Feature

Decade of demos and data

When MFA held its first Training Camp in August 2012, the event was billed as a real-world research site for some of the latest innovations in agronomic products and services as well as a hands-on teaching tool for employees.

Now in its 10th year, Training Camp continues to serve these important purpos­es but also provides something even more valuable for MFA and its customers—confidence.

“The ultimate goal of our research is to help growers make the best decisions on their farms,” said Cameron Horine, MFA staff agronomist. “We want them to know what products are out on the market that can help them boost production and improve practices. By taking a look at these things ourselves—in our own replicated trials, in our own geography—we can be confident in the results and recommenda­tions we make.”

More than 300 employees and industry representatives from across MFA territory attended the 2021 Training Camp field day on Aug. 16 at the 20-acre research site in the Missouri River bottoms outside Boonville. Participants viewed trials and heard presentations on MorCorn hybrids and MorSoy varieties, fungicides, seed treatments, foliar nutritionals, nitrogen stabilizers, late-season insect feeding, cover crops and more.

Horine, who coordinates Training Camp and more than two dozen other replicat­ed field trials across MFA’s trade territory, said the testing program not only includes studies designed by the MFA agronomy team but also evaluates emerging products from other agricultural vendors.

“We have two parts to all of our testing,” Horine said. “We work with a number of companies that are bringing in new products and want us to have a first look at them. Often, we’re testing a product while it’s still two or three years from the marketplace. That gives us a chance to get our own insights and determine whether or not we want to move forward in providing that product to our growers. We’re only going to sell something if we know it works.”

“The other reason for our trials is applied agronomics,” he continued. “How is this going to be beneficial to the producer? How can we make sure our recommendations make sense? And is it bringing an added benefit to the grower? Those are just a few of the questions we’re trying to answer every year.”

MFA’s small-plot research takes place at Boonville and another 35-acre site east of Columbia. Each study is set up in four-row plots that are 10 feet wide by 25 feet long, Horine explained, and they are replicated to reduce variability and provide multiple data points for a better statistical yield average. To further protect the integrity of the data, harvest is a very scientific process, he added.

“We use a special plot combine, and we only harvest the middle two rows, which provides a buffer between treatments,” Horine said. “The combine has a spe­cialized yield monitoring and weighing system. I stop at the end of each plot and wait for all the grain to go into the weigh bucket. It weighs the actual amount of grain, takes moisture readings and cal­culates test weight. All of those numbers flow into a statistical sofware program and are analyzed to de­termine if there is a significant difference between treatments.”

Typically, Horine said, the trials are set up for multiple years of study to verify results.

“I prefer at least three years because every year is different,” he said. “We don’t like to push out information after just one year, and even with two years, it’s hard to get a trend. Maybe we had a really wet year and then a really dry year, or maybe we had two really great years. In three years of trial work, generally speaking, we’ll get a whole cycle of what we normally see here in Missouri, and we can feel more comfortable about the data.”

Although details won’t be available until after harvest and analysis by Horine and the MFA agronomy team, here are a few highlights and observations from this year’s research and Train­ing Camp presentations. Look for more detailed information and charts in the March 2022 issue of Today’s Farmer.

FUNGICIDE TRIALS

Fungicides have been a key focus of MFA’s agronomic research for the past several years, with several different trials examining timing, variety response and product evaluations. These studies are not meant to merely show the value of fungicides but to delve deeper into how they can be used most effectively, said Jason Worthington, MFA di­rector of account management who coordinated the research program in his previous posi­tion as senior staff agronomist.

“At this point, we know fungicides work,” Worthington said. “You’re going to get yield benefit from them. Now, we’re interested in the nuances. Can we increase that benefit by applying fungicides at the right time or by putting something else with it to enhance perfor­mance?”

This is the third year for research on fun­gicides by hybrid and variety at the Training Camp site. All of MFA’s commercial MorCorn and MorSoy products were tested with fun­gicides, Trivapro on corn and Miravis Top on beans. They were applied at the same time—VT to R1 for corn and R2 to R3 for soybeans. Repli­cations of the same corn and soybean products without fungicides were used as checks. Visual differences were observed, and then yield data was used to measure the impact.

