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Show-Me soil sense

“Out of the long list of nature’s gifts to man, none is perhaps so utterly essential to human life as soil.” That was the assessment of Hugh Hammond Bennett, the first chief of what is now known as USDA’s Natural Resources Con­servation Service (NRCS) and widely considered the father of soil conservation.

Soil is the foundation of our natural world and the lifeblood for agriculture, whether growing crops or raising livestock. Yet not all soils are created equal. Soils are classified by differing characteristics and behavior to help make wise land use deci­sions, whether farming or building a house, digging a well or constructing a highway.

The variability of soil is especially evident in Missouri. The Show-Me State is made up of more than 500 different soil “series,” which is the lowest category of the national soil classi­fication system and the common reference term used for soil map units. The diversity in soil makeup accounts for Missouri’s diversity in agriculture.

“Soil type will drastically affect what you can grow, how you grow it and how productive you can be,” said Landry Jones, MFA conservation grazing specialist. “It’s different for every grower and for every operation.”

If there was a star of these series, it would be Menfro, named Missouri’s official state soil in 2004. More than 780,000 acres in 40 counties have been identified as Menfro soil, which is very productive for farming. This type of soil was formed on wood­ed upland and slopes along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and their major tributaries.

The distribution of the Menfro soil overlaps into many of state’s six major ecoregions, which are further broken down into 28 more detailed ecoregions. Jorge Lugo-Camacho, Missouri state soil scientist with NRCS, explains the regions in simple terms using I-70 as the dividing line.

“North of I-70, the soil is more suited for growing row crops,” he said. “There is less sloping, roots can grow deeper, and the soil holds onto moisture better. In many of those areas, the deep soil is high in organic matter, good for growing corn and soybeans. One limitation of this area is the central claypan areas, like in Audrain County, which can limit yields of some crops.”

The ecoregions of the north include Central Irregular Plains, Western Corn Belt Plains, and Interior River Valley and Hills, where Menfro is prevalent. Northwestern Missouri has deep, dark prairie soils, which contrast with the light-colored and stony soils of the Ozarks. As the color and depth vary, so does the fertility, Lugo-Camacho said. In some areas, the soil can produce 70 bushels of corn while other areas can only produce shrubs and trees.

Making regional recommendations

MFA agronomists who consult with growers across these regions must know how to deal with a wide range of soil types, said Davin Harms, precision manager for districts 3 and 6, which includes areas in northeast and east-central Missouri.

“We have heavy clay pan soils that can be productive but require timely rains to deliver the highest yields,” Harms said. “Soils with higher clay content and higher cation exchange capacity values require different management from a fertility aspect. We factor that into the fertility recommendations we make, especially for potassium. Most of the areas I cover tend to have more acidic soils that need to be amended with lime to raise soil pH to create better plant growing conditions. The Missouri river bottoms are the exception as they tend to have higher soil pH, which creates issues and management concerns with phosphate applications.”

South of I-70 there are more soil limitations for crops, but the area is abundant with forests, grasslands, natural springs and sink holes, explained Lugo-Camacho. The Central Irregular Plains soil series spills into this region. With soil derived from cherty carbonate rocks, the Ozark Highlands makes up two-thirds of the region.

“The shallow soil has low pH and the bedrock and hardpan, known as fragipan, make it difficult to grow crops,” he said.

In the Bootheel, the Mississippi Valley Loess Plains and Mississippi Alluvial Plain regions have a wide range of soils, along with a warmer and longer growing season that allows a variety of crops to grow.

As Garrett Christian, MFA precision manager for district 10 in this region, described it, “We have blow sand all the way to heavy gumbo and everything in between—sometimes versions of that all in the same field. Sandier soils in the Delta can bring peanuts, potatoes, peas and melons into play. These same fields may have cotton, corn and soybeans in the rotation as well. Heavy ground may have rice with either corn or soybeans also in the rotation.”

Using input intelligence

These crops have different fertility demands, which can be affected by various rotations, Christian said.

