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In this March 2021 Issue

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Meals of milo

Like a bouncer unhooking the velvet rope restraining the crowd outside a trendy nightclub, William Lee releases the polywire electric fence holding his hungry cattle out of a strip of standing milo.

The cows, calves and bulls rush through the opening, fervently feasting on the grain, leaves and stalks covered in snow and ice from an early January storm. The cattle don’t seem to mind that their lunch is frozen. It doesn’t take long before the patch is mostly depleted, and the herd wanders back into the adjacent fallow field.

“You can tell they love this stuff,” said Rusty, William’s father, as they watch the animals devour their daily meal of milo. “The cattle will eat the heads first, which takes them about 30 minutes. Then it takes about two hours to eat everything else. They only leave about the bottom 18 inches of stalk.”

The Lees have been growing and grazing milo—or grain sorghum— for the past seven years on their diversified farm in Truxton, Mo. The crop makes up most of the late fall and winter diet for their cow/calf herd as well as their flock of Katahdin hair sheep. The family also raises corn and soybeans, maintains grass pastures and produces garlic for seed stock and direct sales to consumers.

Rusty, who serves as University of Missouri Extension agronomy field specialist in Montgomery County, was introduced to strip-grazing milo by a neighbor who has been successfully using the unconven­tional concept for more than 20 years. After seeing the benefits for himself, Rusty was a believer. Now, he likes to tell other pro­ducers it’s the “best-kept secret” in winter cow feeding.

“You can actually cut your feed costs by half or more by graz­ing milo, which is huge,” Rusty said. “The single largest factor de­termining profit and loss in cow/calf production is feed expenses. If we can get a handle on reducing that cost, those dollars go straight to the bottom line.”

He has the numbers to prove it. The Lees grow 12 acres of milo, which Rusty figures at 400 cow-days of feed per acre. That gives him 218 days’ worth of feed for his 22 head of cattle.

“It doesn’t take a lot of acres to generate a lot of feed,” Rusty said. “Now, the cows don’t get all that. The sheep are taking a cut out of it, but we still end up with plenty of milo to get us through the winter.”

Landry Jones, MFA grazing conservation specialist, is also a proponent of this practice, which he said is gaining momentum among livestock producers.

“There aren’t a lot of options for grazing annuals, other than some cover crops or small grains, that provide nutrition through the winter,” Landry said. “Milo, on the other hand, will withstand the weather and remain upright, even with snow on the ground. The animals can still pick the grain and have good access to the forage.”

Minimal resources required

Similar to rotationally grazing grass pastures, the Lees parti­tion their milo fields into strips that will provide cattle a daily allowance of grain and forage. Step-in fenceposts, a quality fence charger and a single strand of electric polywire are the only equipment required.

“To feed the cows today will take me about 15 or 20 minutes,” said William, an MFA Foundation scholarship recipient and student at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “I just roll up the wire, and the cattle will be standing there waiting. They walk in and start eating. I move the wire once a day for the cows, but I give the sheep a bigger section. Because they’re smaller animals, they won’t trample as much, so I can give them about a week-and-a-half’s worth.”

While the simplicity of this system is certainly an advantage, the Lees said the economic benefits are even better. They found that grazing milo ultimately pencils out more profitably than feeding hay.

“Let’s say that a 1,200-pound cow consumes some­where close to 3% of her body weight for dry matter intake. The hay costs you about 3 cents a pound, if you figure $30 for a 1,000-pound round bale,” Rusty explained. “So, it’s costing you over $1 a day, per head, per cow, to feed hay.”

“But I tell producers in my meetings, if anybody’s got any bales of hay they want to sell for $30, let me know,” he continued. “We’re really looking at more like $45 a bale, and that’s not the extreme years. Now, you’re around $1.60 per day per cow—and you’ll need to supplement some energy.”

On the other hand, Rusty continued, feeding milo in the field calculates to about 60 cents per head, per day, according to MU Extension’s crop management budget.

“In the expenses, we include the fertilizer and the land rent and the machinery and depreciation, all that stuff, but we don’t need to figure in the expenses of the com­bine, semi or grain bin,” he said. “The cattle are harvesting it for you. When you take those harvest expenses out, you just removed 40% of the cost of growing milo.”

With milo, however, protein supplementation is needed. Samples of the Lees’ grain sorghum show that it provides more than 70% total digestible nutrients but only 7.5% protein.

