Feature

Soil Health Partnership digs deeper into long-term benefits of cover crops, nutrient management practices

On the surface, Neal Bredehoeft has seen positive results after seven years of planting cover crops on his farm in Alma, Mo. There are fewer ditches running across his fields. He’s eliminated at least one sprayer pass in the spring to control weeds. He’s even seen a slight bump in yield of corn and soybeans that follow the cover crop.

Deep down, he’s confident the practice is benefiting soil health, too. He just doesn’t have the data to prove it—yet.

The Soil Health Partnership (SHP) hopes to change that.

“When we originally started using cover crops, the big reason was to prevent soil erosion,” Bredehoeft said. “That’s definitely one of the advantages we’ve seen. But we need a better idea of the long-term advantages of using cover crops. I believe the data coming out of the Soil Health Partnership will help solidify what we thought.”

Bredehoeft is one of five Missouri farmers participating in the SHP’s producer-led research to measure the impacts of implementing soil-health practices on working farms. The program, established in 2014, is administered by the National Corn Growers Association and now reaches 16 states and more than 200 farms. Soil-health measurements, yield data, farm management and financial reports are collected from all of these partner sites.

“There’s a lot of focus on soil health these days, both within and outside of agricul­ture, and this puts farmers at the forefront of that discussion,” said Abigail Peterson, SHP field manager for Missouri and Illinois. “That’s what the Soil Health Partnership is all about. Farmers should be the ones leading the way in this realm, instead of having someone else make decisions about their practices, which we know doesn’t make sense.”

There’s plenty of information and research about soil-health benefits, which include improved crop yield, enhanced water quality, increased drought resilience, better flood resistance and lower greenhouse gas emissions. SHP’s goal is to quantify these benefits in a way that’s relevant to farmers—putting data behind the decisions in real-world situations.

“There are a lot of claims made about soil health, but this program is trying to identify what is really happening,” said Adam Jones, MFA conservation specialist. “There’s some good university data out there, but this approach is field-scale type of research. It models the practices farmers actually use and the challenges they face. Ultimately, what I hope comes out of this is a practical, long-term dataset, which for soil-health manage­ment doesn’t really exist right now.”

Through its on-farm trials, the SHP works with growers to explore both economic and environmental benefits and risks of soil-health practices such as no-till or reduced tillage, cover crops and advanced nutrient management. Putting a system in place for improved soil health shouldn’t be intimidating, Peterson said.

“A lot of the first steps are very simple,” she explained. “Transitioning to no-till is great way to start, then incorporating a cover crop, then implementing more advanced nutrient man­agement. It’s a gradual progression, and it’s all adaptive to each farmer’s land, management style and goals.”

In Missouri, SHP data is coming from strip trials that use a control of bare ground versus a treatment of cover crops, randomized across eight strips. Each strip is laid out to be a few combine widths wide.

Regular soil samples are taken each spring to measure chem­ical properties, such as pH and nutrient levels. Every two years, an additional sample is taken for biological indicators such as organic matter, active carbon, soil respiration and soil protein.

The data collection process was developed with input from SHP’s Scientific Advisory Council and is executed by its team of field managers and agronomists. Ever since the partnership expanded to Missouri in 2017, MFA In­corporated agronomy staff members have been providing the soil-sampling services for the state’s participating farms.

“With MFA’s focus on enhanced relationships and customer partnering, it made sense for us to get involved and help where we can,” said Thad Becker, MFA precision data manager. “After all, we’ve got the manpower in Missouri to do the sampling that’s needed. Under­standing more about the benefits of soil health and the impact of these practices will also help us be better consultants with our growers.”

The data collected from Missouri is integrated with SHP’s multi-state database. Test results and reports from the individ­ual farms are delivered to the producers to help them make decisions and manage for improved soil health.

“The trial doesn’t have any value unless you can take a look at the data, and they do get that back to you,” Bredehoeft said. “I’ve seen the results from some of these trials across Missouri and Illinois, and it’s pretty valuable, in my opinion.”

His cover crop of choice is cereal rye, which he plants behind corn, terminates in the spring and then follows with soybeans. He’s also tried planting triticale after soybeans to ground that’s going into corn.

“Putting cover crops ahead of corn seems to be a little trickier, but we’re just getting started on it,” said Bredehoeft, who farms with his brothers and nephew in Lafayette and Saline counties. “Our intent as we go forward is to try to get something on every acre in the winter.”

The SHP doesn’t dictate the cropping plans or management practices for its partnering farmers, Peterson pointed out.

“That’s one of the things that I love about this program,” she said. “We want to adapt to the farmer’s experience level and what they have available. It’s a very practical approach.”

