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Taking flight for farmers

Before dawn, Brian Jack hitches several tons of airplane fuel to his truck and heads out of town. His destination is the Omar N. Bradley Regional Airport, a rural airfield on the outskirts of Moberly, Mo., about three and a half hours away.

This is a typical day for Jack and the agricultural pilots who work for Lowry’s Flying Service based out of Grin­nell, Iowa. Now that corn is tall and soybeans are cano­pied, making ground rigs unsuitable for applying fertilizer or crop protectants, it’s the busy season for crop dusters, more formally known as aerial applicators. Ron Lowry started his agricultural flying service in 1980, two years after getting his pilot’s license at age 28.

“Someone gave me a flight lesson, and four months later, I got my pilot’s license,” Lowry said. “I flew for a couple of years after that, and I also farmed. I started watching others spray seed corn crops, and I wanted to do the same, so I got into a spray plane and started spraying. Farming was in my family. Flying wasn’t.”

Jack, on the other hand, has been around the aerial application business most of his life. His father, Randy, was a pilot for Lowry in the company’s early years and later operated heavy equipment and farmed in addition to flying. One of Jack’s earliest memories places him in the passenger seat of his dad’s plane.

“I was probably 4 or 5 when I went for my first plane ride,” he said. “Some kids would probably be scared or get sick, but as the story goes, I curled up in the back seat and went to sleep.”

Though Jack doesn’t fly himself, he has other responsi­bilities—from loading the planes with fuel, fertilizer and crop protectants to clearing snow from runways of the Grinnell airport. Lowry’s Flying Service took over manage­ment of the airport eight years ago, and Jack handles many of the airport management duties during the winter, when Lowry spends time in Arizona.

“I guess you could call me a jack of all trades,” Jack said.

On this morning in mid-June, Jack arrives early at the airport in Moberly to begin the process of transferring into his truck the cerulean granules of SUPERU nitrogen fertilizer from the already waiting MFA tender. Jack will then load the product into a waiting crop duster.

Shortly after 8 a.m., two distinctive yellow-and-blue planes materialize on the horizon—flying in tight forma­tion, conjuring the image of fighter pilots. The airstrip is surrounded by farmland. Nearby, red wing blackbirds squawk loudly, attempting to protect their ground nests as the aircraft descended.

Pilot Nathan Shaffer lands the first plane. Doug Cash’s wheels touch down mere seconds later.

Shaffer, now 30, began flying when he was just 18 years old.

“At that time, my dad told me I had to go to college,” Shaffer said. “The aviation college was the first to accept me, so that’s what I did.”

Shaffer recently arrived for the season from just outside Las Vegas, Nev., where he works in a welding shop during the off seasons. As spring approaches, he heads back to what are often called the flyover states—a term that takes on new meaning when you’re an agricultural pilot.

“Only experience can prepare you for the type of flying these guys do,” Lowry said. “Four out of our five pilots, we’ve started from scratch. They had their pilot’s license, but they didn’t spray. Not everyone makes it. They might fly one year. They might not make a season.”

It’s strenuous work that can also be dangerous. Pilots must swoop under power lines and dodge trees and towers as they fly low enough to make their applications, often at a height just 15 feet from the ground. Because aerial applicators fly by sightline, their only timeclock is the sun.

“During the busy season, our pilots often fly from dawn until dark,” said Lowry, who no longer flies crop dusters but does pilot other planes and helicopters recreationally. “Sometimes they eat lunch in the plane while they’re refueling. Other times they get a break and can go offsite, but it just depends on how many acres we have to spray or spread that day and how far behind we are.”

Cash began flying at age 30 after spending a few years as an aircraft mechanic. In the off season, he maintains his mechanic status and is a licensed flight instructor.

“I’ve always had an interest in aviation,” he said. “I had a friend who flew helicopters in the military but couldn’t drive a car with a manual transmission. I thought if he could fly heli­copters, I could fly planes.”

