Gaining Ground

Though nearly halfway through April, it was still unusually cold on Michael Martin’s farm near Thompson, Mo.

“It’s the 101st day of January,” Michael joked as he studied the cattle grazing cereal rye in the field adjacent to his house. “I heard that the other day and thought it was appropriate.”

“It’s definitely still winter here,” his son, Lane, 28, agreed.

The longer winter meant the grass on their property still lay dormant, but the Martins were able to avoid some additional feeding costs for their herd because their cereal rye cover crop had started growing. For the last five years, the two have planted rye in the fall after harvesting soybeans or corn silage on the 22-acre field closest to their house. The rye greens up faster than fescue, making it useful for early grazing.

“I always plant rye behind silage for two reasons,” Michael said. “It cuts down on erosion, and the taller it is when the cows get on it, the more good it does for you. And this stuff grows like crazy.”

The Martins use the rye field for spring calving, rotating 124 cows through this pasture during the season.

“We want them in our backyard when they’re calving,” Michael said. “That’s why we have all of our facilities over here. We want to be able to get to them quickly. Those mamas need a steady supply of food, no matter how long the winter is.”

Cereal rye is commonly used as a cover crop because it’s inexpensive, easy to establish and does well even on ground that may be less than optimal. As ground temperatures begin to rise in the spring, rye will mature more quickly—even under a snowfall—if the soil conditions are conducive.

With cumulative forage shortages from last fall through this summer, having alternative feeding options will be more important than ever this winter, said Matt Hill, MFA natural resources conservation specialist.

“Crops seem to be maturing quite a bit earlier than they normally do this year,” Hill said. “An earlier-than-normal harvest will provide an excellent opportunity to plant a diverse mix of cover crop species soon enough to develop plenty of growth to be grazed going into the winter months.”  

About an hour away from the Martins’ farm, Bob Ridgley has been incorporating cover crops into his own forage management plans for several years. The row-crop producer and cattleman sells beef off the farm and works with a local processor to distribute meat to a restaurant in St. Louis. With roughly 250 acres of total pasture and 130-140 cows, Ridgley began rotational grazing in the early 1990s.

“It was probably ’95 or ’96, though, when I really started taking these pastures and dividing them up,” said Ridgley, who recently retired as a district technician for the Montgomery County Soil and Water Conservation District. “I have one farm with 60 acres all divided into three-acre paddocks. In the summer, I move the cows every two days.”

Several years ago, Ridgley began incorporating cover crops into that rotational grazing schedule. His management strategy is intensive. After his wheat crop is harvested in June, he bales the straw to use for bedding in his finishing hoop building. He then has a mix of small cover crop seeds—radishes, turnips, millet and rapeseed—spread with his fall fertilizer. Shortly thereafter, he drills in oats, soybeans and either corn or milo.

Ridgley said he’s had good luck with this method because the small seeds need to be planted about a quarter-inch deep, and the other seeds need to be deeper, about an inch and a half. Though he previously had the cover crop seed flown on the field, Ridgley said he’s been utilizing this particular planting practice for almost five years.

“It works well because when I go in and plant the other seeds, the drill will push the little seed down into the ground,” he explained.

Ridgley has about 80 cows on his main farm, and roughly half of those will calve in the fall.

“If I get the cover crops in early enough, I’ll get two or three grazings out of it,” he said. “Sometimes even through the wintertime.”

This strategy requires a mild winter and a little management, but Ridgley said there have been years when he has been able to graze nearly year-round.

“Where I have these cattle at the main farm, I will graze the cover crop that I plant after wheat,” Ridgley said. “During that time, I will stockpile my fescue for winter use. If the cattle graze the cover crop down, I will move them back to grass until it grows back. Then I’ll graze that again. Hopefully, by then, around Thanksgiving, the rye drilled into corn stalks will be big enough that I can graze it.

If I need to go back to grass once that has been grazed down, I will. If not, I might start them on some milo and strip-graze that through the winter.”

After the milo, Ridgley said he’ll use stockpiled fescue and finally his hay, if necessary, until the rye greens up again in early spring. Depending on his fescue quantity, he may feed hay for 60-75 days. Some years, however, his cattle have been able to graze without hay supplementation or additional feed—even in drought conditions.