“There’s a lot of energy, but it’s shy on protein,” Rusty said. “So, you want to provide extra protein. If you don’t, the animal’s performance will suffer. Straight milo by itself, with absolutely no hay, no pasture and no supple­mentation, is a train wreck. So, you can feed hay and supplement energy or graze milo and supplement protein. Protein is cheaper to supplement.”

Good-quality hay can provide some of those nutritional needs, and the Lees are even experimenting with interseeding their milo with kale and turnips to boost protein levels. Self-fed, free-choice supplements such as tubs, liquid feed or minerals are also effective options. Dr. Jim White, MFA director of livestock nutrition, recommends 20% Performance First Tubs or Ultralyx 20% AN Tub, MFA Salt Mix, QLF lick tanks and Ricochet or XI minerals. If hand-feeding, White said, 2 pounds a day of MFA Cattle Breeder Cubes is also a good alternative.

“Fundamentally, the objective of supplemental feeding of graz­ing cows is to provide adequate nutrients to the animal and to enhance forage utilization,” White advised. “Having said that, the other objective is to make money. Producers need to match forage nutrients and requisite supplements with animal requirements. Get the forage base tested so you know where you are starting.”

Push for grain production

Even when grazing is the main goal, Rusty emphasized that milo needs to be grown for grain. Seed selection, fertilization and herbicide and insecticide applications should all be made with maximum yields in mind.

“You’re a grain farmer, trying to make bushels,” he said. “If you try to do anything other than what you would for a combine crop, you’re messing up. Fertilize milo like you do corn, just not quite as heavy. If you try to grow it without the right fertility, you’re going to get a forage crop, not a grain crop.”

Under the right growing con­ditions, the Lees said their milo typically produces 120 bushels per acre. Other farmers may not have the soil to support such high yields, Landry cautions.

“If you’ve got the ground, then milo really works,” he said. “Wheth­er it’s good or bad soil, you’re still going to have the input costs. It comes down to how much you can produce. Folks need to consider whether they can grow good-quality milo. If not, then some other forage type may need to be considered.”

The Lees plant milo at the end of May or first part of June, after their corn and soybeans are in the ground. They typically start grazing milo in early November after the first killing frost.

“With milo, the biggest thing you have to watch out for is prussic acid poisoning,” Rusty said. “Where you will see that be a problem is right after the fall frost. You’ve got this green, growing milo, and frost comes along and kills it. At that point, it’s poison­ous to the cattle for a week to 10 days. Our average fall frost is around Oct. 14, so we stay out of the milo until about Nov. 1.”

When choosing milo varieties, Rusty emphasized that growers should select for standability.

“By Valentine’s Day, stalk quality starts degrading and the milo starts trying to blow over,” he said. “Producers need to choose varieties with good stalk strength. I also like heads that are a little tighter so they don’t spring out and catch a bunch of snow load. A compact head also makes it a little harder for the birds to eat.”

But the Lees don’t mind sharing their milo with wildlife. Even when limiting the cattle with daily allocations, Rusty said, they waste some of the grain, which becomes prime pickings for birds, deer and other animals.

“We estimate that about 80% goes in the mouth of the cow,” he said. “If you’re producing 100-bushel milo, there’s 20 bushels spilled on the ground. There’s a lot of wildlife feed, and that’s fine. We have been big quail hunters in the past, so we keep old fencerows and do some things a little more conservation-minded. The doves love this field, and so do the ducks.”

Benefits abound

Beyond savings in feed costs, the Lees have realized benefits that are less obvious but just as significant. For example, instead of removing plant nutrients with the harvested crop, much of the fertility remains in the field where it’s grazed.

“From a nutrient cycling standpoint, it’s very beneficial,” Landry said. “The animals are trampling a lot of the fodder they’re not consuming, so that promotes organic matter. It’s better from a stewardship standpoint than a harvested field that remains bare.”

What’s more, the Lees said they have seen improved concep­tion rates in their herd since switching from stockpiled fescue to grazing milo over the winter.

“I can’t claim that we did that on purpose,” Rusty admitted. “We do fall calving, and the bulls get turned in Dec. 1. So our cattle have been getting 30 days on milo before breeding started. Animal science data shows that if you take cows off infected fescue for as little as 30 days prior to breeding, you’ll see a boost in conception rates. Essentially, that’s what is happening here.”

