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Economically sound stewardship

Economics and the environment don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Chuck and Darin Dunlop have proven that fact on their 6,800-acre row-crop operation, which spans four counties in southeast Kansas. Stewardship and efficiency go hand in hand on Dunlop Farms, where the cousins have implemented best management practices such as grid soil sampling, variable-rate nutrient applications and precision planting.

In 2013, the Dunlops began working with AGChoice in Moran, Kan., to establish those practices. For their ongoing work, the farmers and AGChoice were recently honored as 4R Advocates by The Fertilizer Institute at the 2018 Commodity Classic in Anaheim, Calif.

“When we first started working with Darin and Chuck on grid-sampling, we were doing it from an economic standpoint,” MFA Precision Farming Specialist Jason Sutterby said. “We wanted to help these guys achieve optimum yields, do a better job of putting fertilizer where it needed to be in the fields, even up crops and so forth. Because we’re looking at creating economic efficiencies, we often forget these practices are also best for the environment.”

Chuck and Darin are fourth-generation farmers, and the fifth generation is beginning to enter the business. The farm now employs seven family members full time. The cousins’ great-grandfather initially purchased a small tract of land near Parker, Kan., in 1899 after immigrating from Ireland. As the farm has changed hands through the generations, it also changed shape and scale.

“At one time or another, we’ve done a little bit of everything,” Chuck said. “Our dads ran the local elevator in town, and they had a feed store. We had a peach and apple orchard with about 3,000 peach trees. We raised farrow-to-
finish hogs, cattle and row crops.”

When the previous generation ran the operation in the 1970s, the farm was a lot smaller, between 1,500-2,000 acres, and the labor was significantly more intense, Darin said.

“It evolved a lot over the years,” he said. “When Chuck and I started farming with our dads, we did a lot of tillage—cultivating and mechanical weed control. A hundred hours a week was pretty common.”

As technology and equipment advanced, the Dunlops’ management practices did, too. Reduced tillage has replaced much of their conventional cultivation methods. They now plant approximately two-thirds of their acreage to soybeans using no-till practices. The rest is planted in corn using minimal tillage. Wheat is sometimes also added into the rotation.

Even with these changes, the Dunlops said they still weren’t making the most of their fertilizer applications. Their considerable acreage had significant variability that needed to be managed. They worked with AGChoice to determine what was going on under the surface.

“When I met these guys five years ago, they had basically been applying a flat rate of fertilizer across all their fields,” Jason said. “When we started talking about the Nutri-Track program and variable-rate fertilizer applications, they jumped right on board.”

Grid sampling allowed Chuck and Darin to assess the nutrient levels, pH, cation exchange capacity and organic matter in the fields. Jason took all this information, added the Dunlops’ yield monitor data and developed precise fertilizer recommendations.
While there were areas of the property that were deficient in lime, others were deficient in phosphorus and potassium.

“We were able to apply lime immediately and get that caught up,” Jason said. “We have also inverted the rate of phosphorus and potassium. The soil tests showed we were falling behind in potassium, so we had to figure out how to balance the fertility and, in turn, even up the fields to where they need to be.”

In 2016, the Dunlops also placed 700 acres into a variable-rate, nitrogen top-dress trial, one of MFA Incorporated’s first studies of this kind. The results were positive, the cousins said, and now 100 percent of their corn acres is enrolled in Adapt-N, a variable-rate nitrogen modeling program administered by MFA’s precision specialists through the Nutri-Track program.

“No one wants to waste their nitrogen,” Darin said. “If you look at your soil tests and look at the cation exchange capacity, the soil can only hold so much nitrogen at any given time. If you’re out there putting on 300 pounds, it’s not going to stay there.”

With variable-rate technology, the Dunlops were able to decrease phosphorus application rates by 15 percent as well.

