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Living laboratory

MFA's agronomy research provides growers with input insights

This growing season was a challenge. Across the trade territory, we barely had enough moisture to plant and establish a crop. Dry conditions persisted through the season, with only spotty showers for some fields. Our trial locations in Boonville and Columbia, Mo., were hit hard by the drought, but a few timely rainfalls made all the difference.

RainfallCardAt these locations, MFA tests both corn and soybean in many ways. Trials include our variety plots containing MorCorn, MorSoy, DeKalb, Asgrow, Brevant and NK seed brands, fungicide timing, seed treatments, nutrient use efficiency products, biologicals, plant growth regulators, fertilizers—including sulfur products—and cultural practices such as planting timing.

For this article, we will share results from our research on soybean planting date, sulfur in cropping systems, and soybean fungicide and insecticide tank mixes.

Site Management
MFA’s research site in Boonville, Mo., is 20 acres in a corn-soybean rotation. The 2023 corn trials were planted April 18 at a rate of 32,500 seeds per acre. The corn was fertilized with SuperU at planting with 280 pounds of actual nitrogen per acre. Since this is a high-yielding test site, we push the nitrogen fertilization in an attempt to eliminate the possibility of N being a limiting factor that affects yield. The soybeans were planted June 1 at a rate of 140,000 seeds per acre.

LowTempCardOur research plots east of Columbia were moved this year to a new location a short distance from our previous site. The 30-acre area will be rotated with corn and soybeans. The corn was planted May 23 at a rate of 32,500 seeds per acre. The corn was fertilized with 180 pounds of actual N per acre with SuperU. The soybeans were planted May 24 at a rate of 140,000 seeds per acre.

At both sites, all the corn research plots were planted with MorCorn 4457 except for variety trials. This has been our standard corn hybrid for trials over the past four years, allowing us to compare multi-year results more effectively because we don’t have to count for varietal differences. Similarly, we used one soybean variety, MorSoy 3965 XF, across all trials excluding variety research. The bulk of the soybeans were treated with CruiserMaxx Vibrance. All trials that include treatment of fertilizer are excluded from bulk field applications and are spread by hand. Both fields were worked prior to planting.

TimingCardSoybean Planting Date
This past year, we launched a planting date study to look at establishing soybeans each month between the same two-week window, optimizing planting conditions during that period. Originally, the plan was to start in March and continue into June. This, however, proved to be more difficult in March with rainfall almost every five days and temperatures as low as 17 degrees. Corresponding weather data can be found in Figures 1A and 1B. This trial used the same variety, MorSoy 3965 XF, at each planting timing with CruiserMaxx® Vibrance seed treatment. Planting rate was 140,000 seeds per acre, and the row spacing was 30 inches.

Dates that were most conducive for establishment each month were April 13, May 4 and June 1. There was incremental rainfall through the season with a majority coming late season from the last day of July through the first week in August. On the other hand, the low temperature did not stay at or above 30 degrees until after March 20. To explain some of the conditions around the seed at each planting, we look at Bradford Research Farm data, which is collected 14 miles away, to approximate soil temperatures at a depth of 2 inches. Soybeans established April 13 experienced temperatures of 36 degrees only four days after planting and again 10 days after planting. The soil temperature fluctuated drastically during the month of April, with only a few days having adequate warmth. Soybeans planted May 4 and June 1 never experienced soil temperatures below 50 degrees.

CornAmSulfCardWhile the drought reduced overall yield, we still captured a difference in yield of 6 to 7 bushels per acre between the May-planted soybeans and the other planting dates (Figure 1C). From the start of each planting, there was only a difference of 1.8 inches of cumulative rainfall. This might have made all the difference for the June-planted soybeans, but a majority of our precipitation came between Aug. 1 and Aug. 5, as shown in Figure 1A. These rains missed the critical stage of pod fill for our June-planted soybeans.