“For instance, peanuts fix nitrogen, so corn and cotton follow­ing peanuts can require less added nitrogen fertilizer to achieve the same yield goal,” he explained. “The need to account for this in cotton is more magnified because you can have too much nitrogen.”

Sandy soil offers its own set of challenges, Christian continued.

“One example would be potassium,” he said. “Many growers wait until spring because they are afraid of leaching when ap­plying potash on sand. There is work being done to help figure out just how much it can actually hold.”

When talking with producers about forage production, Jones said understanding the farm’s soil type is crucial to determining what species will grow best.

“If they have rocky ground or shallow soils, just 5 or 6 inches before hitting bedrock, I typically increase the rate of little bluestem and sideoats grama,” he said. “If they have good, deep, productive soils that are also kind of dry and sandy, then big bluestem and Indiangrass work well. If the producer has wet clay that holds water or drains poorly, then I look at planting switchgrass and gammagrass. But to find the most productive forage, you really need to understand the soils on the farm.”

Knowing soil type is also vital when applying herbicides, said Doug Spaunhorst, MFA director of agronomy. He pointed out that herbicide labels categorize soils more broadly into coarse, medium or fine texture.

“It is important to consider the soil texture, the distribution of sand, silt and clay particles that make up the soil colloid,” Spaunhorst explained. “For example, clay soils like to hold on to herbicides in the same way they like to hold on to water particles. Rainfall and temperature also influence herbicide persistence and soil pH.”

Saving the soil

Jones pointed out that NRCS offers science-based soil infor­mation to help farmers, ranchers, foresters and other land managers effectively manage and conserve their most valuable investment—the soil.

“The health of that soil is what our industry is built on, and we have to take care of it,” he said.

The USDA offers four principles to promote soil health. First is to minimize soil disturbance by limiting tillage, using proper chemical input and rotating livestock. The second is to maxi­mize the soil cover year-round by planting cover crops, leaving plant residue and using organic mulch. Third is to expand biodiversity above and below ground by using diverse cover crops and rotations as well as integrating livestock. The fourth principle is to boost the presence of living roots, which help reduce soil erosion and provide food for microbes and earth­worms.

“I don’t necessarily believe that cover crops are the panacea, but I do believe they hold soil,” Scott Wilburn, MFA senior staff agronomist, said. “Drive around in the country during a heavy rain and compare the runoff from the fields with a cover crop or wheat to the fields that are worked clean. It’s dramatic. Soil is foundational to all we do, so anything that protects it should be utilized.”

Missourians have long known the importance of soil health and show it through their funding of soil and water conserva­tion by supporting the 0.1 of 1% Parks, Soils and Water Sales Tax. First approved in 1984, Show-Me State voters have contin­ued to renew the tax on the ballot every 10 years.

About 50% of the tax revenue is designated to saving soil and protecting the state’s water resources. Most of those dollars help agricultural landowners through voluntary programs developed by the Soil and Water Districts Commission and administered by the Soil and Water Conservation Program through district boards in Missouri’s 114 counties.

It’s an effort that Hugh Hammond Bennett would no doubt be proud to see as today’s growers and agronomists continue his quest to preserve the soil, and in turn, preserve life itself.

“Sustainable management practices will improve soil health,” Lugo-Camacho said. “Mother Nature is very good at healing degraded soil, but we must do our part.”

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Career connections

AGRICULTURE STUDENTS LEARNED ABOUT a “world of opportunity” in the industry at MFA’s Ag Life conference Dec. 7 at the Civic Center in Jackson, Mo. More than 180 sophomores, juniors and seniors from 11 area schools participated in the event, which featured nine different educational sessions.

The idea was to connect with the community and invest in local students, said Tony Lucius, MFA director of retail strategy, who led efforts to organize the event.