During application, the pilots fly between 140 and 160 mph across the crop canopy, but as they gain experience, speed becomes relative, Shaffer said.

“When you first start flying one of these planes, it seems like everything is happening so fast you can hardly keep up,” Shaffer said. “As time goes on, you become more acclimated to it, and the speed becomes normal.”

When demand for their services is at its peak, an aerial appli­cator may take off and land 30 or more times a day. Both Shaffer and Cash fly AirTractor 502s, which hold somewhere between 2,300 and 2,800 pounds of dry fertilizer or cover crop seed or 500 gallons of fungicide. Depending on the application rate, the plane may need to be reloaded four times to cover an 85-acre field. That’s four takeoffs, four landings for one field.

For a new pilot, those maneuvers alone can be intimidating, not to mention the challenges of navigating around obstacles and accurately applying agricultural inputs. The risks evoke an old flying idiom: “Every takeoff is optional. Every landing is mandatory.”

“We thought we were going to lose Nathan the first day he started,” Lowry said wryly.

Shaffer nodded and explained, much to his chagrin.

“I lost control and almost ran off the runway in the morning and then clipped a powerline with the tail wing later that day,” Shaffer said. “I was a little nervous getting back in the plane the next day.”

When flying by sight, gauging distance is a lesson learned with time. Learning to fly 3 to 5 feet over the crop canopy takes practice, Cash said.

“You’re going to get too close sometime,” he added. “When you’re flying that low, you don’t have a lot of op­tions if you get in trouble.”

According to Lowry, there are a few qualities that make a good agricultural pilot. Love of aviation and dedication to fly a lot of hours are two such qualities. Fearlessness is not.

“There are no old bold pilots,” Shaffer added.

On this cloudless summer day, everything goes smoothly—albeit quickly. Jack moves perpetually between trucks and planes, loading, refueling and answering calls. While most of Lowry’s business is spraying fungicides this time of year, the season starts with dry fertilizer application in the spring and continues all the way into November with pilots flying on cover crop seed.

“When people start to see the planes flying over and know we’re here, we always get more acreage,” Jack said. “We have 700 acres to do today, but I’m willing to bet we’ll have more tomorrow.”

By the end of the day, he’s added 1,000 more acres to the total. The crew plans to stay overnight to finish those orders the next day. The following morning starts the same, with a pre-flight check and new GPS coordinates, which Jack hands to the pilots before each takeoff.

“We usually don’t know where we’re going until we come back and get the next set of maps,” Cash said. “There’s really not much to it—just look at what you’re doing, go do the job and come back and get another load.”

Onlookers seem to find the process entrancing. As Jack continues to load the plane, a man leans on the chain-link fence separating public and restricted areas of the Moberly airport. The sun sets slowly behind him.

Earlier in the day, a farmer commented that he’d stepped out on his porch to watch the vivid planes fly.

“Sometimes we have kids come out and watch, too,” Jack said.

Likewise, back at the airport in Grinnell, Lowry describes how he hosts a fly-in, drive-in breakfast once a year, usually in Septem­ber, and gives plane rides circling the town to anyone who wants to participate.

In this community, interest in flying isn’t surprising. Grinnell has a history in aviation. Memorabilia honoring Billy Robinson, an early American pilot, is displayed around the airport. Robinson founded the Grinnell Aeroplane Company and later set a record for non-stop flight in 1914 when he carried mail from Des Moines, Iowa, to Kentland, Ind. He died while attempting to set an altitude record in 1916 in his biplane. Robinson likely succumbed to hypoxia, an insufficient concentration of oxygen in the blood.

“At that time, I don’t think he realized there wasn’t oxygen above 12,500 feet,” Lowry said.

While he’s sharing this story, another call comes in. This time, it’s from MFA Agri Services in Lancaster, Mo. There’s talk of a grass runway. All the pilots in the room know what this means. Grass runways are generally half the length of a normal small-town runway and can be slick, depending on conditions. Lowry suggests Queen City, a nearby airport with short but adequate runways.