While this trial will be continued in the upcoming season, there are still many untold challenges to planting early. Most importantly is hitting the right timing for temperature and moisture in the soil. Starting there can fix many issues. For the best conditions, plant only when fields are CornAmSulfCardnot overly wet and when soil temperatures are at least 54 degrees, preferably 60. One shortcoming of this study could be that we did not account for early-season loss by increasing seeding rates by 10% to 20%. We also only included one maturity in this study. In 2024, the same trial is going to be implemented with two maturities. There also will be a treatment at each planting without a seed-applied fungicide and insecticide. This will help to understand the importance of soybean seed-applied fungicide and insecticide, especially when planting earlier.                       

Sulfur in Cropping Systems
Before I joined MFA, there had been two years of research on sulfur in soybeans. The interest in this topic has increased as atmospheric deposition has decreased since the 1980s. To put it into perspective, Missouri received 12.5 pounds of atmospherically deposited sulfur per acre annually in 2002. Now, the annual rate is 3 to 4 pounds of sulfur per acre annually.

When tracking the removal of sulfur on soybeans, we know that 0.45 pound of sulfur per acre is taken off in the grain per bushel of soybeans. Doing the math, that equates to 27 pounds of sulfur per acre for 60-bushel-per-acre soybeans. That means we are removing 23 pounds of sulfur from the crop residue and soil organic matter. Our only option is to replace it with fertilizers such as ammonium-sulphate (AMS), Croplex or gypsum.

For that reason, MFA conducted trials from 2021 to 2023 to understand both rate and timing of sulfur on soybeans at our Boonville and Columbia research sites. Rates were 10, 20 and 40 pounds of sulfur per acre as well as one treatment without sulfur. All three rates were applied at planting, as well as in-season at soybean growth stage V5 and R1. Our sulfur source for these trials came from AMS.

TankMixCardAnalysis included the rate of sulfur, timing of application, year, location, annual rainfall for each year, and timing of rainfalls above an inch. We found that neither timing nor rate of sulfur applied were significant. Columbia had a slight increase of 2 to 3 bushels at the V5 timing in 2021 and 2022 and an increase of 4 bushels in 2022 at 40 pounds of sulfur per acre, but there was no statistical difference when compared to plots with no sulfur applied. While our research has not found an increase in yield from sulfur being applied in season on soybeans, there are still locations in our territory that do and can benefit from these in-season applications. One example is southeast Missouri, where the prevalence of irrigation can leach sulfur, similarly to nitrogen, and can lead to a negative soybean yield response.

Though applications of sulfur on soybeans have not been proven to statistically increase yield in our research here in central Missouri, sulfur for corn acres should not be forgotten. This past year, we conducted a study using a 20-pound-per-acre rate of sulfur in the form of AMS on corn at both Boonville and Columbia. This was either applied at planting or at V5 as top-dress and included a control plot with no added sulfur. All treatments were adjusted to have the same rate of nitrogen to focus on the response of sulfur. While this study was only one year and will be conducted again, there are some initial yield responses worth sharing. As shown in Figures 2A and 2B, each site had around a 20-bushel increase from an application of sulfur at either timing. We plan to continue this study in the future to better understand this response.

According to the University of Missouri’s Dr. Gurbir Singh, Dr. Kelly Nelson and Dr. Gurpreet Kaur, there are a few considerations when trying to understand sulfur testing, recommendations and applications in corn-soybean cropping rotations. First, when testing sulfur, a tissue test will provide the most correlated data. Tissue samples may have a yield response at 25% sulfur or less. Low soil pH limits sulfur availability and reduces crop uptake. Sulfur levels can build up in the soil, and additional studies are being done to understand sulfur application carryover from corn to soybeans.

Soybean Fungicide and Insecticide Tank Mixes
In 2023, MFA’s research looked at several tank-mix combinations with Miravis Top fungicide on soybeans. These trials were conducted at both Boonville and Columbia. Application timing was either at R2 or at R4 if Endigo ZCX insecticide was applied. Treatments showcase the incremental yield gains from each product combination. Treatments and yield are listed in Figure 3A for Boonville and 3B for Columbia. We did not have a significant difference in yield at Boonville, but we did at Columbia.