Along with strip trials, the partnership has added side-by-side trials this year to bring a broader group of farmers into the SHP network, she said. These new research models are a little more flexible and less intensive, so the SHP can include more cropping systems and geographies and broaden the depth of the data.

The program was initially set up with five-year agreements but may be extend­ed if growers choose to continue with the partnership, Peterson said. Because of the added responsibilities the trials bring, some growers choose to graduate from the program after that initial term, but long-range research is the ultimate goal, she added.

“Five years is a drop in the bucket for anything in agriculture, so being able to look at those fields that have had a consistent, successful approach and then continuing on for six, seven years or more is key to this project,” Peterson said. “The idea is to have uniform measurement over time so we can create a com­parison model that makes these soil-health indicators a little bit more useful. But, right now, it’s important to realize that this is still a science that’s not quite exact.”

Even without empirical evidence in hand, Bredehoeft said he knows the benefits of better soil health are being realized on his farm, and he encourages his fellow growers to consider some of these conservation-minded practices.

“It’s one of those things you just don’t know until you do it,” he said. “Now, don’t plant rye on the whole farm, but try a few acres of some type of cover crop. We’ve seen some benefits already in the short time that we’ve done it, and I do believe it’s got long-term bene­fits. Time will tell.”

For more information about the Soil Health Partnership and ways you can get involved, visit soilhealthpartnership.org, which offers a wealth of information and resources, or contact Abigail Peterson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. To learn more about planting cover crops or implementing other soil-health practices, talk with the agronomists at your local MFA affiliate.

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B&B Technologies builds spray equipment business by focusing on niche markets, customer service

The flashy red 1930 Model A Ford depicted in the logo for B&B Technologies is more than just eye-catching artwork. It pays homage to the real-life hot rod that the company’s owner, Bill Japp, has prized for 58 years.

He restored the classic car himself in the early 1960s, custom­izing the roadster into a drag-racing dream. To build—and race—hot rods, it takes patience, courage and mechanical aptitude. And those traits served Bill well when he launched B&B Technologies in 1994 and started building his own line of spraying equipment.

“I worked at an equipment dealer in Omaha for 22 years, selling tractor loader backhoes and golf course equipment,” Bill said. “The company that made the sprayers we sold to golf courses closed down, and a gentleman who worked for that company, Bob LeClair, and I decided to start this business to fill that gap. He was the other ‘B’ in our name.”

Bob left the business about six months later, but Bill kept the pedal to the metal, expanding from the initial offerings of small, 12-volt spot sprayers and large pull-type sprayers to a dozen different product lines and more than 50 individual models within those categories today. In addition to a full range of agriculture, turf and lawn-care sprayers, parts and accessories, some of B&B’s newest offerings are carriers for combine heads and lawn spreader-sprayer equipment.

All of the products are designed, fabricated, assembled and shipped at B&B’s facilities in Tekamah, Neb., about 25 miles away from Bill’s homeplace in Kennard, Neb. It’s now a family affair, with Bill’s wife of 51 years, Mari, and their son, Jason, working side-by-side in the business along with six other employees. Mari, who has a banking and secretarial background, handles the finances and bookkeeping while Jason manages the shop and shares responsibilities for orders and customer service. He started working here with his father 25 years ago right out of high school.

“Through the years, I’ve done everything from welding to painting to assembly,” Jason said. “That’s one thing I always tell the guys—I’m not going to make you do anything that I haven’t done before.”

Bill also has been hands-on from the start, using his engineering degree and sales background to not only design and build B&B’s products but also grow the business across the country. True to the company’s roots, golf courses are still very much a part of B&B’s customer base along with lawn care and agricultural mar­kets. And MFA has been a loyal customer all along, Bill said.

“I’ve appreciated MFA’s business all these years,” he said. “They’ve always had good people who are excellent to work with. A lot of the products we offer today have come from ideas we’ve gotten from conversations with the managers, employees and customers at MFA.”

MFA’s exclusive Brush Buster range and pasture sprayer is one such ex­ample. The 300-gallon boom sprayer mounted on a high-clearance trailer was developed by B&B in collabora­tion with MFA’s Farm Supply Department.

“Right now, our most popular items from B&B are sprayers designed for range and pasture, such as the Brush Buster, and UTV sprayers,” said Ryan Mauzey, MFA Farm Supply product manager. “The biggest reasons that we work with B&B are their vast product knowledge and high level of service.”

B&B also began offering sprayers with boomless nozzles for producers who need to control pasture weeds in Missouri’s hilly terrain, Bill said.