For all its advantages, however, there are some drawbacks, the Lees admit. Someone has to be on the farm to move the fence every day, and the cattle make a mess trampling through the milo in wet, snowy conditions.

“Consider the potential for erosion when you plant milo for grazing,” Landry suggests. “Maybe choose a site that is good and flat or up on a hill, an area that’s not going to weather badly in our winter conditions.”

He also points out that the availability of water can make a difference in where a milo patch is placed.

“Water is critical, so that can sometimes be a limiting factor on where you plant,” he said. “You need a water source that those animals can easily access. From a planning standpoint, keep that in mind.”

While it may not be appropri­ate for every livestock operation, Landry said the practice of grazing milo has been gaining ground as producers seek ways to improve profitability.

“There’s been a mindshift with producers realizing that their big­gest expense is in stored feed, and they’re figuring out how to reduce those costs,” he said. “Extending the grazing season, whether it be with perennial or annual forage, is one practice that’s becoming more common. Any time those animals are out grazing is going to be more profitable for an operation.”

For more information, visit with the agronomy and livestock experts at your MFA or AGChoice location or reach out to Landry Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Rusty Lee at 573-564-3733 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Looming threats, leading players

GROWERS SHOULD BE ON THE LOOKOUT for two emerging corn diseases in MFA territory—tar spot and bacterial leaf streak—according to Dr. Kaitlyn Bissonnette, University of Missouri plant pathologist.

“Tar spot been found in four northeastern Missouri counties: Lewis, Clark, Scotland and Marion,” she said. “With tar spot, you can see about 30 to 40% yield loss in hard-hit areas. This is an emerging disease, so we haven’t seen those levels, but we need to be monitoring it because as it moves, that potential for yield loss increases.”

Tar spot can be found anywhere on the corn plant, but often is found in the lower canopy from mid-to-late August through harvest. It can be identified by its stromata, which are fungal structures that appear as small, raised, black, circular spots.

Bacterial leaf streak (BLS) has been found in Ray and Chari­ton counties in Missouri and often resembles gray leaf spot, Bissonnette said. BLS often infects leaves after strong winds and rains have caused leaves to rub together. To identify this particular disease, growers should look for water soaking and long, necrotic lesions with irregular margins, she said.

Growers are asked to contact their local MU Extension office or Bissonnette at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if they detect either of these diseases in their fields.

Though not considered emerging diseases, gray leaf spot, southern rust and northern corn leaf blight should also be top-of-mind for producers, Bissonnette said.

“Those are usually the main players we usually think about in corn,” she said.

In soybeans, she encourages growers and scouts to watch for frogeye leaf spot, cercospora leaf blight, sudden death syn­drome and soybean cyst nematode. Target spot is also a concern in soybeans and cotton for some parts of the state.

In wheat, growers should look for fusarium head blight and stripe rust, though the latter depends on the season.

“Stripe rust requires a living host to survive because it’s an obligate parasite,” Bissonnette said. “It doesn’t overwinter in residues, so that means that it has to stay alive in places like Louisiana or Arkansas, and then it’ll blow into our area.”

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Help your crop win the arms race for survival

DISEASE. It seems like the topic is all around us these days. But what farmers and researchers alike know is that it doesn’t just seem like disease is everywhere. It is everywhere.

The thought can be overwhelming, and because these organisms are often out of sight, it’s also easy to ignore their existence. But Dr. Kaitlyn Bissonnette, assistant Extension professor in plant sciences at the Uni­versity of Missouri in Columbia, spends a lot of time at the microscope looking at infected plants and knows the impact of diseases can’t be dis­counted.

“Disease will always be present at some level. It’s just about minimiz­ing the amount,” said Bissonnette, a third-generation plant patholo­gist. “When we’re talking about plants, disease literally blows in the wind. It overwinters on plant residue and in soils.”

What’s more, she said healthy plants make for healthy hosts, creating an “arms race for survival.”

“When we think about healthy plants with high nitrogen, those plants tend to actually be more susceptible to disease,” Bissonnette said. “Because as much as plants like nitrogen, so do fungi. While we’re trying to create as much yield as we can per acre, we’re also feeding the pathogens. They’re trying to grow and survive as much as the plant is trying to grow and survive.”

When it comes to controlling disease, it all comes down to manage­ment, she added. And it starts with knowing the land and its history.