While Lowry finishes that conversation, Jack answers another call regarding a job later that day. The highway en route is flooded. Lowry references an alternate detour. That’s flooded, too. He suggests another. It’s almost as if he has maps printed on the inside of his eye­lids, but it’s just 40 years of experience and dedication to aviation.

“I’ve retired from spraying,” Lowry said. “But I probably won’t stop flying until they take my license.”

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Brand plans

For years, Brent Soendker was a DeKalb man. He tended to stick with relatively similar corn hybrids, season after season, on his farm in Odessa, Mo. His seed decisions were based somewhat on brand loyalty but largely on habit.

His philosophy changed about five years ago when he began working with MFA Agronomy Key Account Manager Matthew Beumer to devise a more strategic plan for seed. Rather than making selections according to brand, Beumer focuses on help­ing Soendker choose the right hybrids and varieties for the right acre, maximizing their potential.

And Soendker and other MFA customers have plenty of choices when it comes to corn and soybean seed. MFA’s of­ferings not only include its proprietary brands, MorCorn and MorSoy, but also a broad selection of products from national brands: Bayer’s DeKalb and Asgrow, Syngenta’s NK and Corteva’s Brevant, formerly Mycogen.

“Because we’re not stuck on one brand, we have the abili­ty to pull things together and customize a seed portfolio that fits every acre,” Beumer said. “It’s not about the brand. Every company has good hybrids and varieties. It’s all about tailoring a package that will lead the farmer to greater success.”

MFA’s ability to mix and match brands of seed opens up a world of possibilities for growers, said Steve Fleming, MFA Seed Division director, comparing the experience to a shopping mall. Just like a mall encompasses a wide range of stores and brands under one roof, customers have access to dozens of different seed products and trait platforms under the MFA shield.

“When you combine these four brands and all their products with our own MorCorn and MorSoy brands, MFA is uniquely positioned to offer a whole-farm solution—better than anyone else in the market,” Fleming said. “We know that the average grower is buying two to three brands of seed. If you only have one, that grower is going to go somewhere else. With the offering MFA has, we can approach a grower with a total package and satisfy that brand experience.”

Adopting this philosophy, Soendker now plants several MorCorn hybrids in addition to DeKalb, spreading his risk and stagger­ing his harvest schedule. He has also diver­sified his soybean brands in the past but opted for all MorSoy Enlist varieties this year to take advantage of this new technol­ogy trait. Enlist soybeans exhibit tolerance to both 2,4-D choline and glyphosate.

“My farm goes from gumbo creek-bottom ground to good, black dirt, so I’ve got to have different [hybrid or variety] num­bers,” said Soendker, who farms with his son, Austin, growing 1,100 acres of corn, soybeans and wheat in addition to raising cattle, alfalfa hay and hogs. “There have been years where I’ve planted the wrong ones in the wrong place, and it’s really costly."

Matthew helps me figure out which crops are better in certain situations, rather than trying to guess. He knows what works around here. Since we’ve been selecting seed this way, my yields keep increasing. It’s a good way to farm.”

Exclusive to MFA, MorCorn hybrids and MorSoy varieties must perform to the highest standards before they join the seed portfolio. In 2020, MFA has 17 test plots, each with multiple replicated trials of existing MorCorn and MorSoy products along with a number of experimental hybrids and varieties. Only a chosen few make it into the MFA lineup.

“In a given year, we test dozens of products, but very seldom do we advance more than one or two,” Fleming said. “Growers should take comfort that the products in the MFA portfolio have really been vetted in regard to geographical fit for our trade area.”

This year, MFA also included partner brands in these replicated plots to gather its own data and give employees and customers a chance to see their performance first­hand. MFA also has access to extensive research from these companies to supplement those local trials.

“We get to see a lot of different varieties and hybrids in many different situations, so we learn what fits different soil types and practices,” Beumer said. “We can see yield reports across thousands of acres and multiple years and hundreds of soil types. That allows us to make an educated guess instead of a passionate choice or knee-jerk reaction. We can make smarter farming decisions.”