“I think there’s a common perception that farming is all about driving a tractor. Those of us involved in ag know that’s not an accurate perception, but sometimes perception is reality,” Lucius said. “We’re trying to bust that myth, so to speak, and educate stu­dents on what agriculture really is in a changing environment. This event is designed to provide a quick snapshot of the real world of agriculture across many different categories.”

The interactive conference was a follow-up to a similar event held in 2019 at MFA in Piggott, Ark. This time, Lucius said the idea was to open it up to a wider audience and “ramp up” the offerings.

“We wanted to test the water to see if the schools in this area wanted to be a part of something like this and if there was a need for this type of educational event,” he said. “By the great turnout today, we can see that they’re embracing it and want more of it. We’ve had positive comments from all the teachers.”

More than 30 volunteers helped put the activities together, from MFA employees to vendors and community partners. Sessions included agronomy, precision technology, drones in agricul­ture, application equipment, fertilizer’s global connections, career building and resumes, veteri­nary science, and range and pasture management. Speakers also took time to discuss their career path with the participating students.

In his opening address, Scott Mink, sales trainer with Syngen­ta, told the group that he had begun his college education with the intention of becoming a physical therapist. He said his first eye-opening day in anatomy and physiology class changed his mind, and he returned to his agricultural roots.

“What I realized is that the agricultural community is special, and it’s the best industry to work in,” Mink said. “And it’s an industry that’s constantly looking for good, young talent—not just on the farm. No matter what your interest or skill, I can promise you there’s something in agriculture that can get you to where you want to be in your career. That’s what I want you to focus on today as you go through your sessions.”

One of the attendees, sophomore Trae Yamintz of Meadow Heights FFA, said the event gave him and fellow classmates a chance to experience some of the latest technologies and learn more about real-world agricultural jobs from people who are working in the field.

“I’ve really enjoyed seeing all the new equipment and learning about things in agriculture that I didn’t know before,” said Yamintz as he inspected the controls of a new John Deere 600R fertilizer spreader. “I didn’t realize there were so many branches through­out agriculture and all the different jobs.”

Agriculture instructors Abby Burke and Jamie Miller of Perryville High School brought 15 students to the Ag Life confer­ence. They said they appreciated the diver­sity of career opportunities on display as well as the chance to have the young men and women learn from a variety of industry professionals.

“We didn’t really know what to expect coming into this event, but we love MFA as an organization and knew anything that they put on would be great,” Burke said. “Here in the southeast part of the state, our opportunities can sometimes get a little far away, so having something so close has been really rewarding and easy on us and our school system.”

An essay contest was also held prior to the event. Andrew Nix of Chaffee High School was named as the winner.

Lucius said plans are to repeat the conference in another two or three years with a new crop of 10th-12th graders. He’d also like to see the Ag Life conference expand into other areas.

“At the end of the day, we hope that these students really do see a world of opportunities, whether they’re into science, math, FFA, or whatever,” Lucius said. “What we’re doing here today can expose them to information and opportunities in ag that might become a fulfilling career later in life.”

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Off to a great start

In agriculture, everything doesn’t always go as planned. Livestock producer Dakota Turley knows this unavoidable truth all too well. The young farmer has seen his fair share of ups and downs since starting his own cattle operation at age 16, and calving season is inevitably one of the most stressful times on his farm in Hartville, Mo.

This fall was no exception. One particularly difficult birth presented an extraor­dinary challenge for Turley Cattle Company, the 220-head Angus-based cow/calf operation that the 30-year-old cattleman runs with his wife, Amanda, and their daughters, Carleigh and Claira.

“I was doing my usual evening routine of feeding and checking heifers when I noticed that there were three missing,” said Turley, who also manages MFA’s fertil­izer plant in Grovespring, Mo. “After a bit of searching, I found them. One heifer had a calf on the ground, and the other two were in labor. I checked on the two again about an hour later. One had calved, but the other heifer had only managed to push out the front two hooves of her calf. I decided it would be best to give her a little more time and to check on her again in an hour.”

After the second check, the calf had not progressed.