TankMixCard2However, let me explain those results in terms of statistics. Our p-values (probability) were 0.08 for Boonville and 0.03 for Columbia. When running statistics, a value below 0.05 is considered significant. Those values at the Boonville location were close to becoming significant. That said, there was a numerical increase of 8 bushels from the untreated plot just using Miravis Top at this location, but additional benefits from the insecticide were not likely to be seen as few insects were found at application. The Columbia location, on the other hand, had an increase of 9 bushels with Miravis Top applied at R2 and Endigo ZCX and Trend-B, a foliar fertilizer with slow-release nitrogen and boron, applied at R4.

Both locations show that, even in a drought, there are crop health benefits to fungicide applications. Moving forward, our research will push this trial further by adding plant food and even biologicals to a list of product combinations aiming to further boost yields.

Read more from the March 2024 Today's Farmer HERE: https://www.todaysfarmermagazine.com/mag/2232-in-this-march-2024

To view as printed CLICK HERE: http://mfa.uberflip.com/i/1516777-march2024todaysfarmer/25?

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Game Changer

David Heggemeier broke from his family’s farming tradition to raise upland birds

Tucked between the rolling hills of mid-Missouri farmland and the white oak forest of the Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area lies Heggemeier Game Birds and Kennels, a thriving farm for pheasants, quail, chukars and ducks along with a popular hunting club.

“I bought this 80-acre farm in 1998,” owner David Heggemeier explained. “I knew there wasn’t enough room for me on my family’s farm in Nashville, Ill., and frankly, my interest was not really in farming dairy cows and sheep.”

Heggemeier began raising ducks in high school but soon migrated to a different flock.

“I started working for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at the Mount Vernon Game Propagation Center while in college,” Heggemeier said. “I saw doctors, lawyers and other white-collar professionals hunting game birds, and I was interested in learning more.”

Realizing that the stock of game birds was relatively low and that there were few public places open to hunt, Heggemeier saw that the opportunity was there.

“I knew that birds were the wave of the future—my future,” he said with a laugh.


The game bird farm 
Venturing across the Mississippi River into the Show-Me State, Heggemeier purchased an old cattle farm west of Higbee, Mo. He began transforming the land, barns and outbuildings to raise game birds and open a hunting club. From the egg to the air, he started his operation from scratch, learning more each year as he built his business.
Now, producing more than 30,000 birds a year, Heggemeier sells his pheasants, quail, chukars and ducks to well-known hunt clubs in Texas, Wisconsin and Kansas and to farms throughout the United States.

“I really enjoy all the birds,” he said, not wanting to pick favorites. “It’s very satisfying to see them hatch, develop and then thrive.”

In addition to being a nationally recognized game bird supplier, Heggemeier also operates his own hunt club from Sept. 1 through March 31, offering upland hunters a unique experience with five different fields located on 500 acres. “I lease the land surrounding my farm to provide a challenging and enjoyable hunt,” he said.

Grassland birds require a quality habitat of native grasses and ground cover to provide concealment for nests and protection from predators, Heggemeier explained. To improve and maintain the natural habitat, he mows strips into the fields so hunters have a few walking paths. Controlled burns help stimulate regrowth of native grasses and forages.
Heggemeier works with Larry Kramm, Agri Services manager at MFA’s Fayette location, to obtain the proper nutrition for all the birds. In particular, the producer noted that having the right nutrition helps his ducks mature naturally and develop the oils needed so they don’t sink once they are killed.

“We raise our ducks right,” he said. “The MFA feed we use is of such great quality that the ducks can produce oils to lubricate their feathers properly. As they are growing, we feed them well, and they are exposed to ponds and water. We sell quality birds that perform.”

As evidence of his customer satisfaction, Heggemeier added, “I have a client from Texas that I have been working with for 10 years.”

With more than 20,000 birds on the farm at any one time, there are many bellies to fill. Each week, between 5 and 6 tons of feed is delivered to the Heggemeier farm.

“Pellets are the best way to receive the feed because there is less waste,” he said. “MFA feeds do a great job for all our game birds. I tried others in the past, but I stay with MFA because of the quality of the feed and the performance I see to start them and grow them.”

January and February are the most difficult months when it comes to raising birds, according to Heggemeier, because “it’s so cold, and you have to keep the babies from freezing.” As part of this process, he uses three incubators and three hatchers.