Offering a full line of seed and comprehensive agronomic expertise helps fulfill MFA’s original purpose as a cooperative— to give farmers choices and advance their overall operation, Fleming said. Having multiple brands may add complexity to MFA’s operation, he added, but it also provides an advantage to the grower.

“As good as MorCorn and MorSoy brands are, they can’t do everything all the time,” Fleming said. “One single brand isn’t going to address all the issues on every farm. That’s why we have partners to help fill that space.”

For more information on MFA’s seed lineup, talk with the agronomists at your Agri Services or AGChoice location or visit online at mfaseed.com.

Dara MCC 5395Crazy about corn
Meet MorCorn manager Dara Bordman

Though she was raised in rural Barnett, Mo., surrounded by farms, MorCorn Product Manager Dara Board­man didn’t have an agricultural background herself. That is, until she discovered FFA in high school.

“Through FFA, I learned to love ag­riculture, and I knew this was what I wanted to do,” Boardman said. “I went to Mizzou and got an undergrad in plant breeding and genetics, did a master’s in crop physiology and then earned a Ph.D. in soil science. If you can’t tell, I’m pretty well a nerd!”

Joining MFA as MorCorn product manager in June 2019, Boardman’s job is to select new hybrids from seed genetics suppliers, put together production plans, work with the MFA agronomy team to design and plant replicated trials, and evaluate the results of that research. This year, more than 20 hybrids are being studied in trials throughout MFA’s trade territory.

“I go out four or five times each summer, from emer­gence to harvest, and take ratings on every single prod­uct,” Boardman said. “Then I combine that data at the end of the season to help me decide what products we should take forward. I try to balance what performed well at harvest with all the other characteristics and present a total package to the farmer.”

Boardman said her work as MorCorn manager nurtures her passion for plants.

“I love learning, and I love working with corn,” she said. “In this role, I get to look at a fresh set of plants each year, comparing what’s going on with that season with our current products but also looking at new products. The science is always there, but a number on a data sheet only provides so much. I’m hoping to provide a little more information, a little bit more insight and expertise, so that when farmers go out and plant, they know they’re getting a product that best fits their fields and is right for their conditions.”

Tommy MFA9477Bean leader
Meet MorSoy manager Tommy Lee

When Tommy Lee joined MFA Incorporated in 2017 as MorSoy product manager, the transition took him full circle in his agronomy career. He’d spent the previous three years as a salesman for MFA Agri Services in La Belle, Mo., where helping growers select the right Mor­Soy varieties was an integral part of his job. Now, he’s on the ground floor of those choices, responsible for what varieties ultimately go into the MorSoy lineup.

“In my sales role with MFA, I was out working with growers on their farms, and I could see the challenges they were facing from a variety standpoint,” Lee said. “That experience helps me understand the needs of our farmers and tailor new MorSoy varieties to meet those needs.”

A native of central Missouri, Lee attended Missouri State University and earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy. Along with practical knowledge he gained in the field, Lee said his agronomy background is a defi­nite advantage in managing the MorSoy brand. His job entails selecting genetics, designing trials, making field evaluations, coordinating seed production and analyzing data to determine which varieties are worthy of carrying the MorSoy name.

“What makes MorSoy unique in the seed space is that our varieties are selected specifically for the fields our customers are planting,” Lee said. “We put all of our varieties through rigorous testing in our replicated trialing program. We’re one of the few companies that does such intensive testing in their own geography. Growers can have confidence that we’re only bringing them the absolute best products for their acres.”

This year, Lee said nearly 30 MorSoy varieties are being tested in MFA’s replicated trials, which are strategically placed across the region’s diverse agricultural landscape. He said, on average, only one or two new varieties will move forward. Yield is important in that selection, but it’s not the only consideration, Lee said.