Participating in the Nutri-Track Program and implementing these best management practices equates to less fertilizer waste and increased efficiency, the Dunlops said. They are putting fertilizer where it’s needed and not putting it where it’s not needed, which is the concept behind the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship—using the right source, at the right rate, in the right place, at the right time. According to TFI, the 4Rs use a science-based approach to increase production while improving the sustainability of farming operations and the environment.

“We talk a lot about 4R nutrient stewardship at TFI, but these practices only work if they are used on the farm,” said Chris Jahn, TFI President. “The 4R Advocate program is our way of recognizing good work when we see it.”
Now in the seventh year, TFI’s 4R Advocate program received 32 nominations. According to Lara Moody, vice president of stewardship at TFI, the quality of nominations continues to increase, making it hard to choose just five. The advocates help deliver the 4R message to other farmers and stakeholders.

“Good advocates want to advocate,” Lara said. “Both the retail agronomist and the farmers are equally important to us as advocates. Good advocate pairs are working together to consider, implement and assess fertilizer decisions geared towards getting the 4Rs right in the field. We value farmers who are looked to by their peers as leaders and innovators, and we look for advocates who have a good story to tell with data to back it up.”

Lara said TFI has linked 4R implementation to farm productivity and profitability as well as water quality and other environmental concerns related to nutrient loss. It’s a proven strategy at Dunlop Farms. Chuck Dunlop’s wife, Cheri, keeps track of the numbers for the farm along with Darin’s sister, Dierra Willey, who began working with Cheri about a year ago.

“We talk about the things that happen out in the field, and we focus on that,” Chuck said. “But at least half of what makes us successful is what they do in the office here. We can go out and spend money, but they come back and tell us if what we’re doing is working or not.”

Stewardship is a broad term, Chuck said. There are ways to apply it in many aspects of the farm.

“With these practices, we’re not wasting fertilizer if we happen to get 10 inches of rain,” Chuck said. “It’s not good for the environment, but it’s also not good economically.”

What’s good for the farm, what’s good for the land and what’s good for the longevity of the business drive the Dunlops’ decisions. Each generation has worked to advance the farm for the next.

It’s admirable, Jason said.   

“To me it seems like this generation and previous generations have done a really nice job of setting the structure of the farm up for success and intergenerational transfer,” he said. “There has been a lot of foresight and thought into making sure they’ve set the farm up for the future.”

Visit www.nutrientstewardship.com to find out more about 4R Nutrient Stewardship and 4R Advocates. For more information on the Nutri-Track program, contact your local MFA or AGChoice retailer.

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Foliars that fit

Nutrients when they’re needed the most. That’s the design behind MFA’s new Gold Advantage Foliar Nutrition products. Working in tandem with a sound fertility program, Gold Advantage can give your crops exactly what the name implies—an advantage to reach their full genetic potential.

Unlike a one-size-fits-all approach offered by other foliar fertilizers, Gold Advantage is customized for each crop. Specific formulations are available for corn, soybeans and small grains, each with the precise combination of micronutrients that those plants need. The products are designed to be tank-mixed and applied along with most fungicides, insecticides or herbicides with no compatibility concerns.

“There are several options out there for foliar nutrition, but Gold Advantage is designed like no other,” said Jason Worthington, MFA Incorporated senior staff agronomist. “Generally, growers aren’t going to make a pass through the field just for foliar nutrition. They’re going to piggyback it along with another application. Gold Advantage is tailor-made for each crop at the growth stages when we’re making those other applications anyway.”

Each micronutrient package includes the elements that are in highest demand at the time when they will be applied. Correct timing allows Gold Advantage to improve overall plant health and provide an opportunity for maximum yields, Worthington added. The targeted growth stages and nutrient prescription for each type of crop are:

  • Corn — Apply during the V4 to V7 growth stage. The micronutrient package includes boron, manganese, zinc, magnesium and copper.
  • Soybeans — Apply during the R2 to R4 growth stage. The micronutrient package includes boron, manganese, molybdenum, zinc, iron and sulfur.
  • Wheat (Small Grains) — Apply at green-up and/or after flagleaf emergence. The micronutrient package includes boron, manganese, zinc, sulfur and copper.