Once the birds are moved from the hatchers, they live indoors for several weeks until they are fully feathered and ready for the weather. The growing birds are moved to flight pens so they have room to fly, move around, develop muscle and mature.

At about 16 weeks the birds are ready to go to market.

“My reputation in the industry depends on how well my birds perform,” said Heggemeier. “My game birds are very similar to birds living in the wild and are of the highest quality because of the care and nutrition they receive.”

The pheasant hunt
On a gray Saturday this past December, a collection of Quail Forever members gathered at Heggemeier’s farm for a pheasant hunt. The group included first-time pheasant hunters such as Pia Broccard of Cedar Hill, Mo., along with young men, fathers, grandfathers and Quail Forever youth leaders plus agents from the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

PheasantPia Broccard was thrilled with her grassland bird hunting experience with the Quail Forever and was able to take home a beautiful ringed-neck pheasant.To begin the day, hunters had the opportunity to warm up their shooting skills and to review safety and hunting etiquette.

Then the first two groups set off to different fields with an experienced guide and bird dog for their hunt.

As the hunters were divided, Heggemeier drove into the fields and placed six ring-necked pheasants for each group before each hunt. “Since this morning’s group has less experience with upland hunting, I disorient each bird before placing it in the field,” he explained. “I don’t do this for most hunts.”

Originally from Asia, the ring-necked pheasant is successfully bred in captivity and found in many countries as a game bird. Introduced into much of Europe by the Romans, pheasants possibly arrived in Great Britain with the Normans in the 11th century, according to the Wildlife Trusts. In 1773, the common pheasant was introduced to the U.S.

Heggemeier pointed out a Hungarian genetic trait in one of his male pheasants. “Genetics are very important to me with the birds, just like it was for the animals on my dad’s farm,” he said.

The adult male’s plumage is iridescent green and blue with shimmers of gold and copper. Trailing behind is a long brown tail with black stripes. A red patch of skin around his eyes and a white ring of feathers around his neck are the regal markings of this bird. While not as colorful, the female’s brown feathers are elegantly decorated with stripes and elaborate black markings. Her long neck and pointed tail are distinguishing features.

These ground-loving birds prefer to run through the grass to seek protection from predators rather than fly, explained J.T. Denbigh, a guide for the day. When flushed by a dog or hunter, pheasants will use their short, rounded wings for brief, powerful bursts of flight.

Walking through the tall grass, Denbigh told his young hunters, “You have to be ready.”

For first-time game bird hunters, the experience can be exciting as well as a lesson in patience. The equipment is minimal: a good pair of boots, a blaze orange hat and jacket or vest, a shotgun and shells. A well-trained bird dog, a helpful guide and respect for other hunters in the area are also keys to a successful venture.

After bagging his first pheasant of the day, Trey Holt from Urich, Mo., said he was a bit nervous but also excited when the bird was flushed.

“We might have 20-30 people a day and then some days only four,” said Heggemeier. “We are centrally located, so we attract hunters from all over the country. In addition to the hunt lodge, we have a house on site that we use as an Airbnb for those looking for a longer hunt and a place to stay.”

A half-day hunt with either four pheasants, five chukars, eight quail, or four wild ducks is $100 per person. Heggemeier said that his business has evolved to 50% percent hunts and 50% game bird sales.

“You really have to enjoy working with people, and I do,” Heggemeier said. “I truly believe that raising game birds is a great opportunity for small farms and young farmers.”

Heggemeier enjoys sharing his passions with others. For the last decade, he has worked with the University of Missouri and local high schools to teach students how to raise birds and improve their habitats as well as the business side and marketing of such an operation.

There are usually a few interns from MU working on the farm, and with Heggemeier’s reputation and relationships in the industry, he is able to help place students in jobs once they graduate. He works with MDC for all his permits, bird testing, youth mentoring and habitat improvement.

“I enjoy meeting new people and building lasting relationships,” Heggemeier said. “All that effort pays off. When you come out here for a hunt, it’s just like what the old-timers say—it’s a good bird. I’m really proud of that.”

For more information about Heggemeier Game Birds and Kennels or to reserve a hunt, contact David Heggemeier at 660-676-0776 or visit Heggemeier Game Farm on Facebook.