“During the season, I’m evaluating everything from emergence to disease pressure to standability— everything our customers are looking for,” Lee said. “We’re not just looking for the highest-yielding varieties but also strongest agronomic varieties. We want to make sure that we are putting the right variety on the right field, which, in turn, helps make our customers more profitable.”

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More than a degree

It's as close as you can get to row-crop farming without having your own operation. That’s what many say about the job of a custom applicator.

Bryant Gibbons of Shelbyville, Mo., would agree. The student at State Technical College of Missouri in Linn, Mo., is one of the first participants in the school’s Custom Applicator Program sponsored by MFA. The program debuted in fall 2019 and offers students the opportunity to gain hands-on applicating experience, work an internship and possibly earn a full-time position with MFA. Students approved for the program also receive a $15,000 scholarship to help with tuition.

“If you like farming, and you can’t afford it like me, then go be an applicator,” Gib­bons said. “You don’t get to work the ground, but you definitely get to go over it. It’s a good opportunity, and there are lots of good people to work with out there.”

Jessica Connelly, MFA Incorporated recruitment and employee development man­ager, is the liaison between MFA and State Tech. According to Connelly, the two-year program is the first of its kind for MFA. It begins the summer between a student’s high school graduation and first semester at State Tech. The first two semesters of the program are dedicated to fundamentals. Students earn their commercial driver’s li­cense and work through basic operators’ curriculum in the fall semester. During their second semester, students learn more in-depth about equipment maintenance.

Over the summer, participants are assigned to an MFA location, typically near their home, where they work as interns. The internship allows students to apply their knowl­edge in real-world situations, spraying and spreading products on crop fields with the guidance of full-time applicators and other MFA employees.

“During the internship, students will be doing a variety of things: running the water truck and the spray rig, learn­ing about daily logs and maintenance on the equipment, talking to farmers about the products used and learning from the recommendations made by the agronomist,” Con­nelly explained.

After completing his first two semesters of the program, Gibbons is now wrapping up his summer internship. He said he enjoys the variety of tasks the job offers, and each day brings him something new and exciting.

“You’ve always got somewhere different to go and some­thing different to do,” Gibbons said. “I might be spreading today, and tomorrow, I might be spraying. And the day after that, I might be helping fill anhydrous tanks or maybe even riding in an anhydrous tractor.”

Following the internship, the students’ final two semes­ters are spent finishing agronomy and operators’ courses. At the end of the program, each student will graduate with a general technology associate’s degree that is endorsed by MFA and recognized by the Missouri Department of Higher Education. However, the program is meant to do a lot more than provide a degree, Connelly said.

“We have a lot of need for qualified applicators,” she said. “The program is designed to recruit and grow our own talent and then to help our people set their sights on career opportunities with MFA.”

When they enroll, students sign a contract confirming that they will work with MFA for three years following graduation. They may begin in a spray rig, but if their supervisors see potential for other careers, they could be promoted to a different position.

“MFA has plenty of good jobs,” Gibbons said. “You could go through the program and be an applicator and do some­thing totally different with your life after you’re done.”

Although Gibbons said he enjoys operating machinery and working outdoors, custom application is not easy work. As an MFA intern, he’s been mentored by Ricky Hubble, a former appli­cator who is now operations supervisor at MFA Agri Services in La Belle, Mo. According to Hubble, it is important for applicators to be willing to work long hours and be a little bit picky.

“The hours are the hardest part of it, I think. Nobody wants to work every day of the week, and it’s not the easiest thing to do,” Hubble said. “You have to pay attention to the details, be willing to work long hours and get as much done as you can. That’s the bottom line.”

Because of these challenges, applicators are in high demand and hard to find. And that is the problem this program is aiming to solve. MFA wants to help fill the need for applicators, and State Tech wants to assist students in securing positions in these critical areas of the agriculture industry.

Instructor Tom Giessmann is the on-campus advisor for the MFA program at State Tech, which was ranked by WalletHub as the top community college in the U.S. in 2019 based on cost and overall education and career outcomes.