Each micronutrient was selected because it plays a role in key processes for each crop. For example, boron is essential to the growth of pollen tubes; zinc aids in the formation of seed; copper is critical to the reproductive process; molybdenum helps convert nitrogen in the plant to a usable form; iron acts as an oxygen carrier; and sulfur promotes nodule formation on legumes.

“You look at some of the micronutrients like molybdenum or copper, for example,” Worthington explained. “They’re needed in such little amounts that it’s hard to effectively broadcast them with the dry fertilizer upfront. That’s why foliar delivery might be a better option.”

Developed and marketed exclusively by MFA, Gold Advantage was introduced in 2017 and evaluated at the MFA Training Camp testing site as well as several on-farm trials before it became available to customers this year. Gold Advantage is the first foliar fertilizer to be added to MFA’s proprietary product line.

“Whenever we’re vetting a new product, we often put them in one of the fields that our Crop-Trak consultants will be scouting every week,” Worthington said. “We set it up in side-by-side plots that give us a good test so we can analyze that product and see whether it provides an advantage or not.”

In 2017, yield data from those trials showed that Gold Advantage provided additional bushels, particularly in high-yielding situations for wheat and corn. The soybean trials didn’t provide a good measurement, Worthington said, so the results couldn’t be analyzed.

“When growers are doing everything right, that’s when the foliar nutrition seemed to be most beneficial,” he explained. “In 100-plus-bushel wheat and 220-plus-bushel corn, we were really seeing that advantage, both visually and from the yield data.”

MFA Director of Agronomy Jason Weirich warned, however, that foliar nutrition should be part of an overall fertility management strategy. The field’s phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen levels must be in check before foliar nutrition should be considered, and the products aren’t meant to be a rescue treatment.

“Foliar nutrition isn’t a replacement for sound soil science,” Weirich said. “If the crop is limited in phosphorus, for example, this probably isn’t going to help you. The micronutrients won’t bring enough additional yield to cover up the lack of P. If you have everything else in place, and you’re in a high-yielding environment, Gold Advantage could help you push those yields even further.”

For growers who want to take their production to that next level, Worthington said Gold Advantage may fit well into their management plan.

“If you’re already in a program like Nutri-Track, have good weed-control practices, someone is looking at your fields every week like we do in Crop-Trak and you’re managing everything right, this foliar nutrition can provide incremental yield increases,” he said. “Get with your MFA location to see if these products work in your situation, and make sure you’re putting them on at the proper time. Remember, it doesn’t replace anything, but it definitely has the potential to add bushels.”

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Farmers behind the figures

With as much data that gets accumulated, analyzed and applied these days, it’s easy to get numb to the numbers.

When data is used to make decisions that have impact on real people, those numbers must never lose their meaning. That’s why the Agricultural and Food Policy Center (AFPC) bases its figures on actual farmers.

“We’re not just mining some dataset on the internet,” said Marc Raulston, AFPC associate director. “We’re sitting across the table from farmers, hearing their concerns and talking about what they’re doing. This program allows us to develop a good baseline to provide a representative picture of what farming really looks like. That’s the real power.”

The representative farm program has been central to the research of the AFPC since it was established by Texas A&M University in 1983. For more than 30 years, AFPC has worked closely with the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI), which provides commodity prices and projections. FAPRI focuses on the sector level; AFPC focuses on the farm level, explained George Knapek, AFPC representative farm program manager. The two entities release companion baseline briefings each spring and present them Congress.

“The No. 1 use of our information is through the Senate and House Ag Committees,” Knapek said. “They often use us as a sounding board for questions like, ‘What are farmers saying about x?’ or ‘If we make this change, how will that impact your representative farms?’ We can run different scenarios in our models to show what might happen.”

To simulate its farm models, the AFPC gathers real-world information from 95 crop, dairy and livestock operations in 30 states. Many of those farms are in MFA territory, including seven in Missouri: three feed grain farms, two grazing dairies, one rice farm and one cattle ranch.