“My rule for heifers is if they have not had the calf in two hours, we get them up and pull it,” Turley explained. “That night, I gave this heifer a little longer than I should have.”

Once he got the laboring heifer up and in the chute, the cattleman said he had a bad feeling.

“I knew it had been too long because the calf’s head and tongue were swollen,” Turley recalled. “By the time we pulled the calf, which was larger than I thought, I was sure it would not survive.”

That’s when he remembered a recent conversation with Paul Brune, MFA affiliate livestock specialist. While working cattle together on a neighboring farm, Brune had discussed the benefits of MFA’s Shield Plus, an oral supplement that stimu­lates appetite, provides quick energy and helps develop immunity in newborns and stressed animals.

“Shield Plus contains concentrated colos­trum extract, synbiotics, botanical extracts, fatty acids and vitamins that are essential for a newborn,” Brune said. “Little calves get stressed in the cold temperatures and on the wet ground, so this gives them an energy boost to get up and get milk.”

Though he expected the worst from the struggling calf, Turley said he decided now was the time to put Shield Plus to the test.

“The calf gave a slight twitch of his ear and took a deep breath. So, I grabbed him and held him up for the fluid to drain,” he said. “Based on my experience, anytime I encountered this situation, the outcome was never good. But I ran to the truck and took the Shield Plus off my dash. I gave the calf a dose and left mama to take care of her baby.”

Not able to sleep, knowing that he had a calf in distress, Tur­ley went out about 2 a.m.

“The calf, whose head had been so swollen and his tongue would not stay in his mouth, was over in the corner with mama, nursing away,” he said. “This little calf was supposed to be dead, but he was now up and trying to buck and kick. I know that giving the dose of Shield Plus is what made the difference.”

When MFA introduced Shield Technology in 2015, MFA minerals and feeds were the first to receive the proprietary, research-based blend of essential oils and other additives designed to enhance animal performance and health. Since then, the Shield line has expanded to include a complete selection of products to fit just about any livestock feeding situation.

Shield Plus was added to the offerings in 2017. The all-natural formula contains anti-inflammatory compounds that help reduce fever, botanical extracts with antimicrobial, antifun­gal and antioxidant properties along with probiotics and pre­biotic fiber that provide “good bacteria” to improve gut health. Vitamins A, D and E assist with calcium absorption, protect cells from free radicals and help prevent oxidative stress. And spray-dried egg antibodies combat scours, one of the biggest threats to calf health.

Shield Plus is administered with a convenient dosing syringe or pump bottle, which allows the product to go over the tonsils of the animal and be absorbed immediately, Brune said.

“Best of all, Shield Plus doesn’t require a veterinary feed directive,” he added. “This June, most livestock antibiotics will need a prescription from the veterinarian. By keeping the calf healthier with Shield Plus, there will be less of a need for this.”

For livestock producers, losing a calf takes a toll both finan­cially as well as emotionally. At a cost of about $2 per dose, Turley said the cost-effectiveness of using Shield Plus is a no-brainer. He now gives the supple­ment to every calf born on his farm and has seen improved health throughout his herd.

“Usually in the fall, we have to doctor three or four calves for pneumonia. This, year we doctored zero calves, and I believe it is due to Shield Plus,” he said. “The only thing we’ve changed on the calf side is giving them the Shield Plus at birth. It seems to provide that lit­tle extra that is needed for a healthy start in life.”

For more information on MFA Shield Technology, visit with the livestock ex­perts at your local MFA affiliate or online at mfa-inc.com/Products/Feed/shield.

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Taking hold of the future

IN A YEAR CHARACTERIZED BY relentless volatility and uncertainty, MFA reached near-record profitability in fiscal 2022 by minimizing risks and taking advantage of opportunities to benefit the cooperative and its members.

That was the message from CEO Ernie Verslues to nearly 450 delegates, employ­ees and special guests attending MFA Incorporated’s Annual Meeting Nov. 29, 2022, in Columbia.