“State Tech is dedicated to educating students to be prepared for the workforce,” said Giessmann, who teaches heavy equip­ment and medium/heavy truck technology. “By having the MFA program here, students are able to receive a hands-on education from the No. 1-ranked college in the country. Meanwhile, with MFA having sites in both rural and urban locations, we can serve students from any area of Missouri with job opportunities upon the completion of the program.”

This fall, two students will enter their second year of the pro­gram, and eight students will begin the program.

State Tech is not the only Missouri college working with MFA to provide hands-on opportunities to students interested in a career in the agriculture industry. North Central Missouri College in Trenton, Mo., is offering a new Agriculture Operations Tech­nology Certificate program in fall 2020. The program, endorsed by MFA, will allow students to obtain a one-year certificate and potential opportunities for apprenticeship and employment with the company. Through the program, students will learn about soils and fertilizers, plant science, animal science, farm safety, agriculture mechanics and precision agriculture. Five students are currently enrolled, leaving five spots open.

“We want to give students an opportunity to receive post-sec­ondary education and advance their career in agriculture,” said Rustin Jumps, an NCMC instructor and the college farm manager who is the on-campus advisor for the certificate program. “They can go to college for a short time while gaining real-world experi­ences in preparation for a job with MFA or other agribusiness.”

To apply for admission to the State Tech program, stu­dents must fill out an online application, submit a high school transcript or HiSET (high school equivalency test) or GED scores and submit ACT, Accuplacer or Accuplacer Next Gen test scores. Additionally, students must submit a valid driver’s license, have the ability to obtain a Class A commercial driver’s license and complete an interview. To be considered for the program, apply online at www.statetechmo.edu/apply and select the “General Technol­ogy Degree – MFA track” option on the application. There is no application fee. For more information about the program, call 573- 897-5000 or send an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“An MFA-track student should be passionate about agriculture and have a desire to make it a career,” said Tom Giessmann, State Tech instructor and on-campus advisor for the MFA program. “They need to be prepared to work hard in the industry as well as in the classroom and come to class every day ready to learn.”

For more information about the NCMC program, visit online at ncmissouri.edu/3578-2. You can also contact on-campus advisors Rustin Jumps at 660-359-3948, ext. 1336, or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Jack Green at 660-359-3948, ext. 1314, or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Jumps said the ideal student for the certificate program “is someone who has an agriculture background, is wanting to pursue a career in agriculture or agriculture business and is really looking to ride into the industry without pursuing a degree or going to a four-year university.”

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Amazing grazing

As a member of the elite U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, Ron Locke’s job was usually shrouded in secrecy.

Even his wife, Judi, rarely knew what her “air commando” husband was doing, where he was going or when he’d be coming home during his 27-year military career.

But there’s nothing covert about what Locke has been doing since his retire­ment in 1998. He’s been raising cattle and forages in Dallas County, Mo., about 11 miles east of Buffalo. Here on the farm, Locke is an open book, relishing the chance to share what he’s learned over 20-plus years of managing an intensive rotational grazing system.

“In the Air Force, I lived in the fast lane, as they say. I was always somewhere waiting for the button to be pushed to send me on a mission,” Locke said. “It was exciting. But I longed to get back here to my land. Before, I had to be secretive about what I was doing, but it’s just the opposite now. I enjoy showing others what I’m doing on the farm.”

In establishing his R&J Ranch, Locke resumed the agricultural lifestyle he put on hold to join the Air Force as a young man. Raised outside Chicago, he spent childhood summers in Buffalo on the farm of his aunt and uncle, Bert and Iva Rambo, who instilled in their nephew a love of the land and livestock. When Locke graduated from high school and married Judi in 1972, the newlyweds moved to Missouri and bought a 40-acre farm nearby.