The farms selected in each area are similar in size and nature, Knapek said, and they’re typically top producers who keep good records, operate efficiently and are willing to share details about finances, production and expenses.

“We’re not modeling individual operations, but we’re building a representative farm that reflects each area,” Knapek said. “If someone said, ‘What does a farm look like here?’ we can provide a snapshot based on real information.”

The database is updated every two years using face-to-face panel interviews with the farm owners and key operators. AFPC personnel may also reach out to the panelists if something substantial happens between those meetings that could drastically impact the model’s accuracy.

“After those meetings, we have a virtual farm or ranch in the local area that can be simulated in our model,” Knapek said. “Economic analysis from the model shows income, cash flow, balance sheet, projected viability for 10 years and how changes in farm programs, income tax policy, trade and environmental regulations may impact the business.”

Many of the representative farms have participated in the program since its inception, providing valuable long-term insight to the research. Often, their involvement spans generations. Glenn Kaiser of Carrollton, Mo., became part of the “feed grain” panel in 1990, and now his son, Marc, is lending his input to the study as well.

“I really feel like this representative farm system does good because it has real emphasis,” Glenn Kaiser said. “In our talks with the panel, we try to keep it as legitimate as we can and reflect what’s going on with our farm, because we know it can make a difference in how different legislation is approached.”

Indeed, Raulston said, whereas farmers are often tight-lipped about their operation’s inner workings, he finds that they are open and honest when it comes to sharing intimate information with the AFPC panel.

“The fact that we’re not showing the world one person’s opinions allows them to talk and share a lot more freely,” he said. “They know, for the most part, what they say isn’t going leave the room. The message is going to be there, but it’s going to be packaged in a way that doesn’t reveal their personal information.”

Another Carrollton, Mo., farm included in the “feed grains” category is the diversified row-crop and livestock operation of Dennis Germann, who said he participates in the program to help ensure legislators have the knowledge they need to make informed decisions.

“If officials up in Washington don’t get their information from farmers like us, then they won’t set up farm programs and policies to where it will benefit people,” Germann said. “And personally, it lets me see how I compare to other people and pick up a lot of good ideas from other farmers who have similar operations to mine.”

Retired University of Missouri Extension Specialist Parman Green, who helped set up the Carroll County panel, said he’s experienced positive support for the program in his area. AFPC relies heavily on local contacts such as Green to identify farms that fit the model.

“It’s a real benefit for the farmers who participate and farmers as a whole to get this analysis,” Green said. “Policy-makers need to see what’s really happening in agriculture, not what some economist in an ivory tower is saying.”

AFPC classifies each representative farm as being in good, marginal or poor economic position over a five-year period. In the most recent Representative Farms Economic Outlook published in March, 11 out of the 23 feed grain farms were projected to be in “good” financial condition from 2018-2023. Knapek, who presented the latest analysis at the 2018 Abner Womack Missouri Agricultural Outlook Conference on March 16 in Columbia, Mo., said above-average yields over the last two years helped offset low prices to keep more of those farms from falling into “marginal” or “poor” condition.

Cotton farms are split 50/50 in “good” or “marginal/poor” condition, but rice operations are showing the worst results of any category with the majority in “poor” condition. None of the 15 rice farms in the model are in the green, Knapek said. For wheat farms, 60 percent are classified as marginal or poor.

Currently, 65 percent of dairies are classified as “good,” but ranches are mostly “poor.” Knapek attributes the negative ranch outlook to cattle price declines and forces such as fire, cold, blizzards and drought that have taken their toll on beef producers.

In addition to gathering quantitative data, AFPC officials also record qualitative data about challenges and opportunities the farmers are experiencing. Knapek said he finds striking similarities among producers—no matter how diverse their operations.

“It’s interesting to visit with different farmers in different places,” Knapek said. “As a whole, I find that producers are all the same. They face the same issues and have a lot of the same characteristics.”