Results from these studies in 2019 and 2020 have shown a wide variance in fungicide impact, Horine said. On the higher side, some corn hybrids averaged increases of 8 to 15 bushels per acre versus untreated plots, while others only yielded a few bushels more. In soybeans, the differences were 4 to 6 bushels per acre versus untreated plants, but many varieties showed a less-positive impact. There were even some hy­brids and varieties that had zero yield advantages.

“The purpose of these trials is to see which varieties are responding to fungicides better,” Horine explained. “For producers trying to make decisions on when and where to spray fungicides, this information can be valuable and help them get a better return on investment.”

When looking at fungicide timing, however, results have been fairly consistent, Horine said. MFA’s research reinforces the labeled recom­mendations of applying fungicides in the early reproductive stages of VT-R1 in corn and R2-R3 in soybeans.

“From the two years of data that we have so far—and we have the study again this year—on corn, that VT to R1 time frame is optimal,” he said. “We still see an added benefit by having a fungicide at the other timings. That’s just the sweet spot. We’ve seen the same thing in soy­beans. It falls right along with what’s on the label. That R2-R3 time frame is really where it’s consistently paying.”

With this summer’s severe outbreak of southern rust, visual differences in fungicide treatments have been especially striking in the corn plots, Horine added.

“This year, especially at our Boonville site, the fungicide timing trials have really shown what is working well against southern rust,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we harvest those plots.”

NITROGEN STABILIZERS

Studying the impact of nitrogen stabiliz­ers is nothing new for MFA agronomists, but this year’s research put renewed focus on the different options available to prevent loss of this critical crop nutrient through volatilization, denitrification and leaching.

“We have a pretty good understanding that we need stabilizers, especially when it comes to early-season nitrogen applica­tions, but we also do a lot of top-dressing on corn now,” Horine said. “The last few years we’ve had really wet springs, and even some wet falls. This summer, you could see nitrogen loss in fields every day just driving down the road. We want to reiterate the importance of stabilizers and show people the impact of how much nitrogen they’re potentially losing by not having proper stabilization.”

Thad Becker, MFA precision data manager, led a session on nitrogen stabilization at the Training Camp field day in August. He displayed a nitrogen-deficient corn plant to illustrate the visual symptoms and discussed the need for N throughout the crop’s growth cycle.

“Once we get to the silking stage, the corn has only taken up about two-thirds of the nitrogen it needs. We’ve still got a third to go,” Becker said. “So, we have to make sure a third of our total nitrogen is left in the gas tank to feed that plant, which means it needs to be around pretty late in the season. If that nitrogen source isn’t protected, you can’t be sure it’ll still be there.”

Whether a grower chooses to apply nitrogen in the form of anhydrous ammonia or granular urea, he continued, MFA has nitrogen stabilization products to protect that fertilizer investment. N-Serve and Centuro are two MFA-recommended products for anhydrous; N-Guard and SuperU are stabilizers of choice for urea.

“I will tell you, nitrogen trials are difficult to measure,” Becker said. “If you ask me which is better, I’d say we have not found much difference between them, but we’ve been pleased with what we’ve seen. The important thing is that we keep nitrogen available for the crop. If not, it can be one of the most yield-lim­iting factors in the field.”

COVER CROPS AND SOIL HEALTH

New to the offerings at Training Camp this year was a demonstration of cover crops, a hot topic in the agricultural community right now.

“There’s a lot of talk about cover crops, from carbon credits to the sustainability aspects,” Horine said. “We wanted to take a look at some of the added benefits of cover crops and understand more about the soil health aspects.”

The cover-crop plot at Training Camp consisted of a summer blend of forage sorghum, pearl millet, cowpeas and sunflowers. It turned out to be a timely demonstration in a year when many fields were flooded late in the spring and lay fallow over the summer, Horine said.

“Down in our river bottoms, we had a lot of guys who lost their corn crop, and this could be another option than just try­ing to replant beans,” he said. “If you’re a cow-calf producer as well, maybe you can use a summer mix of cover crops and get some forage or hay out of it.”