“It didn’t take too long to realize, however, that without cattle, without more land, without more means of income, it was going to be very difficult for me and my wife,” Locke said. “Another uncle suggested I check into the Air Force. It would be a guaranteed job and a great way of life, he said. And it was. But there was never any doubt in my mind I was coming back here. I feel like this is where I was meant to be.”

Even as his family made 12 military moves all over the world, Locke contin­ued to feel the pull of his farming roots and visited the Buffalo property at every opportunity. When he retired, he and Judy built their dream home on the farm and bought their first 12 cows—Show-Me Select heifers, Locke said. He’s grown the herd to around 65 head, mostly registered Angus.

His acreage has grown, too. The farm now encompasses 400 acres, with pas­tures divided into 27 paddocks averaging about 11 acres each. Those paddocks are seeded in a smorgasbord of forages, from cool-season fescue and clover to warm-season lespedeza and native grasses.

Those improvements didn’t happen overnight, however. Locke attended nu­merous conferences, sought expert advice and conducted his own research about forage and livestock production. Admit­tedly, there was plenty of trial and error as he renovated pastures, built fences, installed watering systems and adopted new technology and production practic­es to fulfill his vision for the farm. All of those efforts have resulted in an effective system that allows Locke to optimize his grazing and hay production, improve soil health and achieve profitable performance from his cattle.

“I used to tell people that I raised cattle,” Locke said. “Then a few years after intensive grazing, I started saying I raised forage. The cattle just harvest it for me. And now I’m really focused on soil health—all the biological processes that are going on in the soil. That’s where I get the biggest bang for the buck.”

MODEL MANAGEMENT

Military meticulousness is apparent in Locke’s management style. He keeps comprehensive records of his pasture inputs. He DNA-tests his entire herd and uses the data to determine which calves to keep, which to sell and which to butcher. His hay bales are labeled and then fed in the same paddock where they originated, returning removed nutrients and keeping the forage mixes as pristine as possible. Fertility precisely follows soil-test recommen­dations, and he religiously samples his fields every three years.

Such keen attention to detail has helped R&J Ranch develop into a model example of successful forage management and land stewardship, said Landry Jones, MFA conservation grazing specialist.

“Having the farm split into paddocks makes a grazing system much more versatile,” Jones said. “You’ve got a lot more options, from forage quality to quantity to diversity. If you want to graze that field hard, you can. If you want to convert it to a novel fes­cue, you can. If you want to put annuals in there, you can. It just really opens up the possibilities.”

From a conservation standpoint, Jones said, benefits of well-managed pastures include reduced soil erosion, better water infiltration, increased soil organic matter and improved wildlife habitat. Indeed, Locke says he’s seen wildlife flourish since he began focusing on the farm’s forages.

“When I got back here 20 years ago, we didn’t see any quail. There might have been one covey,” Locke said. “Now, I have four or five coveys of quail almost every year on the farm. We see a lot of deer and turkey here, too.”

“If the wildlife is doing well on your farm, it’s a good indication that you’re producing quality forage for your cattle,” Jones added. “Those go hand-in-hand.”

Like most Missouri farms, tall fescue was the primary forage in Locke’s pastures when he began implementing his rotational-grazing program. The majority of tall fescue, such as the common Kentucky 31 variety, is infected with a fungal endophyte, which benefits the plants but causes poor animal performance. Locke’s pastures tested more than 80% toxic. One of his top priorities is converting those fields of toxic fescue into newer varieties of “novel” fescue that contain animal-friendly endophytes.

“I learned that every 10% of toxin equals a 10th of a pound in lost gain per animal,” Locke said. “That was eye-opening to me. Since then, I have done my best to transition my pastures over to friendly endophyte varieties. I’m over halfway to having Kentucky 31 eradicated on my farm.”

GOING NATIVE

The addition of native, warm-season grasses is also integral to his pasture plan. A subset of plants once present in grasslands across the Midwest, these forages are adapted to grow well in this region’s soils and climate. During the summer, when cool-season fescue shuts down, native grasses continue to thrive.