R.G. Kirby, who farms 750 acres in Fayette, Mo., understands the importance of managing his crops closely for disease and other threats to their performance. In fact, he relies on Charlie Ebbesmeyer, MFA Crop-Trak consultant and local agronomist, to be another set of eyes in the field. Ebbesmeyer has an advantage here. He grew up just a couple of miles down the road and began working on Kirby’s farm at the age of 14 during the summer. Kirby also participates in MFA’s Nutri-Track program, and Ebbesmeyer helps with that soil sampling.

“We’re patch farmers,” Kirby said. “We farm a patch here and a patch there, but Charlie knows these fields. I don’t have to tell him how to get around.”

Ebbesmeyer not only knows where each field is, he knows how it’s been managed. Kirby’s operation is largely no-till. While the practice has made a positive difference in the soil organic matter, Ebbesmeyer knows disease can persist on those residues, creating additional need for disease deterrence.

Kirby often interseeds clover hay into wheat or uses wheat as a cover crop in rotation with soybeans. Thanks in part to his Crop-Trak consultant’s watchful scouting, last year Kirby harvested some of the best wheat he’d ever seen. But the season didn’t start that way. Early on, Ebbesmeyer found evidence of fusariam head blight in the crop and brought it to Kirby’s attention.

“I started to see small amounts scattered throughout his fields,” Ebbesmeyer said. “With the wet spring we had last year, I knew it was a good possibility for this disease to have damaging effects on his crop.

We went in with a timely application of the full rate of Miravis Ace (fungicide), and I didn’t see any issues grow past what was already there. I looked at a few other fields in the area, not on R.G.’s farm, that didn’t receive a fungicide, and they were hit hard with head blight. Because of this, along with his incredible yields last summer, we know that the fungicide application was the right call for his farm.”

Kirby and his wife, Marilyn, are both retired schoolteachers who have always farmed in addition to their previous full-time employment. The couple has participated in MFA’s Crop-Trak program for the past 10 years.

“It’s an important part of our operation. We don’t use any chemicals unless Charlie tells me to in his scouting report,” Kirby said. “I see those reports every week, usually the day he’s out here.”

Now in their 70s, the Kirbys have started the process of tran­sitioning the farm to the next generation. They have two daugh­ters, one who lives in Kansas City and another who lives in South Carolina. Crop-Trak has provided the added benefit of helping them understand what’s happening on the farm from a distance.

“With computers and phones, and the eventual help of a farm manager, they’ll be able to continue to run this,” Kirby said. “They ask questions based on the scouting report. I also share it with the sharecroppers we work with and our financial institu­tion, so they know what we’re doing out here, too. They all have a vested interest in our farm.”


Environmental factors and certain cultural practices can de­crease disease risk, Bissonnette said, but the best protection is seed selection.

“Disease management, first and foremost, is about un­derstanding when to plant a resistant hybrid or variety,” she said. “Most farmers have an idea of field history, especially for obvious diseases such as sudden death syndrome or sometimes soybean cyst nematode, if they’ve done sampling recently.”

But, she emphasized, some of the more subtle diseases, such as frogeye leaf spot or gray leaf spot, may be harder to recognize just driving by the field.

“The best resistance is genetic resistance, so that’s where we start,” said MFA MorSoy Product Manager Tommy Lee, who gathers information on disease tolerance from both breeder data and MFA’s own field observations. “If a grower has a problem with sudden death year after year, he could use a seed treatment to help with that issue. But seed treatments are chemical, so it’s eventually going to break down and wash out of the root zone, leaving the plant susceptible. So, starting with good genetic tolerance and then building upon that is the way to go.”

It’s an age-old tale—resistance—a tug-of-war between the plant and pathogen. Every species is programmed to survive and overcome. But through science, humans have intervened, using plant breeding as a way to give the crop an advantage.

“With plants, there are some types of resistance in which a single gene will work on a particular pathogen,” Bissonnette said. “But nowadays, we often see multiple genes acting on a specific pathogen, which results in more durability, less ‘failure in the field,’ if you will, and less chance of the pathogen over­coming that resistance. That’s why knowing what diseases are in certain fields and using that information for variety or hybrid selection is the first line of defense.”

Crop rotation and proper row spacing are among the factors that play a key role in mitigating disease pressure. Conversely, irrigated crops may suffer increased risk due to many fungal pathogens’ propensity for damp conditions.