Adam Jones, MFA natural resources conservation specialist, led the cover-crop presentation with a visually striking demon­stration. He took soil samples from a continuously tilled field and soil samples from a no-till cover-crop field and dropped each into a clear cylinder of water with a grate at the top. The tilled soil disintegrated into the water, while the no-till soil stayed mostly intact.

“What’s the difference?” Jones asked attendees. “Biology. The only difference is how much biology is here. The soil from the cover-crop field retains its structure because it’s held together by living roots, root exudates, earthworm goop, mycorrhizal fungi, microbes. In the other sample, the particles have nothing to keep them together, so they detach and are at the whim of wherever the water is going.”

Planting cover crops and reduc­ing tillage are two ways to increase biology in the soil. “Our goal is to put living roots in that soil for as much of the year as we possibly can,” Jones explained.

The benefits of cover crops are well documented, he said, from reducing soil erosion and sup­pressing weeds to moderating soil temperatures and building organic matter. But, he cautioned, growers must have clear objectives and plans for terminating and planting into cover-crop fields.

“In the last 15 years, we would have solved a lot of issues if grow­ers had answered one question before putting cover crops on their farm: Why?” Jones said. “A lot of these scenarios have gone awry because we’ve lost focus of what the objective is. Knowing the answer to that question can guide decisions in the right direction.”

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Meadows with a Mission

Young monarch caterpillars munch on milkweed, while mature butterflies flit from flower to flower. A pair of bobwhite quail amble into the protective underbrush at the field’s edge. Bees, beetles, dragonflies and moths dart and dance across the gold-toned meadow.

This late-summer landscape is teeming with life, which is exactly what the landowner, Adam Jones, wants to see.

“If you plant something that’s good for pollinators, you’re going to create seed and structure that’s good for wildlife, too,” said Adam, natural resource conservation specialist for MFA Incorporated who also farms with his family in Maywood, Mo. “Diversity is the main thing. That’s what animals and insects are looking for. They like tall stuff, short stuff and plants that bloom at different times of the year.”

Planting such plots has been a popular—and important—conservation practice in recent years as numbers of key pollinators dwindle to frightening lows, mainly due to habitat loss. More than 150 food crops in the United States, including almost all fruit and grain, depend on pollinators, according to the USDA, which estimates the value of these crops at $10 billion per year. Yet numerous species of important pollinators such as butterflies, moths, bats and native bees are suffering from declining populations.

To turn around this decline, government and industry are banking heavily on the efforts of farmers, local communities and citizens to adopt more pollinator-friendly practices. Mul­tiple cost-share programs and initiatives exist to create more conducive habitat that includes perennial wildflowers, forbs and native grasses, particularly on agricultural land. Pollinator plots are a good fit for farmers, Jones said, because they can be established without sacrificing production of cash crops.

“Pollinator plots are perfect way to make better use of margin­al land,” he explained. “They’re well suited for low-yield fields and areas that don’t make economic sense to farm. The seed mixes are all native plants that can thrive in places where crops would struggle.”

Jones established his farm’s pollinator plot four years ago on 17 acres of unproductive sandy soil adjacent to the Fabi­us River. He enrolled the acreage in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program CP42 Pollina­tor Habitat practice, which provides a per-acre signing incentive, annual rental payments and cost-share funds for establishment and maintenance.

“When I was a kid, we always called this the sand field,” Jones said. “Over in the corner, it looks like the kind of sand you’d play in with your Tonka trucks. We were lucky to raise half a crop here every year. Pollinator habitat is a much better way to use this land. When you look at CRP acres and where we ought to be putting them, it’s places like this.”

If landowners don’t have an entire field to devote to pollinator habitat, the field margins, fencerows and buffer strips are also perfect for this type of planting, he added.

“Honestly, they do good no matter where you put them,” Jones said. “And when it comes to pollinator plots, I don’t know that size matters. It’s going to get used if it’s half an acre; it’s going to get used if it’s 20 acres.”