“A few years ago, business trends author Patrick Dixon made this statement: ‘Take hold of the future, or the future will take hold of you,’” Verslues said. “That should be a wakeup call for all of us. We can’t sit back and wait for the future to dictate how we operate. A successful future requires we anticipate, plan and implement the changes needed to adapt.”

Those efforts resulted in pre-tax earnings of $27.2 million for MFA’s fiscal year that ended Aug. 31, Chief Financial Officer Karen White reported.

“This profitability allowed us to increase our spend in some key areas and add strength to our balance sheet,” White said. “We are in a good place to confront the challenges we anticipate in fiscal 2023.”

Overall, MFA Incorporated’s net sales reached $1.6 billion, with $192 million in net worth and just over $114 million in working capital. MFA’s average asset level climbed to $845 million, due in part to increases in commodity values and input prices.

Sales on the Agronomy side of the business, made up of Plant Foods, Crop Protection and Seed, were $860 million in 2022, a significant increase from prior years. Livestock supply sales—Feed, Animal Health and Farm Supply categories— were $184 million last year, an increase of $22 million from 2021. Increased feed tonnage and value played a role in the higher figures, White explained. 

For 2022, operating margins totaled $266 million, and expenses were $243 million, White reported. Both numbers are higher than 2021, which she attributed to price appreciation in plant foods, additional volumes in crop protection and feed, and higher costs for fuel, payroll, repairs and maintenance.

MFA’s board of directors voted to return $13 million in patronage dividends and allocate $22 million in DPAD (Domestic Production Activities Deduction) to grain members.

White said fiscal 2023 is off to a “solid start,” with grain receipts slightly below plan but fertilizer, crop protection and feed movement at or slightly above plan. The operating budget for 2023 includes a profit of $14.2 million, with the reduction from 2022 ac­counted for in expected margins.

“The fiscal 2023 operating plan anticipates contin­ued volatility as well as a return to more normal, or expected, profitability levels,” White said. “With the current interest rate environment, we will incur significantly higher interest expense in 2023. The plan includes an increase both volumes and higher commodity and input values, as markets are indicating that high­er prices are here to stay, at least for the near term. The supply chain, along with inflationary pressures and interest rates, will challenge this plan, but we believe it is achievable.”


Chairman Wayne Nichols, who represents District 13 on the board, led the meeting for the last time. He will end his board service in March 2023 after 12 years as a director, five of those as chairman.

Nichols praised MFA’s employees for their teamwork and dedication to serving the needs of today’s farmers, who he said are now “quite sophisticated in their approach to agriculture” and look to MFA for quality products, prompt service and key advice.

“It has been a fascinating experience to serve as one of your di­rectors,” Nichols said. “I was fortunate enough to be on the board when MFA turned 100 and was exposed to the rich history of a Missouri cooperative that has weathered considerable business challenges and has adapted and evolved when so many organiza­tions like ours did not. The old saying, ‘The journey truly is the destination,’ certainly applies to MFA Incorporated.”

In his address to the membership, Verslues mentioned several challenges bombarding the industry, including supply chain constraints, rising inflation, ongoing drought, the war in Ukraine, transportation concerns, labor shortages and impending recession.

“I can’t recall a year that our staff had more challenges to overcome than this past year,” he said. “Many individual opera­tions and support areas got more done with fewer people than they ever have before. Of all the comments I make today, this is the one I am most proud of. There is no quit in Team MFA. We always find a way to get the job done. We are committed to pro­viding value to the customers and communities we serve.”

As examples of that value, Verslues pointed out that MFA completed or started several large capital expenditure projects in 2022, including a rebuild and expansion of the West Central AGRIServices facility in Adrian, Mo., new agronomy centers at Ravenwood and Higginsville, upgrades to the Walker feed facility, complete replace­ment of offices and warehouse at Kahoka, new tanks at the Owensville feed mill and significant investments in rolling stock. MFA Incorporated also took sole ownership of the Ham­ilton Rail Facility from MFA Oil Com­pany, a transaction that was completed Sept. 30. 