Read more of the Feb. 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine Issue HERE.

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In this February 2024 Issue

Features

Game changer (cover story)
David Heggemeier broke from his family’s farming tradition to raise upland birds

By Jessica Ekern

Learn, laugh, lead
Emerging Leaders Conference brings together young producers to build knowledge and connections

By Allison Jenkins

Strategic moves for uncertain times
MFA navigates headwinds to achieve profitability in 2023

By Allison Jenkins

2023 year in review
Taking a look at MFA’s opportunities and challenges


Understanding units
Learning more about your options can help guide crop insurance decisions

by Taylor Gilmore and Blake Thomas

Handle with care
MFA brings stockmanship expert Ron Gill to Western
Farm Show for low-stress cattle-working demonstrations

By Allison Jenkins

Faces of farming
Carley Esser McLean profile

By Allison Jenkins

NOTICE of District Meetings of MFA Incorporated
District Meetings of MFA Incorporated will be held within the districts from March 4 through March 8, 2024
Click to see the official notice or read the Feb. 2024 issue of Today's Farmer here.

Editorial and opinion

Country Corner
New Look for an old friend

by Allison Jenkins

UpFront/Blog
American Royal leaves Missouri
Governor Parson's order restricts foreign purchase of farmland near Missouri military sites
Partnership in stewardship

Crops
Does early equal better?

by Scott Wilburn

Livestock
Help calves overcome cold stress

by Dr. Jim White

Markets
Expected crop returns may mean acreage shift
Cattle Prices expected to continue rising


Recipes
Home sweet tooth

Viewpoint
Trust in technology, not the groundhog

By Ernie Verslues

Closing Thought
Photo by Lori Weier
Poem by Walter Bargen

Click to view the issue as printed as a flip book.

 

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Strategic moves for uncertain times

MFA navigates headwinds to achieve profitability in 2023

Despite the headwinds of market volatility, rising inflation and drought across much of MFA’s trade territory, the cooperative recorded a profitable year for fiscal 2023 by strategically addressing those challenges and taking advantage of opportunities to benefit MFA Incorporated and its members.

That was the message from Don Schlesselman, who represents District 5 on MFA Incorporated’s Board of Directors, as he led the cooperative’s annual meeting for the first time as chairman. Nearly 440 delegates, employees and special guests attended the meeting Nov. 21, 2023, at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia.

“Uncertainty in world events and markets affects the environment in which we do business. More locally, a significant portion of the MFA membership area suffered drought this year, and for many of you, the second year in a row,” Schlesselman said. “I want to thank the employees of MFA for helping us navigate those challenges, securing products and assisting us in marketing what we grow on our farms.”

Those efforts helped MFA close its fiscal year with pre-tax earnings of $13.7 million, Chief Financial Officer Karen White reported.

“We began the year with a very strong balance sheet, but we knew fiscal ’23 would present more challenges than the past two years,” White said. “We were facing a declining market in agronomy inputs, interest rate hikes by the Feds, higher labor and insurance costs and continued inflationary pressures on our other major expense categories. Our profitability for 2023 is not at the level of our two previous fiscal years, but all things considered, it was a good year for us financially.”

Overall, MFA Incorporated’s net sales reached $2 billion, with $198 million in net worth and just over $95 million in working capital. MFA’s average asset level climbed to $917 million, due in part to increases in commodity values and input prices. Revenues totaled $257 million, and expenses were $247 million, White reported. 

“As a company that relies heavily on rolling stock, facilities and labor, inflation had a significant impact on our expenses,” she said. “But by far, our single largest expense increase is interest expense. Increased borrowings tied to higher commodity values, along with rising interest rates, doubled our interest expense in 2023.”

The operating plan for 2024 is similar to 2023 with a profit level of $11.1 million, White concluded. “We have a solid start with sales and profits currently ahead of plan,” she said.
MFA’s board of directors voted to allocate $29 million in DPAD (Domestic Production Activities Deduction) to grain members but retain current year earnings. (See sidebar, “What is DPAD?" on page 12.) The decision to invest those earnings back into the company was based on the need for facility, equipment and technology updates as well as the higher debt level and interest expenses, said CEO Ernie Verslues in his address to the members. The overall financial strength of producers was also a factor, he added, with profitability and cash flow positive for most right now.