As Farm Bill discussions heat up on Capitol Hill this year, AFPC and FAPRI officials said they hope their baselines will be used to address some of those concerns and produce practical policy that works for the benefit of farmers across the country.
“We don’t advocate for any particular policy,” Raulston added. “We make an unbiased analysis, give them the results and let them make decisions. I think that’s what has allowed us to continue doing this for so long and why we’re a trusted resource.”

For the full AFPC Economic Outlook, visit www.afpc.tamu.edu.

FAPRI baseline report shows continued pressure on farm finances

The date on the agenda was different, but the data was very much the same.

The latest analysis of national and global agricultural trends presented at the fifth annual Abner Womack Missouri Agricultural Outlook Conference on March 16 in Columbia, Mo., had a lot in common with the projections presented a year earlier. The 2018 U.S. Baseline Outlook from the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) indicates little change in net farm income this year and a slight increase in 2019.

A fifth straight year of global grain and oilseed yields above the long-term trend has made it difficult for crop prices to recover in the 2017-18 marketing year, the report said. Projected prices for corn, soybeans and wheat all increase slightly in 2018-19 and 2019-20, but large global stocks limit the increase. Corn prices are expected to average $3.57 per bushel for the 2018-19 crop, while soybean prices average $9.38 and wheat prices average $4.89.

“Even with modest projected increases in commodity prices, net farm income is expected to remain far below the record level set in 2013,” FAPRI Director Patrick Westhoff said. “The outlook for subsequent years is slightly brighter, but pressure on farm finances seems likely to continue.”

Good news in the report includes strong demand for meat, which offset downward pressure on prices from increased production last year. Feed costs remain a bright spot, as abundant grain and oilseed supplies limit input cost increases for livestock producers. With growth in all major meat sectors expected in 2018, however, University of Missouri ag economist Scott Brown said demand is critical.

“As long as demand outpaces supply, you’re going to like being in the livestock business,” he said. “However, growing supplies can be troubling.”

The baseline report is released each March by economists with FAPRI and the Agricultural Markets and Policy team. Their projections for agricultural and biofuel markets are based on market data available in January. All commodity markets remain sensitive to the health of the global economy and trade relationships.

“We use computer models to develop a range of projected market outcomes that takes into account some major sources of uncertainty about future supply and demand conditions,” Westhoff said. “We calculate hundreds of possible outcomes based on different combinations of factors and use those to produce an average.”

Other key results from this year’s report include:

  • Upland cotton and rice prices are projected to fall in 2018-19, due to carryover of cotton stocks from 2017 and expected planting acreages for both rice and cotton.
  • Cattle and hog prices are projected to resume annual declines in 2018 and 2019, as large supplies continue to enter the market. While demand still appears to be solid, it is unlikely that the strength of last year can continue.
  • Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) payments are expected to decline rapidly. More farmers are assumed to choose Price Loss Coverage (PLC) in 2019 if current program rules are extended and they are allowed to make a new election.
  • Crop insurance net outlays are projected to average more than $8 billion per year for fiscal years 2019-2027. Major commodity program outlays average a little over $6 billion per year over the same period.

The full 72-page 2018 U.S. Baseline Outlook is available at fapri.missouri.edu.

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Taking the lead

The MFA Board of Directors has three new members after district meetings and elections were held in early March.

Tim Brand, a row-crop farmer from Glasgow, Mo., was elected to represent District 6; Gerald Eggerman, who runs a diversified row-crop and livestock farm in South Greenfield, Mo., was elected from District 11; and Steve Stone, a cow-calf producer from Galena, Mo., will serve District 12 on the board.

They replace outgoing directors Kendall Kircher, Glen Cope and Don Mills, whose terms ended in March. Also re-elected to their positions on the MFA board were Jimmy Reading, District 7, and Davin Althoff, District 9. Members of the corporate board are eligible to serve three-year terms and are limited to four consecutive terms. Operating under those rules means that five more of the 14 members will leave the board due to term limits by March 2020.