“In 2012, I didn’t feed any hay during the summer drought,” Ridgley said. “But I was moving cows every day, and Mother Nature really has to cooperate for that to happen. She gave us some rain in August left over from a hurricane, and the grass took off, so I had stockpile that winter.”

Ridgley follows the same cover crop protocol on his corn fields to prepare them for the next year’s bean rotation. To compensate for potential late harvests and make the most of his cover crops, he typically plants an earlier corn hybrid.

He estimates that he bales and feeds half the amount of hay he used to in the winter, and he’s also seen his soil health begin to improve.

“We haven’t taken soil samples in about two years; we’re on a three-
to four-year schedule,” Ridgley said. “But we’re seeing the organic matter build up. I think introducing the livestock into those fields helps. It puts manure back on the ground, and I’ll take the bedding straw out of the hoop building and spread that back on there, too. We move those nutrients around the farm ourselves, so it doesn’t get concentrated in one spot.”

According to Hill, in the last few years, harvest has been too late to get the full benefit from cover crop mixes, except for a species such as cereal rye, because farmers haven’t been able to get them in the ground early enough. Due to early maturation in some areas of the state, however, more options are available to interested farmers.

“It depends on the species and the operation, but in general most cover crops can be grazed multiple times in a growing season,” Hill said. “MFA will have a variety of cover crop species available this summer and fall. There is cost-share assistance available from Soil and Water Conservation Districts, NRCS, and Missouri Department of Conservation for the purpose of establishing these cover crops.”

Hill advises that warm-season mixes can be planted as early as May 1 through mid-July. Cool-season mixes can be planted as early as Aug. 1 up until Nov. 1.

For more information regarding these potential opportunities, contact Matt Hill at 573-876-5382 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Protecting peace of mind

The decision to get livestock insurance was simple for Grand River, Iowa, cattle producer Hayden Hostetler. When the cattle market reached its high this March, he wanted to take advantage of the peak price, even though he hadn’t planned to sell his calves until May.

Livestock Risk Protection gave him that opportunity. Hostetler insured 11 of his 33 head of cattle through the policy offered by his local MFA Agri Services, and he said the decision gave him peace of mind knowing that he didn’t have to constantly worry about the markets.

“For pasture insurance, there has to be a disaster for it to work,” Hostetler said. “With livestock insurance, it doesn’t have to be a disaster. If the market goes down 5 cents, you still get your 5 cents back.”

MFA entered the crop insurance business in 2017, but its livestock insurance component is still unknown to many producers, said Principal Agent Mike Smith. The policy creates a safety net to cover input expenses of livestock production, including cattle, swine and lambs. Seventeen certified agents across MFA’s trade territory sell livestock risk protection along with crop insurance.

“It is natural for people to do business with people they already know,” Smith said. “I think that is the biggest selling point for us.”

To handle the risk management, underwriting and claims, MFA works with AmTrust Ag of Leawood, Kan., a well-established financial services company with a division specializing in multi-peril and crop hail insurance policies.

Similar to Hostetler, Lloyd Bruns and his son, Chad, knew they had to make a change in their Centralia, Mo., livestock operation when the market crashed two years ago. Feed lots in the area were full, leaving them without many options. After purchasing livestock insurance through their local MFA for 75 head of cattle, they were able to hold the calves longer and put more weight on them. The cattlemen said they wouldn’t have been able to do this without livestock risk protection.

“It made us more relaxed. We weren’t worried about the markets collapsing,” Lloyd said. “When the markets went back up, it kept us from losing money.”
Livestock risk protection sets a floor price so producers know what the insurance cost will be. It gives them the option of protecting their price rather than taking their cattle to the sale barn and hoping for the best, explained Tanner Vantress, Centralia MFA Agri Services’ crop insurance agent.

“This is just a way for producers to sleep better at night,” Vantress said.

There is no blanket coverage through the policy. The insurance only covers the market price with no minimum on how many head are insured, so it protects even small-scale producers. It does not, however, cover the death or loss of animals. Whether a producer insures one or 50 head of cattle, the price for the risk protection will always stay the same once they sign up for the policy.

Mike John, director of Health Track Operations at MFA, said that the markets have been more volatile in the past several years, a trend he thinks is here to stay.

“Producers who are serious about livestock production will have to start considering some type of risk protection,” John said. “We are seeing more and more people using these tools.”