“It really depends upon the disease,” Bissonnette said. “Open­ing up the rows and increasing air flow in the canopy can help with many diseases. There are others that favor certain crop rotations. For instance, tar spot tends to show up in continuous corn production, and in the Bootheel region of our state, target spot occurs in both cotton and soybeans.”

Target spot isn’t the only disease to cross species, she said. The pathogen of fusarium head blight infects both corn and wheat, while charcoal rot exists in both corn and soybeans.

“Southern blight also has something akin to 200 host spe­cies,” the plant pathologist said. “That’s mostly in horti­cultural production, and not so much in field crops, but we occasionally see it. Rotation is definitely one of the things you have to consider when planning for the next season.”


Pathogens take many forms, but more than 75% are fungal. Some require a living host and will only sur­vive for a single season in Missouri, while others may be structured for much longer lifespans outside their plant hosts.

Identifying diseases often takes a trained eye. Signs and symptoms may overlap or resemble other agro­nomic issues like herbicide injury, and often multiple diseases may be present at once.

“Rarely do I walk into a field and only see one dis­ease,” Bissonnette said. “If the environment is condu­cive for one disease, it’s usually conducive for many. Diseases are opportunistic. Once a plant becomes stressed, it can open up the avenue for other infections to move in.”

Because pathogens can be transmitted by different types of organisms, knowing what’s present in the field affects how it can be treated. And, with fungicide resis­tance on the rise, that knowledge is more critical than ever, Bissonnette warned. When fungicide is necessary, proper management is about using multiple modes of action and really understanding when to spray.

“If it’s a bacterial or viral pathogen, don’t spray a fungicide,” she said. “Like herbicide resistance man­agement, the more we expose a pathogen to fungicide, the more likely resistance is to develop.”

For fungicide application, timing is key, emphasizes MFA District Agronomist Shannon McClintock. It was the sole focus of the presentation he gave at MFA’s an­nual Training Camp, held virtually this year. In that pre­sentation, he laid out the specific application windows for common diseases in soybeans, corn and wheat.

On Kirby’s farm, Ebbesmeyer knew the window was brief for treating the fusarium head blight.

“You don’t have a lot of time when dealing with wheat,” he said. “Depending upon the season, weather and chemical, you can have anywhere from as long as a week to as little as two days.”

That quick turnaround is just another factor in the Crop-Trak equation, Kirby said.

“It’s the prime reason he [Ebbesmeyer] is out here,” he said. “It’s of paramount importance that we get timely applications. He’s tied to that spray rig, too, so when he sees something, he’s able to make a phone call and get someone out here.”

Bacterial diseases are a different ballgame, Bisson­nette said. When it comes to the control of these pathogens, there’s little to be done outside of cultural control methods such as row spacing and residue management to decrease the bacteria present in the fields, she explained.

Additionally, while viral diseases can and do show up in Missouri fields, she said most usually don’t pose a significant threat to yield.

“Viral organisms are most often transmitted through insects, so management of those pathogens is more about insect control,” Bissonnette added. “There are not a lot of viral diseases that I am concerned about, and most of them don’t cause significant yield loss.”

Nematodes often get lumped in with diseases, but they’re actually a pest that causes disease. Much of Bissonnette’s recent research centers around soybean cyst nematodes, tiny parasitic roundworms that are one of the largest contributors to yield loss in soybeans. These nema­todes work their way into the root of a plant and establish a feeding site, leaving a cyst on the root itself. Once established, it leaches water and nutrients from the plant, causing the plant stress.

Bissonnette said there are even pathogens that fall outside these catego­ries that are neither fungus, bacteria, virus nor parasite.

“They’re called oomycete pathogens,” Bissonnette said. “Things like pythium and phytophthora are considered fungal-like organisms, and we control those with specific seed treatments. There are no foliar applica­tions that can be made for those.”

Again, Bissonnette stresses that a field’s history can help predict the field’s future.

“What it comes down to is if you don’t have your field history, it’s really hard to implement effective man­agement practices,” she said. “Getting out into the field, scouting and knowing what’s going on helps you to have a better feel for what types of yields you might see and what your potential can be for years to come.”

It can be a balancing act to produce a profitable crop while fighting against factors such as diseases that are seemingly beyond control, but MFA has the products, services and expertise to help producers maintain and regain that balance. For more information, contact your MFA Agri Services or AGChoice location or visit https://mfa-inc.com/PrecisionAg/Crop-Trak.

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