Along with adding value to otherwise unproductive areas, pollinator plots provide a multitude of other benefits, Jones pointed out. They enhance the farm’s overall biodiversity while helping to protect water quality and prevent soil erosion. They are low-maintenance land management options that also hap­pen to be aesthetically pleasing.

“Who doesn’t like a field full of pretty flowers?” Jones asked.

Pollinators on display

Last winter, demonstration pollinator plots were installed at MFA Agri Services locations in California, Kirksville, and Mexico, Mo. The mix included 50 different species of native flowers and forbs that started growing this past spring and sum­mer, but Jones said it will likely be the summer of 2022 before they are fully blooming. As the plots mature, they will help educate farmers, landowners and the general public about the process of planting similar plots and the benefits they offer.

“There were a lot of reasons for putting in these plots,” Jones said. “On a practical note, we were spending money and time to mow these areas of the proper­ty when they could be used for pollinator habitat. So it was not only a good thing to do, but it’s also a cost and labor reduction. Plus, once it gets really established with flowers that look nice, people will start asking questions about what’s out there and maybe want to put in their own pollinator plots.”

Similarly, in December 2018, MFA worked with the Paris High School FFA chapter to sow a half-acre pollinator plot on the school grounds. The plantings have now grown into a thriving habitat with more than 30 different varieties of native, blooming plants. It’s not only been a teaching tool for students but also an attraction for the community, said Josh Bondy, the school’s ag teacher and FFA advisor.

“We’ve done plant identification with some of the classes, and next week, my freshmen are going to do a unit on bugs, so we’re going to come out and collect insects from the plot to study,” Bondy said. “We do nature walks out here from time to time, and last year, a kindergarten class raised monarch butter­flies and released them here. I know some people in town have also used it to take pictures. It’s been a good addition to our school and ag program.”

Paris agricultural students are actively involved in the plot’s management, collecting data and helping with maintenance practices. For example, some of the students helped conduct a prescribed burn of the plot last fall with assistance from Mis­souri Department of Conservation Private Lands Conservation­ist James Ebbesmeyer.

“It was a good experience because we got to learn how to control the fire,” said Owen Totten, an 11th-grader and FFA member. “We had two guys on one side of the fire and three guys on the other side. We were burning it down toward each other, until we met up in the middle, and the fire died out.”

Give plots a shot

Prescribed fire is one of very few management practices needed once the plot is established, Jones said. Controlled burns are recommended every three to four years to clear out unwanted veg­etation and allow native plants to regenerate.

“Pollinator habitat requires very little care,” he said. “Once you establish it and know what you’re doing, it’s mostly hands off. Mowing and burning, that’s about it, just to reset succession and keep the trees out of it. These are all perennial species that come back every year. There’s just not much else you have to do.”

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all pollinator plot, Jones said. The “best” seed mix and establishment methods will depend on the targeted pollinator species, soil type, drainage, size, budget and other factors. However, there are some recommended practices to help ensure success.

“The more diverse the seed mix, the better, but the more diverse, the more expensive,” Jones said. “My plot has about 15 species total, and it looks pretty good. Purists will tell you that if you’re going to do good pollinator work, you need these insanely diverse mixes that have 30, 40, 50 species in them. That’s fine, but then you start get­ting into the range of $400 to $600 dollars an acre, and there’s not much appetite for that. If you keep it to fairly common, commercially grown seeds, you can keep the cost of the seed down.”

For those who are establishing pollinator plots from scratch, fall is the ideal time to start, Jones said, emphasizing that proper site preparation is crucial. Eliminating competition from weeds and other undesirable plants is key to the success of pollinator habitat. The site also needs to prepped so that seed can make direct contact with the soil.

“The No. 1, easiest way to establish something like this is planting into soybean stubble,” Jones said. “Most of the weed competition is already gone. You can scatter seed, and it’ll hit bare soil. You can plant into corn stubble, too, but with soybeans you don’t have as much residue out there.”

Planting into a grassy area, such as a yard, pasture or hay field, is also entirely feasible, Jones said, although it takes a little more work on the front end to get rid of existing vegetation. Fall is also the best time to tackle that task.