Farmers are price-takers in livestock production, John added. They can’t change input costs and don’t have much control over their price in the market. Livestock risk protection gives them back some control by allowing them to lock in a price. Because the risk protection is based on the futures market, however, it is important for producers to check the markets regularly and pay attention to the price offered versus the protection, he said.

While the concept of livestock insurance is relatively new to farmers, the federal Livestock Risk Protection program has been around since 2002. Many producers just don’t know of its existence or haven’t had it explained to them, Smith said. One reason is that livestock insurance cannot be sold during business hours. It has to be sold after 4:30 p.m. and before 9 a.m. the next business day. At 4:30 p.m., the market closes and there is a set price for the insurance, so the price varies from day to day. The policy also has to be paid up front, whereas crop insurance can be paid at any time depending on the crop and county.

The Livestock Risk Protection program is subsidized by the USDA, Vantress added.

“Many producers don’t know what they can purchase and what is available to them as far as government subsidies and how livestock insurance can help them make a profit,” he said.

Chuck Clark, crop insurance agent from MFA Agri Services’ Iowa group, said he believes better awareness will encourage more producers to use this tool as part of their farm management practices.

“At MFA, we’re doing our best to promote livestock risk protection through educating producers,” he said. “MFA Crop Insurance hosts producer meetings to get the word out and talk about the ins and outs of livestock risk protection. With proper education for producers, I think the program has the potential to become more popular in the future.”

These producer meetings help MFA build on previous relationships with farmers, Vantress said. MFA already offers expertise in farm inputs and services, he pointed out, and providing crop and livestock insurance adds another resource for customers.

“We are selling insurance, but at the end of the day, we are providing products that could keep the family farming for generations to come if there is some sort of disaster,” Vantress said. “That is why I love what we are doing at MFA and what we are trying to promote with livestock insurance.” 

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An emerging threat


Kevin Moore hoped he was wrong.

In July 2016, the MFA Crop-Trak consultant found an excessive number of northern corn rootworm beetles in a northwest Missouri field. They weren’t supposed to be there. The corn field had been planted in soybeans the previous year, and crop rotation is traditionally the cure for rootworm infestations.

“It was definitely cause for alarm,” Moore said. “Rootworm is usually only an issue in continuous corn. If the rootworm beetles lay their eggs in a corn field that will be rotated, they don’t have anything to eat when it’s planted in soybeans the next year, and they die.”

His discovery indicated otherwise. Moore suspected a phenomenon called “extended diapause,” a genetic adaptation that allows rootworm eggs to survive through two winters. When this occurs, the rootworm beetles lay eggs during a corn season, those eggs lie dormant in the subsequent soybean crop and then hatch in the next corn rotation. They feed on corn roots as larvae and emerge as adult beetles, and the cycle starts again. Left unchecked, rootworms can cause substantial yield loss and standability issues.

“Extended diapause rootworms have been found to the north and west of us, but it’s never been confirmed in Missouri until now,” Moore said. “Adult beetles can fly, so we believe some of those with that genetic trait have moved this way.”

Two years later, his suspicions have been validated through the work of MFA’s Agronomy team in partnership with the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

“We collected 4,000 beetles, brought them back to the lab, fed them well and gave them a place to lay eggs,” said Bruce Hibbard, USDA-ARS research entomologist in Columbia, Mo. “We gradually cooled down those eggs over time and over-wintered them at 47 degrees Fahrenheit—just a little bit warmer than refrigerator temperature. It’s genetically pre-determined that they have to experience cold before they can hatch.”

A typical diapause, or period before eggs hatch, is one winter. In an extended-diapause situation, rootworm eggs must endure two or more winters before hatching. After the eggs went through one lab-simulated “winter,” 44 percent hatched. The remaining eggs were subjected to a second “winter” in 2017, with a hatch of 12.4 percent. Hibbard said those results prove that a significant number of the sampled beetles exhibited an extended-diapause trait.

“The genetics are complex, so it doesn’t mean that every egg will have this trait,” he explained, “but enough eggs hatched after two winters to confirm that this problem is here, at least in the location where we collected those beetles.”

Now that those initial corn fields have been rotated through soybeans and back to corn, Moore and other Crop-Trak consultants are methodically scouting this summer to see if there are more rootworms with the extended-diapause trait. They’re focusing on Atchison, Nodaway, Holt and Worth counties in Missouri as well as Page County, Iowa.