“I’d like to thank those outgoing directors for their dedication and contribution to the organization,” MFA Incorporated CEO Ernie Verslues said. “There will to be a lot of turnover on the board over the next few years, but there are always able replacements willing to step up. We’re looking forward to moving on with new faces and new leadership on our current board.”

Mills, who had been chairman for the past eight years, is succeeded in that role by Wayne Nichols, a beef producer who farms near West Plains, Mo. Nichols said leading the MFA board is a “rather awesome challenge,” and he, too, will miss his fellow directors who left the board this spring. But, he added, new blood brings new perspectives to the organization.

“I think it’s good for organizations to have some turnover. It provides opportunities for more people to get involved at the grassroots level and keeps fresh ideas coming in,” said Nichols, who has served on the board for seven years. “I also believe farmers grow personally and professionally by belonging to a board like MFA.”

In addition to elections, the March meetings in each of MFA’s 14 districts gave farmer-owners a chance to learn about the cooperative’s financial progress, hear from management and operating divisions and get updated on highlights from their respective regions.

Looking ahead, Nichols listed regulatory issues and competition in the marketplace as two of the biggest challenges that MFA and its board members face, but he said he is confident the cooperative’s leaders are up to the task.

“I believe this board is fully engaged, and we have a good management at all levels to help guide us through those challenges,” Nichols said. “One of the best things board members can do is be a spokesperson for the cooperative and get out there with the farmers, so when they have questions and concerns, we’re available. Cooperatives bring a lot of value to the marketplace for us as producers. The concept of people working together makes a whole lot of sense. We can work better together rather than independently.”

Loyalty, leadership land Mills in Hall of Fame

Don Mills, immediate past chairman of MFA Incorporated’s Board of Directors, has been inducted into the Missouri Institute of Cooperatives (MIC) Hall of Fame. Mills was recognized during the MIC annual banquet March 12 for his lifelong loyalty to cooperatives as a member, employee and leader.

His cooperative connections began 44 years ago in Arkansas as a farmer and member of Cave Springs Co-op, an MFA affiliate, where he served on the board. As area farmland converted to urban uses, Mills’ opportunity to farm diminished. His loss was the cooperative world’s gain. He was recruited to manage MFA’s company-owned location in Rogers, Ark., and eventually made his way to El Dorado Springs, Mo., to manage another MFA-affiliated local cooperative. This role brought the challenge of turning around an operation that was struggling financially. Mills’ understanding of cooperatives and business acumen helped the cooperative return to profitability.

Always a farmer at heart, in 2005 Mills returned to the farm full time, remaining a loyal patron of cooperatives. In this role, he made his biggest impact. In 2006, Mills was elected to the MFA Incorporated Board of Directors. In 2010, the humble, soft-spoken farmer was chosen as chairman, a position he held until his term on the board ended this past year.

“Don assumed the role of chairman at a difficult time for MFA,” said Ernie Verslues, MFA Incorporated CEO. “He quickly assessed the situation, understood the implications and knew action was needed. In few words, he asked tough, necessary questions. Management had to earn his trust.”

Mills’ experience at all levels of the cooperative and his strong values uniquely prepared him to help MFA grow stronger, even in difficult economic times, Verslues added.

“How a cooperative’s decisions affect the overall membership was always foremost in Don’s mind,” he said. “He is a forward thinker who is not afraid to take calculated risks that will help advance the cooperative and its members.”

The MIC Hall of Fame honors leaders of Missouri’s cooperatives and is updated each year through a nomination and selection process. The program was officially created “to ensure a permanent, prestigious recognition for future generations of cooperative leaders with exemplary service and lasting achievements.”

Joining Mills in the MIC Hall of Fame for 2018 were Randy Mooney, Dairy Farmers of America; J. Chris Cariker, KAMO Power; Jake Fisher, Pemiscot-Dunklin Electric Cooperative; John Bill Greer, Webster Electric Cooperative; Dave Ramsey, Associated Electric Cooperative; and Bob Idel, FCS Financial.

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