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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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Shorter may be smarter in corn production

Bayer has developed an innova­tive technology known as the Smart Corn System, which is designed to increase corn yields and maximize profits for farmers. At the heart of this system are short-stature corn hybrids, which grow to 5 to 7 feet versus 9 to 12 feet in traditional hybrids. The shorter height offers increased standability while allowing for season-long access with standard ground rigs.

Currently being tested on about 30,000 acres in 2023, this revolu­tionary system has a target full-scale launch date of 2024.

Making plants shorter for in­creased production is not a new concept in production agriculture. Cereals such as wheat and rice were shortened during the Green Revo­lution from the 1960s to mid-1980s to achieve higher yields and help alleviate poverty and malnutrition around the world.

Bayer is not the only company working on developing short corn. Syngenta, Corteva and Stine are also working on short-stature hybrids. Stine introduced a shorter hybrid about a decade ago as a result of its breeding program.

Bayer’s short corn system uses a combination of genetic modifica­tions and improved digital processes to produce plants that are shorter in height but still produce high yields. The system optimizes corn plants’ growth and development by selecting key genetic traits as well as altering their hormone balance, inhibiting the production of gibber­ellin that causes cell elongation. This process redirects the plant’s energy from vegetative growth toward the production of kernels.

ShannonMCEven though plant height is short­er, ear size and height are expected to be the same as that of traditional corn, with placement estimated to be at least 2 feet off the ground. Plants will still have the same num­ber of leaves as traditional corn but with a shorter distance between each node, contributing to the smaller stature.

There are several key benefits of this new technology that make the idea of short corn enticing. One of the most obvious benefits is increased tolerance to green snap and lodging. Bayer research has shown that its upcoming short corn lines can tolerate wind speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Much like the industry saw with shorter cereals, an increase in standability should allow for seeds to be planted in higher densities. Increased population should have a direct correlation to yield when the system is used to its fullest capabilities.

With plant height expected to only reach 5 to 7 feet, there is an opportunity to use existing standard ground equipment in a way that hasn’t been previously possible. This opens the door for better nutrient management and more timely and efficient plant health applications, such as using fungicides later in the season. These new hybrids should help alleviate the stress that comes with the logistics of trying to get corn side-dressed before it gets too tall for standard ground equipment.

Once the new technology is launched full scale in 2024, there will be a little bit of a learning curve to maximize the system’s potential. The short-stature hybrids are expect­ed to bring increased water usage efficiency as well as improved fertili­ty management. The ability to make later in-season applications should have a significant impact, especially with nitrogen use efficiency.

The short corn system is an ex­citing advancement in the agricul­ture industry, with the potential to increase yields, maximize profits and provide numerous benefits to farmers. In the big picture, its suc­cess could have a significant impact on global food production. At MFA, we’re eager to see the potential in the field, and I’m sure many of our growers are keeping a close watch on this development, too.

Cutline for top aireal image: Bayer showcases breakthrough innovations in agriculture, including Short Stature Corn and CoverCress™, at the company’s Jerseyville, IL site as part of its Fields of Opportunity Technology Showcase. Photo by Bayer.

READ MORE from the June/July 2023 Today’s Farmer’s Magazine, the MFA Incorporated member magazine.

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In-season N for the win

What can I do to be more profitable? How can I grow more bushels on the acres I’m current­ly farming? Those are a couple of questions many farmers find themselves asking. Having a solid plan for nitrogen inputs and using industry-leading technology such as MFA Nutri-Track N is a good place to start.

There is a growing trend to split nitrogen applications, and I’m definitely a fan. By split-applying N, growers aren’t putting all their eggs in one basket. This practice spreads out the fertilizer investment risk and limits potential nitrogen loss due to many factors we cannot control. Splitting nitrogen applications is also good stewardship because growers are putting the nutrient down at the right time for plant uptake.

In the past, many producers in my area applied most—if not all—of their N in the fall, allowing that to carry them all season long. These producers were managing their farms just like their dad and grand­dad did before them. It also means they were not pushing yields. Now, I see more progressive producers moving away from a single nitrogen application and coming back after the crop is planted with a sidedress or topdress application, typically a flat rate of 40 to 80 pounds of nitro­gen per acre.

This is heading down the correct path, but Nutri-Track N can take it a step further.

MFA’s Nutri-Track N is a com­plete nitrogen management tool. It allows growers and agronomists to put their heads together to come up with the best possible in-season N recommendation on a given acre. This program complements the MFA Nutri-Track system by allow­ing seamless data transfer from one program to another. Soil properties and sample results collected for Nutri-Track flow into the recom­mendation creation process, getting away from generic field averages and factoring each sample point’s data into the recommendation. Examples such as pH and organic matter come to mind. Other factors that go into the creation of these recommen­dations include previous nitrogen applications, tillage practices, plant­ing date, variety maturity, etc.

After entering all the data by field, the Nutri-Track N system figures in local rainfall events to show the effect moisture has on nitrogen ap­plied within that field. With a simple click of a button, a new recommen­dation is generated. After a rainfall event, I like to run a report on a couple of fields for each grower to help monitor what’s going on. This tool allows you to see something that you may have missed by just looking at the fields.

With these reports in hand, grow­ers have options:

  • Follow through with the rec­ommendation provided, only editing it with parameters you feel comfortable with, such as a minimum and maximum rate.
  • Use the data provided to deter­mine a more precise flat-rate option. The Nutri-Track N recommendation can help you make a knowledgeable decision.

After determining when it’s time to apply nitrogen, the recommendation can be exported to any controller. Nutri-Track N also has the ability to generate reports by field to print for MFA or grower record-keeping. After the application is made, we continue to monitor nitrogen throughout the season.

Splitting nitrogen applications in season helps producers in many ways. Spoon-feeding nutrients during key times during plant development will further your input dollar and help mitigate losses due to weather-related events. It also allows the producer to keep up with current market prices and be better stewards of the land.

Talk with your local MFA agron­omist to learn more about what Nutri-Track N can do for you and your operation. We want to help you reach for higher goals and not settle for the same yield year after year.

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