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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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In this June/July Today's Farmer magazine

FEATURES

Dairy endures on Dill farm - Cover Story -
Thrifty thinking helps family survive market downturns
by Allison Jenkins

Farm to Food Bank
Missouri’s agriculture partners work together to combat food insecurity
by Kerri Lotven

Rations for the range
MFA works with cattle producers to find feeding solutions in any season
by Kerri Lotven

Moving bales, growing sales
Tri-L Manufacturing expands well beyond hay equipment to offer wide range of products that help farmers get the job done
by Allison Jenkins

Cover crops: Are they a real fix for water quality?
Recent Missouri study shows this popular practice reduces runoff, nutrient losses
by Adam Jones

Q&A with MFA (Flipbook link)
Learn more about your cooperative leaders
An interview with Jimmie Reading, MFA Incorporated Board Member

Protect health of bred cows this summer
Heat stress can cause pregnancy losses, disrupt reproductive cycles
by Dr. Jim White

DEPARTMENTS & OPINION

Country Corner
Food supply chain reveals its weakest links
by Allison Jenkins

UpFront
Relief on the way for farmers impacted by COVID-19
Interns experience agriculture on the job
Pollution precedent

Markets
Corn: Large corn crop anticipated, demand increasing
Soybeans: Look for more
Chinese purchases this summer
Cattle: Packing plants become a bottleneck
Wheat: Soft winter wheat production up over last year

Recipes
Cream weaver - As printed via Flip Book

Marketplace
BUY, sell, trade - As printed via Flip Book

Viewpoint
Focus on strengths in uncertain times
by Ernie Verslues, MFA President and CEO

Closing Thought for June/July TF 2020
Each month our photographer and our poet team up for a unique last page for the magazine.

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Click below to view the magazine as printed in a digital Flip book format.

Click to view the magazine as printed via a flip book

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Moving bales, growing sales

Necessity is the mother of invention.

This age-old adage has been the mantra of Tri-L Manufacturing since its humble beginnings more than 40 years ago. In the late 1970s, Bob Lynch and his family needed a way to move round hay bales on their farm in Ozark, Mo. The big round balers were just catching on in popularity, and handling equipment was hard to find.

Bob, a mechanical engineer by trade, took matters into his own hands. Turning an old milk barn into a makeshift machine shop, he fashioned a hay fork that attached to the three-point hitch on his trac­tor. It worked like a charm. Soon, neighbors were asking if he’d build them one, too. Demand grew, and a business was born. Bob, his wife, Marie, and their sons opened Tri-L Manufacturing in 1979.

“Dad was a problem-solver,” said son Robert Lynch, who runs Tri-L today with his wife, Robin, and their daughter and son-in-law, Cortney and Brett Ruether. “Anytime there was a problem, he was always able to figure out an efficient way to address it. We started with the bale fork, and then later moved to the spear. That’s what Dad always did; he simplified things as he went along.”

Today, Tri-L’s product line has grown from one to more than 370 different attachments and parts for tractors, skid steers and ATVs. Hay-handling equipment is still a mainstay of the company’s catalog, including an improved variation of the hay spike that started it all, but the company now offers cultivation and clean-up equipment, pallet forks, several types of buckets and adapter plates for just about any machine.

This expanded product line developed the same way the company started—out of necessity, said Brett, who joined the company in 2015 and serves as chief financial officer.

“Product lines have grown as farming culture has changed and diversified,” Brett said. “One example is the subcompact tractor and skid steers. As those have become more popular on the farm, we’ve developed more attachments for them. Every farmer, whether it’s on a large scale or small scale, has different needs. And they’re looking to us to help service their needs.”

Tri-L products are still designed and fabricated on the Lynch family farm, but the company has grown well beyond the barn where Bob’s inventive idea took root. Manufacturing takes place in a 19,000 square-foot production facility, and the farmhouse has been converted into office space. The surrounding property serves as proving grounds for new equipment.

“My favorite part of this business is seeing the product from the drawing board to the finished unit and doing testing to see what needs to be tweaked and changed,” Robert said. “We’ve never had a product that’s been a 100% perfect from concept to finish. There always have to be changes made.”

