likely to be in tight supply. While older formulations of 2,4-D may be hard to come by, availability of Enlist products looks favorable. In addition, there is no waiting period between Enlist applications and planting of Enlist-tolerant soybeans as there is with older 2,4-D for­mulations. In soybeans with Xtend or XtendFlex traits, Xtendimax or Engenia herbicides also provide excellent broadleaf weed activity.

Regardless of herbicide-tolerance traits, there are other options for grass control in soybeans. Herbi­cides commonly used in soybeans to control glyphosate-tolerant vol­unteer corn also control most grass weeds. These products are known as FOPs and DIMs due to the active ingredient names and can be used as a glyphosate alternative strictly for grass control in soybeans. In addition, corn hybrids with the Enlist trait will be tolerant to the FOP family of herbicides. Products such as Assure II may be used for in-crop grass weed control in corn with this trait.

By the time we enter the next growing season, there will likely be several more challenges related to crop protection supplies. Growers should have a cropping plan that includes residual herbicides to provide protection from weeds that have a history of showing up in each field. Pair that with frequent and thorough scouting to identify emerged weed species.

By following these practices, we can develop recommendations to provide proper weed control and prevention while helping to avoid potential supply issues. Your MFA manager, key account managers and local agronomists are here to help develop these plans and deliver weed-control solutions for your farm.

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Stay ahead of weeds with fall applications

It’s hard to believe harvest season is nearly over and timing for fall herbicide application is now front and center. I was hoping the supply chain issues we faced earlier this year would be resolved and product orders and anticipated arrival dates would have reverted to “normal,” although who knows what the definition of “normal” is anymore? Unfortunately, several indicators have signaled to us that acquiring products in 2022 may be equally or more difficult than what we expe­rienced in 2021. That’s why I want to emphasize the importance of having a couple of crop protection plans in place. Products you used in the past may either price you out of the market or require you to call an audible before spraying due to tight or empty inventory.

Successful audibles in the game of football, called at the line of scrimmage, have been planned and rehearsed with all players focused on the routes ahead and which op­ponents to block. The outcome of a well-planned and rehearsed audible called in the field is often no dif­ferent at the farm level. I say “often no different” because we all know how unforgiving and unpredictable Mother Nature and government decisions can be at times.

So what can we expect for 2021 fall herbicide supply? We know products that contain glyphosate and 2,4-D will be in tighter supply. It’s fair to encourage folks to order what they need for this growing season and not what they may need for the next two or three years. No one wants a repeat of the toilet paper debacle we faced during the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

Herbicide applications in the fall are a great way to stay ahead of the game and control winter annual weeds that emerge during and after harvest. A couple things to keep in mind when deciding on fall chem­ical products. Historically, glypho­sate and 2,4-D have been econom­ical and effective options for many difficult-to-control winter annual weed species. These products have been applied across a large portion of acres in our trade territory in the past. If you have access to glypho­sate and 2,4-D, I would direct use of this mixture towards fields with heavy weed populations first. Most growers know which fields on their farm are typically weedier than others. Start there.

Aside from glyphosate and 2,4-D, there are other fall herbicide options to consider in fields where corn will be planted the following year. Many of these products have residual activity where glyphosate does not and 2,4-D is limited. These fall herbicides include Basis/ Resolve Q, Resolve SG and Princep.

In fields where soybeans will be planted the following spring, several herbicides that contain Authority can be applied in the fall. Other products such as Canopy/ Canopy EX, Classic, Envive, Fierce XLT, Pursuit, Sharpen and Synchro­ny XP are also labeled in the fall for spring-planted soybeans.

Some of the previously listed herbicides are, or have, active ingre­dients that inhibit acetolactate syn­thase (ALS) and can persist longer in soils where the pH is greater than 7. Be cautious of the maximum annual use rate on ALS chemistries in the spring if you have fields with pH values in the mid to upper 7s.

If you are unsure if you will be planting corn or soybeans next spring, there are still many op­tions that can be applied in the fall. Anthem Flex, Authority MTZ, Autumn Super, Elevore, Express, Fierce MTZ, Gramoxone, Harmony, Kyber, Quelex, Volunteer, Metribuz­in and Valor EZ can be used in the fall where either corn or soybeans will be planted the following spring. Some products may need to be tank-mixed for optimal weed control. Most of these products, if they have much grass activity, will need to be applied to weeds smaller than the 4- to 8-inch-tall grasses we have controlled with glyphosate in the past.

Generally speaking, fields with heavy winter weed pressure are better candidates for fall herbicide applications than fields with low weed pressure. Adding residual herbicides in the fall generally translates into a cleaner seedbed but should not replace a spring residual application. By springtime, the concentration of herbicide in the soil solution will unlikely be at concentrations lethal to prob­lematic emerging species such as waterhemp, Palmer amaranth and horseweed.

With all the uncertainty in the crop protection market, I cannot stress enough the importance of having a cropping plan for the 2021-2022 season. I can assure you MFA’s crop protection team is diligently working to meet the needs of our customers, and our agronomy team is equipped and ready to service our locations and member-owners as crop protection needs continue to evolve.

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