“I wanted to establish native grasses because I understand forage and its curves,” Locke said. “Fescue does well in the spring and fall. I needed something in the middle of that curve, that July and August period when we didn’t have any fescue.”

About 15 years ago, Locke planted his first native fields, starting with Eastern gammagrass. While he found the species challenging to establish, taking nearly two years to grow enough to graze, Locke now has a robust stand of the highly productive bunchgrass. He has since established paddocks of big bluestem, little bluestem and Indian grass and intends to plant more.

“People need to understand how deep the roots on those native grasses grow,” Locke said. “They’re tapping into resources that fescue can’t touch. In those drought periods, you end up with lush, green grass, and the cattle just go nuts. They love it.”

In all his pastures, weed control is important, Locke said, but especially in the native fields. The availability of specialty her­bicides with the active ingredient, imazapic, such as Panoramic and Plateau, has been a “game changer” when it comes to fighting weed competition, he added. These herbicides are nontoxic to certain native grasses and prairie flowers when applied as labeled.

“Weeds are usually the biggest issue that folks have in estab­lishing native grasses,” Jones agreed. “If the weeds come on early enough, they’ll canopy over your forage seedlings, which can take three or four weeks to emerge. If the weeds get ahead of those seedlings, they can essentially kill your stand.”

FLEXIBLE FORAGES

With such a diverse menu growing in his pastures, Locke can graze his cattle nearly year-round. Timing of the rotation depends largely on the rancher’s astute observations.

“I watch the paddocks,” Locke said. “My goal is to not bring an animal back to a field until the forages have rested about 40 days. That gives the forage ample opportunity to regrow. There would have to be a really strong reason for me to let the herd graze any earlier than that.”

His paddocks are laid out like a patchwork quilt, connected by a network of lanes. When he gets ready to rotate the herd, Locke simply opens a gate, turns the cattle into the adjacent lane and leads them to their new grazing ground. He keeps the main herd of around 50 cows together as they move from paddock to paddock. Replacement heifers and bulls are also rotated, but not as intensely.

“One of the main things I stress to people when they’re talking about intensive grazing is to consider putting in lanes,” Locke said. “It makes moving the cattle so much easier. I fought it my­self for years, thinking it was wasted forage. That was just stupid. 

It’s not wasted at all. I can turn the cows into a lane anytime and use that forage. It’s there if I need it.”

All the paddocks are equipped with permanent waterers fed from either buried or above-ground water lines. In areas without shade, Locke uses a portable “cow umbrella” that covers 50 animals at a time.

Once cattle are moved into a paddock, Locke then subdivides it for strip grazing. He uses pigtail step-in posts and electric poly wire to fence off smaller sections of the pasture and grazes the herd there for a limited time, usually about 24 hours. Then he moves the portable fence and opens a new strip. This method helps reduce forage waste and gives Locke more control over the pasture being grazed.

“Starting out with a larger paddock and then shrinking it down with nonperma­nent poly wire gives you a lot of flexibili­ty,” Jones said. “You don’t want to confine yourself when you’re setting up your paddocks. The ability to strip graze makes your system much more versatile.”

Such an intensive management strategy is just what the term implies—intensive—but as a retired military man, Locke is no stranger to demanding jobs. After all, he points out, with great effort comes great rewards.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it’s satisfying to see what you’ve accom­plished,” Locke said. “I literally go out and drive across my farm sometimes just admiring some of the things that are out there. I can’t help it. It’s fulfilling a dream; I guess that’s the only way I know how to describe it. I fulfilled another dream in my former career, and now I’m living the life that I always wanted, being on a farm, raising cattle.”

Rotational-grazing resources

From installing watering systems to establishing native grasses, several opportunities for technical and financial assistance are available from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services and Soil and Water Conservation Districts. To learn more, talk with the personnel at your local NRCS or SWCD office or visit online at nrcs.usda.gov or mosoilandwater.land. And remember, your MFA Agri Services or AGChoice location has all the inputs and expertise you need to effectively manage your forages.

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