“We’re taking root samples in the areas that had a large amount of beetles two years ago, and then we’re also taking samples from bordering counties to track their movement,” Moore explained. “We also set up traps for adult beetles to get a better understanding of their density and movement. It’s something we need to keep monitoring so we can help protect our crops. If we see numbers that are alarming, we’re certainly going to let growers know that they need to take action.”

In samples taken this summer, Moore and the Crop-Trak team have additional evidence of extended diapause in northern corn rootworms. MFA and USDA are working together to confirm that assumption and determine the severity of the problem.

“If our lab work shows higher percentage of eggs start hatching after two winters, then Missouri corn growers are going to have to consider managing for northern corn rootworm,” Hibbard said. “With 12.4 percent, maybe they can tolerate what those rootworms eat and not have to do anything. But if they start to see their fields laying flat, they’re going to have to treat all their corn in the future—but maybe not yet.”  

If crop rotation is no longer effective against corn rootworm, there are other options, said MFA Senior Staff Agronomist Jason Worthington. However, there is no “rescue” treatment.

“The most effective plans must be proactively developed along with hybrid selection,” he said. “The two real options a grower has to control rootworm are Bt corn traits with multiple effective proteins such as SmartStax, and granular in-furrow soil insecticides such as Force or Aztec. Both of these control options require planning ahead.”

Hybrids with Bt traits utilize a gene from naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, that kills larvae of rootworm. Just like weeds have developed resistance to herbicides, however, the western corn rootworm has developed resistance to the Bt trait, which was introduced in 2003. MFA agronomists are watching for pests that exhibit Bt tolerance in the field, and Hibbard and his team are testing the rootworm beetle samples for susceptibility to Bt in the USDA-ARS lab.

“We suspect that Bt resistance to northern corn rootworm doesn’t exist in Missouri, but we want to document whether that’s the case or not,” Hibbard said.

For growers in Missouri and adjoining states, extended diapause is a daunting discovery. Corn rootworm is the most damaging corn pest in North America. Before the adoption of Bt corn, the USDA estimates growers spent an estimated $200 million in control measures and suffered $800 million in lost yield. Until now, Missouri growers have seen fewer losses from rootworm because of the prevalence of rotational practices.

This summer’s sampling shows that extended-diapause rootworms have not yet reached an economically damaging threshold, Worthington said, but he and his Crop-Trak team remain vigilant and encourage growers to do the same.

“The good news is that it still looks like it’s not to the level where we have to change our practices, but it’s something we need to take seriously,” Worthington said. “If the extended-diapause population continues to increase, rootworms will have to become a focus of our integrated pest management.”

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The June/July Today's Farmer


Portrait of perseverance (Cover story with Video)
The Corlett family has been dairy farming for 70 years and counting
by Kerri Lotven

Agriculture’s simple mission
Drive to Feed Kids campaign seeks to combat rural food insecurity’
By Steve Fairchild

Hydration innovation (Video)
How Miraco refreshed the livestock waterer industry
by Allison Jenkins

Bin trends
Whether on the farm or at the elevator, grain storage is getting larger and more high-tech
by Nancy Jorgensen        

Steps in the right direction
Agape Ranch helps troubled teens turn their lives around
By Allison Jenkins
Break the summer slump with native grasses
Establishing warm-season forage alternatives can benefit your herd
by Matt Hill
Shield cattle from heat stress
Improved nutrition can mitigate effects of high temperatures, humidity
by Dr. Jim White

Manage diseases with
multi-faceted approach
Proper stewardship is important to protect seed treatment effectiveness
by Jason Worthington

Persistent low prices mean dire days for dairy
by Allison Jenkins

Saluting stewardship
Missouri wants ‘fake’ meat clearly labeled
Missouri’s Fordyce to lead Farm Service Agency

MARKETS - as printed - click for Flipbook
Corn: Expect export demand to remain strong
Soybeans: Look for substantial price volatility this summer
Cattle: Herd growth continues to slow
Wheat: Crop concerns cause market uncertainty

RECIPES - as printed - clip for Flipbook
Blended bliss

BUY, sell, trade

MFA values good stewardship
By Ernie Verslues


Click the magazine cover to view this issue as printed in FlipBook form.

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