“If you listen to your market, they’ll tell you want they want,” Bill said. “We’ve never wanted to be the biggest company but rather offer products that fit into niche markets like MFA stores. As a small, family-owned company, we can more easily adapt to specialized needs of our customers. Our products are tailored for the kind of geography we’re selling into and the types of farms our customers have.”

Along with flexibility and creativity, B&B employees also pride themselves on attentive customer service and strict quality control, Bill said.

“We want to be more of a service company, just like MFA,” Bill said. “Customers know they can call up here and get an answer to the problem. And we try to keep everything as simple as possible. We ship our sprayers already assembled so we know that they are put together correctly and will work proper­ly for the customers.”

The Japps have personal proving grounds for their company’s products. Bill and Jason raise 600 acres of corn and soybeans on the family farm, where they put B&B’s sprayers and combine head carriers to the test in real-world conditions. Bill and Mari’s other son, also named Bill, was a golf course superintendent and now owns his own seeding and landscaping business. Their son-in-law, Jamie, married to their daughter, Heather, also owns a lawn-care company. B&B’s turf and lawn-care sprayers and equipment carriers are used daily in their businesses.

“We use everything we make,” Bill said. “There are a lot of people who build widgets and have good ideas for widgets. But they don’t know how to use the widgets. We don’t do that. We go out, use it, see how it works and how we can make it better.”

With his company generating a little over $2 million in sales annually, Bill said he believes B&B is positioned well for the future. Orders have continued to roll in despite agriculture’s challenges over the past few years. Like any business, however, he knows B&B must continue to evolve with its customers.

“After 27 years in business, we’re seeing newer gen­erations—the younger generations—taking over,” Bill said. “Product lines don’t necessarily have to change, but the way you do business has to change. I’d say our future depends upon where the future of agricul­tural products go and our ability to keep relating to those needs. We can’t be everything to everybody, but we can be the best at what we do.”

For more information, visit b-btech.com to browse B&B’s online product catalog or talk with the experts at your local MFA or AGChoice retailer.

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MFA value comes full circle for cattle producers

As corn and soybean prices go up, feed prices are expected to follow. Producers need to be thinking about how to survive these market conditions, said MFA Livestock Specialist Stephen Daume. Efficiency will be imperative to remain profitable.

“In the past few weeks, it seems like the No. 1 question I’ve gotten from livestock producers is, ‘What can we do to decrease feed costs?’” said Daume. “Throughout my years at MFA, I can definitively say cow/ calf or dairy producers who are most successful in the long term are those who do an excellent job with their forages.”

Chip Thomure is one such producer. He raises more than 400 head of commercial cattle on his farm near Park Hills, Mo.

“I’ve been in the cattle business since I was old enough to make money and buy one,” Thomure said.

The cattleman set out on his own when he was 16 years old. Living in a horse trailer at the time, he made money as a farrier. By age 20, Thomure had purchased 10 acres and operated his own concrete compa­ny. Everything he’s built has been carefully crafted from the ground up.

Thomure had done business sporadically with MFA for around 20 years, but three years ago, MFA Key Account Manager Chris Klein engaged him in a deeper discussion about the farming operation and its needs.

“We just started talking to him about what he does and what we do,” Klein said. “He was feeding a commodity feed at that time. Stephen and I have done enough research on how our feeds compare that we knew we could do better for him.”

Thomure started using MFA feed and enrolled his cattle in MFA’s Health Track program, but in 2019, he decided to go all in with MFA— adding Nutri-Track’s precision agronomy services.

“We really started looking at our pastures,” Thomure said. “If you can’t grow it, you can’t mow it. We had ground that wouldn’t even grow ragweed, and now we’re getting hay production off of it. It’s phenomenal.”

Daume and Klein said they recommended the Nutri-Track program because they have ex­perienced the results first-hand on their own farms.

“It’s something we make a point of talking about to all our beef producers because we be­lieve it is always the right thing to do,” Daume said. “We’ve seen it on our farms and on our cus­tomers’ farms. It’s absolutely one of the most important things a producer can do to ensure he’s spending money on the most essential nutrients to maximize the amount of beef produced on an acre of grass.”

Thomure began with 230 acres of his pastures in Nutri- Track, and MFA Precision Agronomy Specialist Rob Rickenberg put togeth­er fertility and weed-control plans for his forage production.

“We went in and grid-sampled his pastures to see if his lime and other nutrient levels were up to par,” Rickenberg said. “Then we applied a round of P and K in the fall, which generates good root growth. In the spring, we’ll come back and put on nitrogen.”

Thomure said the split application actually saved him money when fertilizer prices jumped earlier this year.