Despite the tough agricultural and economic environment, Verslues said MFA is on “a very good path” with management and the board aligned on a strategy to move the company forward.

“Technology, artificial intelligence and sustainability initiatives open a whole new world of possibilities. We continue to actively evaluate their place in future operations for both MFA and for you and will only recommend and bring to market those that are based on sound agronomic or nutritional grounds,” he said. “Sure, we will have peaks and valleys. That is agriculture. But involvement by our membership is a strength throughout the trade area we serve. Most importantly, we have a talented team ready to deliver.”

After the business meeting, Gregg Doud, who recently took the reins as president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, provided a global economic outlook for agriculture in the year ahead and beyond. Before being tapped for his new role, Doud most recently worked at Aimpoint Research as vice president of global situational awareness and chief economist.

Doud said economic obstacles such as rising interest rates and the value of the U.S. dollar are thwarting our nation’s global competitiveness as world politics and economics continue to shift. Protein demand is driving much of this shift, and China is a key player in the market, he explained.

“We live in a world today where China’s total food imports from the world are more than U.S. total agricultural exports to the world,” Doud said, referencing China’s $236 billion in agricultural commodity imports in 2022, compared to U.S. exports of $196 million. “What happens in China in terms of food dictates everything else in the rest of the world.”
For example, he said, China is now the biggest corn importer in the world, largely due to the rebound in its hog industry coupled with its ban on feeding food scraps to pigs to help combat African swine fever. The Chinese also consume a tremendous amount of beef, and this past August, the country purchased an all-time record high in beef imports.

“The Chinese are now buying $18 billion worth of beef a year,” Doud said. “They are clearing the Brazilians, the Argentines, the Europeans, everybody in the world out of beef. But there’s no way the supply of protein in the world can come close to meeting projected demand. The only place on earth we can make more protein is here in the U.S. And so my charge to you today is, ‘Let's make this happen.’ This is the world of agriculture right now. This is where we’re headed.”
The same opportunities are true, he noted, for the U.S. dairy industry. Global growth and American capacity for innovation and production are combining to create a dairy powerhouse here, Doud explained.

“Last year, dairy was the fourth biggest thing we exported at $9.5 billion,” he said. “In terms of the world of protein, dairy is a huge part of the future.”
America’s farmers indeed have a bright outlook, Doud said, if the industry can capitalize on available opportunities for exports, technology and value-added products, such as producing soybeans for renewable diesel fuel.

“Renewable diesel technology can take soybean oil, refine it and get a product that can be used 100% as diesel fuel,” he explained. “This industry is expanding like crazy, to a point where we’re actually making more renewable diesel in the U.S. than we are biodiesel. That gives us mountains of soybean meal that can be fed to more pigs and chickens and cattle to meet the demand for protein, versus competing with the Brazilians to export soybeans to China.”

Motivational speaker David Okerlund finished the day’s events with his presentation, “The Power of Living a Passionate Life.” He reminded the farmers that nurturing their own minds, their passions and their overall wellbeing is just as important as fertilizing and caring for their fields and livestock.
“If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to take care of your farm,” he said. “And that goes for every person who sells products and services to farmers as well. Living a passionate life is critical to living a positive life.”

Illustrating his points with inspirational examples and anecdotes, Okerlund said the greatest attribute influencing stellar achievement is an individual’s level of passion. He defined passion as having two components: faith, believing you have both the will and the way to accomplish your dream; and optimism, a strong, enduring expectation that everything will work out OK.

“I know MFA is an incredibly successful organization. But can you imagine what it would be like if everybody here, from this day forward, set aside 10, 15 minutes a day to become a better member or employee of this organization, to become a better rancher or a farmer?” Okerlund said. “Success is no accident. It’s hard work, persistence, learning, study, sacrifice and, most of all, a passion applied to everything you do. It’s your attitude, so take care of it."

Read the related story: 2023: A year in review.

Read more of the Feb. 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine Issue HERE.

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