“Recognizing and adapting to change is one of the keys to growth and longevity,” Verslues said. “We must continue to lever­age MFA’s strengths to increase our value to your operations. In short, our plans will focus on technology, people and opera­tions. How we do it will be affected by the challenges I’ve listed here. Teamwork is at a very high level in the organization, and I’m confident we can meet the challenge. We are ready to do our part in shaping the future of MFA.”


Parallel to MFA’s profitability, U.S. farm income was also expected to reach record levels in 2022, said Scott Brown, interim director of the University of Missouri Rural and Farm Finance Policy Cen­ter. In his forward-looking presentation to the annual meeting audience, Brown also addressed many of the same challenges that Verslues mentioned and outlined what farmers might be facing in 2023.

“It wasn’t that many years ago that we were talking about U.S. farm income in the $60 to $70 billion range. USDA’s telling us 2022 will be another year of $140-billion-plus,” he said. “It’s an amazing change in a short period of time. We’re not done with volatility, but it’s not all negative. The volatility is going to give us challenges and opportunities as we go forward.”

Increasing expenses have tempered farm profits over the past couple of years, Brown said, and he expects production costs to stay “stubbornly high” for some time. 

“The problem is that while receipts have gone up nicely, so have expenses,” he said. “That creates a cost-price squeeze that is concerning if commodity prices were to move lower.”

Like Verslues, Brown said he fears the economy is headed for recession in 2023, although its depth and longevity are unknown. Regardless, he added, any level of recession would likely affect consumer demand for agricultural products.

“We’re already seeing some shifts,” Brown said. “Steak prices moved lower in 2022, and ground beef prices moved higher. To me, that is some indication consumers are already starting to buy down. We’re going to have to watch that piece of the demand puzzle as we look ahead.”

Managing risk will be extremely important for farmers, he told the group, as the industry continues to face familiar challenges and yet-to-be-seen concerns that could impact markets for U.S. agriculture in the coming year and beyond. The 2023 Farm Bill will also factor into that future, Brown pointed out.

“I think 2023 farm income will be lower than where we sit in 2022,” he pre­dicted. “I am not suggesting the bottom falls out, but there are more downside risks. Not having a risk management plan is certainly a strategy, but it’s not the best one in these markets.”

“And I would encourage you not to ignore what’s happening in D.C. next year related to the Farm Bill,” Brown added. “What happens if the subsidies for crop insurance were to be lowered? Just pay attention. I think that fight gets tougher and tougher as we go ahead.”


The meeting’s closing speaker, Mark Scharenbroich, had some straightforward advice for MFA members and employees: Make a true connection, and posi­tive results will follow.

The Minnesotan shared his humor and motivational wisdom, based on the idea that people have two core needs: the need to belong and the need to hear, “nice bike.” The latter reference—and the name of Scharenbroich’s book— came from an observation he made at Harley Davidson’s 100-year anniversary event, where he repeatedly heard the compliment, “nice bike,” among the thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts. Those simple words, he said, triggered an instant connection and camaraderie among strangers.

“I contend when we create teams and communities where people know that who they are and what they do matters, amazing growth takes place,” Schar­enbroich said. “‘Nice bike’ is a metaphor that embodies three words: acknowl­edge, honor, connect. Acknowledge means to be fully present in the lives of others. Honor means you create remarkable experiences for others. Connect means make it personal.”

MFA is built on the power of connection, he added, a force that continues to propel the cooperative forward 108 years after its founding.

“You’ve been connected since that very first group of seven farmers got together in 1914 to support each other and help each other grow,” Scharen­broich said. “That tradition continues today, as you wrap up this amazing year with MFA. You support each other. You connect with each other, and you help each other grow.” 

Check out the related financial summary story: "2022 in Review"

Read more stories in this Feb. 2023 issue of Today's Farmer magazine.

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