“I’m really glad I did it,” he said. “Rob could see the writing on the wall and let Chris know it would save me a little money to do it then. It ended up saving me a ton. What I really like about grid sampling, though, is you’re only putting on exactly what the field needs, where it needs it, and that’s where you’re investing your dollar. Over-fertilizing is just as bad as under-fertilizing.”

With Nutri-Track, Thomure said he has more grass than he’s ever produced, and controlling weeds allowed the grass to grow and take over, choking out future undesirable invaders.

“We more than tripled our hay production on that field and were able to graze our cattle on it until February,” Thomure added.

According to Daume, that’s what producers want when facing unfavorable market conditions.

“During this time of high feed costs, maximizing the amount of beef produced with forage is key to minimizing cost of pro­duction,” Daume said. “Producers who do a good job producing and managing high-quality forage rely less on harvested feed or grain to produce a pound of beef. They have better performance with lower costs. Animal health and productivity are also better when high-quality forages are present in an operation.”

The phrase “one-stop shop” gets thrown around a lot in business. Daume would rather describe it as having more tools in the toolbox.

“MFA offers everything from start to finish,” he said. “We have the tools to assist producers with being efficient, raising beef, producing pounds of milk or whatever it might be. It could be using Shield to help improve calf survivability or Ricochet FesQ Max mineral to help cows utilize fescue-based forage more efficiently, meaning they gain better, milk better and conceive better. We can help with fertility and weed pressure so there are more nutrients available to the plants. We have fencing materi­als to help put in a decent rotational grazing system. And when it comes time to sell those cows, we can help with that, too.”

In addition to participating in Health Track and Nutri-Track, Thomure uses MFA silage wrap, helping mitigate problems with spoilage. He provides the herd with Ricochet mineral, and his calves get a dose of Shield Plus when they are born.

“We had 200 head of calves weaned to sell, and we didn’t have to doctor but one calf,” Thomure said. “It’s good insurance for us.”

MFA’s business model was built to support the idea of “going all in.” Everything works together, Daume said. But, for Thomure, it’s not just about the products and services. It’s about the people.

“MFA has people who are experienced,” Thomure said. “They know what they’re talking about and will treat you with respect.”

Daume, Rickenberg and Klein have 35-plus years of collective experience with MFA. Their individual knowledge of agronomy, livestock and farm management is evident and extensive, but coming up with a plan to fit a producer’s needs and goals is a team effort.

Roughly three years ago, MFA Incorporated restructured, in­troducing the key account manager position into the field. That concept was designed to facilitate better customer experience.

“When I first started in this position, MFA leadership said ‘Build relationships. Sales will come from that,’” Klein said. “That was a true statement.”

And that’s what he set out to do.

“Chip’s been there for us, just as often as we’re there for him,” Klein said. “He’s one of our best promot­ers of MFA and he’s even helped us work cattle on another customer’s farm.”

Likewise, Thomure said all three men go out of their way to ensure his experience is a good one.

“I don’t even have to look at the feeder,” Thomure said. “They come out and check my grain bins. They know the amount of feed I’m feed­ing every day—whether that’s a ton or a ton and a half. They know how many days to count so I don’t run out of feed. They schedule around holidays. They help me work cattle. The other day, I had a bull in bad shape and Rob called to make sure I checked it. It’s just a good deal.”

That level of service is important to Thomure, who still operates his concrete business in addition to farming. With two full-time jobs, he understands that time is money, and money is also money.

“With what MFA offers, I’ve been able to have more production on this farm,” Thomure said. “I think that’s the true value in this relation­ship.”

For more information on what MFA can do for your farm, visit your local MFA Agri Services.

Expert advice for flourishing forages

Stephen Daume, livestock specialist for MFA Incorporated, shares these considerations to produce a quality, highly productive forage crop:

1. Understand your field’s fertility. Nutri-Track has proven very beneficial in increasing the quantity and quality of forage harvested per acre. It allows producers to take inventory of soil nutrients and prioritize cash expenditures on nutrients that will provide the most benefit per dollar spent.

2. Control weeds and brush. Timely, targeted application of herbicides to control weeds also greatly improves quantity and quality of forage harvested per acre. “I’ve seen producers go on their own and end up using the wrong product for the job or at the wrong stage of growth and get less-than-desirable results,” Daume said. “That’s expensive!”

3. Use nitrogen stabilizers. These products are environmentally responsible and economically smart, especially with higher fertilizer costs. Stabilizing nitrogen ensures it will stay where you put it.

4. Implement rotational grazing plans. This practice will help keep forages vegetative and more productive. Don’t overgraze.

5. Pay attention to timing. Harvest forage for hay or silage at optimum time for peak quality and quantity.

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