The company annually turns out thousands of products with around 25 employees, including office personnel, designers, machinists, welders, assemblers and painters.

“We have a phenomenal staff, who are talented and hard­working,” Brett said. “We really promote customer service, not only externally but also internally, trying to help each other and problem solve. That really carries through everything we do.”

Tri-L’s field representatives often come back with ideas for new products based on observations and feedback from cus­tomers and dealers. For example, the “Big Bale Grabber” was introduced in 2018 in response to the popularity of wrapped silage hay. This attachment allows the bales to be lifted, moved and stacked without puncturing the plastic.

“Our sales staff is really interactive with our customers, whether it be through phone calls or personal visits,” Robert said. “They find out what’s important to our customers and what suggestions they may have.”

Those conversations from the field helped launch two new products this spring—the Square Bale Accumulator and Bale Raptor—in response to growing interest in square bales of hay and straw and the lack of labor to help haul them.

“We had a guy who came to us asking, ‘Can you do this?’ So we did,” Robert said. “With the bale accumulator, you’re gath­ering 10 square bales at one time, and the Bale Raptor is lifting them at one time. One person can essentially do all that would normally take three or four people to do.”

That kind of practical problem is what Tri-L employees love to solve. Equipment to clean up fencerows and fields are other solu­tions that have been developed and introduced over the last 10 years. Among those products is a skid steer-mounted tree puller that can grasp trunks up to 9 inches wide. Row-crop and cattle producer Glen Bailey found this attachment to be handy for not only uprooting trees but also moving fences on his farm in Cur­ryville, Mo. He’d seen the puller in action a couple of years ago at a “demo day” hosted by MFA Agri Services in Vandalia, Mo.

“I bought it to help clear trees from some land I bought, but what impressed me the most was that I was able to pull out some old hedge posts with concrete around them,” Bailey said. “I needed to move a fence line that was too close to the creek. If I didn’t have this tree puller, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get those hedge posts out. I would’ve had to saw them off.”

Similarly, when Dennis Isgrig of Mexico, Mo., needed to clear some overgrown ground, he turned to Tri-L’s Bigfoot Cutter, which he purchased in December through his local MFA. The 6-foot-wide rotary mower, which attaches to the front of his skid steer, is powerful yet highly maneuverable, he said.

“I bought it to clean up about 60 acres of CRP so they could get re-enrolled,” said Dennis, who raises 3,700 acres of row crops and runs a 100-head cow/calf operation. “I had borrowed one of these cutters from a friend a few times and knew it worked well and was reasonably priced. It’ll even mow down small trees and brush, and it’s great for pond dams in my cattle pastures, too. Before, all we had was our big mower, so we were always borrowing one for smaller jobs. I decided it was time we had our own.”

Any Tri-L product is available through retail loca­tions of MFA Incorporated, which has been a dealer for more than 20 years. The partnership is “mutually beneficial,” said Robin Lynch, who joined her hus­band full time in the business about 15 years ago.

“MFA has been an important part of Tri-L for half of our company’s life,” she said. “We work with a phenomenal buyers’ team there who collaborate with our sales force, giving us input and coming up with new ideas to help MFA stores and their customers.”

MFA chooses to offer Tri-L equipment because it’s both high quality and affordable, said Ryan Mauzey, MFA Farm Supply Divison product manager. Tri-L purposefully strives to provide that balance with every product it makes, Robert said.

“We try to make a product that’s heavy enough not to tear up under normal use, and then we’ve got to be economically priced as well,” he said. “So, you have to make it just heavy enough.”

With the company transitioning into the hands of the next generation, Robert said he believes what has made Tri-L so successful in the past will be the key to its future, too.

“As equipment changes, as needs change, we will just keep adding products,” he said. “The customers are our boss. We have to cater to them. And being a family-owned company, we can quickly address those needs.”

For more information about Tri-L Manufacturing and its growing line of products, visit www.tri-l.com or call 800-759-4159.

 

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