“That’s when cool-season grasses are very susceptible to herbicides because they’re trying to store nutrients into the root system for next spring,” he said. “You want to use a broad-spectrum product like glyphosate but nothing with soil residuals that could impact germi­nation of your pollinator seed. You may have to burn down multiple times to take care of the competition. That’s very important in the es­tablishment year because the young, native species can pretty easily get shaded out by more robust plants.”

Cold is cool

After the site is prepared, growers should plan to sow their pollinator plot over the winter, ideally December, January or February, Jones said. Seed mixes are available through any MFA location, along with site preparation products and tools. Broadcasting is the typical meth­od, but the seed can also be drilled. Planting during colder months allows the seeds to go through the natural freeze-thaw process these native cultivars need for establishment.

“A lot of these seeds need to be what we call ‘stratified’ before they’re activated,” Jones explained. “They need that whole seasonal cycle to recognize that the next time it warms up, it’s time to grow. That’s what they’re used to in nature. If you wait and throw the seed mix out there later in the spring, you’ll likely have a lot of species that will not germinate.”

Plus, he added, the freeze-thaw cycle helps work the seed into the proper soil depth for spring germination.

“Seeding on snow is good, too, because you can see where the seed lands,” Jones continued. “And frozen ground allows you to traverse it easily without mudding it all up.”

Although the CP42 practice he used on his farm is one of the most well-known government programs for this type of conservation effort, many other USDA offerings and public-private initiatives exist to help growers install and maintain pollinator plots. Funding and assistance are available through the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Departments of Natural Resources and even groups such as Quail Forever and the National Wild Tur­key Federation—just to name a few. MFA Incorporated is also active in Missourians for Monarchs, a collaborative of conservation and agricultural organizations, government agencies, utilities, agribusinesses and citizens committed to monarch and pollinator conservation. Jones, who serves on the collaborative’s steering committee, says MFA terri­tory falls in the epicenter of the monarch’s breeding and migratory path from Mexico to Canada.

Jones advises farmers or landowners to reach out to their local USDA offices to find out what program would best fit their situation.

While such assistance is welcomed, Jones added, he said his motivation to implement more pollinator-friendly practices goes well beyond any monetary incentives.

“I truly enjoy seeing the blooming plants and all the wildlife and insects that are out there because of this plot,” he said. “It makes me almost as proud as growing a decent crop. It’s all about wanting to do better, not just for nature but also for the legacy of your farm.”

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In this August/September 2021 Today's Farmer

Click story headlines below to view stories

Kaskaskia Island - Cover Story
Tenacity, tradition, tribulations
by ANDREW B CHURCH

Planting for premiums
Niche markets give producers incentive to grow non-GMO crops
by ALLISON JENKINS

Q&A with MFA
Learn more about your cooperative leaders (Click for flipbook version)
by WAYNE NICHOLS, MFA Chairman of the Board of Directors

FDA takes veterinary feed directive to next level
All forms of animal antibiotics will soon be prescription only
by ALLISON JENKINS

2021 MFA Foundation Scholarships announced
(external link - MFA Foundation)

Producers trust in Health Track
MFA’s own preconditioning program continues to provide value-added opportunities.
by LAUREN QUINLAN

OPINIONS AND EXPERTISE

Invest in P and K instead of Fe this fall
Farm equipment may be hard to come by, but soil fertility is money well spent
by DAVIN HARMS

Stretch your forage resources
Treated corn stover can provide alternative when faced with shortages
by DR. JIM WHITE

Country Corner
Help wanted is a sign of the times
by ALLISON JENKINS

UPFRONT/BLOG -
Soaring through a century
MU seeks input for land rental rate survey
Taking back control

MARKETS - (Click for flipbook version)
Corn: Next crop production reports will clarify supply demand
Soybeans: Prices sensitive to weather in U.S., South America
Cattle: Prices headed higher as inflation returns
Wheat: Production of all wheat down significantly

RECIPES - (Click for flipbook version)
Herb-ivorous

BUY, SELL, TRADE - (Click for flipbook version)
Marketplace

Viewpoint
Shaping the ag workforce
by ERNIE VERSLUES

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