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Meadows with a Mission

Young monarch caterpillars munch on milkweed, while mature butterflies flit from flower to flower. A pair of bobwhite quail amble into the protective underbrush at the field’s edge. Bees, beetles, dragonflies and moths dart and dance across the gold-toned meadow.

This late-summer landscape is teeming with life, which is exactly what the landowner, Adam Jones, wants to see.

“If you plant something that’s good for pollinators, you’re going to create seed and structure that’s good for wildlife, too,” said Adam, natural resource conservation specialist for MFA Incorporated who also farms with his family in Maywood, Mo. “Diversity is the main thing. That’s what animals and insects are looking for. They like tall stuff, short stuff and plants that bloom at different times of the year.”

Planting such plots has been a popular—and important—conservation practice in recent years as numbers of key pollinators dwindle to frightening lows, mainly due to habitat loss. More than 150 food crops in the United States, including almost all fruit and grain, depend on pollinators, according to the USDA, which estimates the value of these crops at $10 billion per year. Yet numerous species of important pollinators such as butterflies, moths, bats and native bees are suffering from declining populations.

To turn around this decline, government and industry are banking heavily on the efforts of farmers, local communities and citizens to adopt more pollinator-friendly practices. Mul­tiple cost-share programs and initiatives exist to create more conducive habitat that includes perennial wildflowers, forbs and native grasses, particularly on agricultural land. Pollinator plots are a good fit for farmers, Jones said, because they can be established without sacrificing production of cash crops.

“Pollinator plots are perfect way to make better use of margin­al land,” he explained. “They’re well suited for low-yield fields and areas that don’t make economic sense to farm. The seed mixes are all native plants that can thrive in places where crops would struggle.”

Jones established his farm’s pollinator plot four years ago on 17 acres of unproductive sandy soil adjacent to the Fabi­us River. He enrolled the acreage in USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program CP42 Pollina­tor Habitat practice, which provides a per-acre signing incentive, annual rental payments and cost-share funds for establishment and maintenance.

“When I was a kid, we always called this the sand field,” Jones said. “Over in the corner, it looks like the kind of sand you’d play in with your Tonka trucks. We were lucky to raise half a crop here every year. Pollinator habitat is a much better way to use this land. When you look at CRP acres and where we ought to be putting them, it’s places like this.”

If landowners don’t have an entire field to devote to pollinator habitat, the field margins, fencerows and buffer strips are also perfect for this type of planting, he added.

“Honestly, they do good no matter where you put them,” Jones said. “And when it comes to pollinator plots, I don’t know that size matters. It’s going to get used if it’s half an acre; it’s going to get used if it’s 20 acres.”

Along with adding value to otherwise unproductive areas, pollinator plots provide a multitude of other benefits, Jones pointed out. They enhance the farm’s overall biodiversity while helping to protect water quality and prevent soil erosion. They are low-maintenance land management options that also hap­pen to be aesthetically pleasing.

“Who doesn’t like a field full of pretty flowers?” Jones asked.

Pollinators on display

Last winter, demonstration pollinator plots were installed at MFA Agri Services locations in California, Kirksville, and Mexico, Mo. The mix included 50 different species of native flowers and forbs that started growing this past spring and sum­mer, but Jones said it will likely be the summer of 2022 before they are fully blooming. As the plots mature, they will help educate farmers, landowners and the general public about the process of planting similar plots and the benefits they offer.

“There were a lot of reasons for putting in these plots,” Jones said. “On a practical note, we were spending money and time to mow these areas of the proper­ty when they could be used for pollinator habitat. So it was not only a good thing to do, but it’s also a cost and labor reduction. Plus, once it gets really established with flowers that look nice, people will start asking questions about what’s out there and maybe want to put in their own pollinator plots.”

Similarly, in December 2018, MFA worked with the Paris High School FFA chapter to sow a half-acre pollinator plot on the school grounds. The plantings have now grown into a thriving habitat with more than 30 different varieties of native, blooming plants. It’s not only been a teaching tool for students but also an attraction for the community, said Josh Bondy, the school’s ag teacher and FFA advisor.

“We’ve done plant identification with some of the classes, and next week, my freshmen are going to do a unit on bugs, so we’re going to come out and collect insects from the plot to study,” Bondy said. “We do nature walks out here from time to time, and last year, a kindergarten class raised monarch butter­flies and released them here. I know some people in town have also used it to take pictures. It’s been a good addition to our school and ag program.”

Paris agricultural students are actively involved in the plot’s management, collecting data and helping with maintenance practices. For example, some of the students helped conduct a prescribed burn of the plot last fall with assistance from Mis­souri Department of Conservation Private Lands Conservation­ist James Ebbesmeyer.

“It was a good experience because we got to learn how to control the fire,” said Owen Totten, an 11th-grader and FFA member. “We had two guys on one side of the fire and three guys on the other side. We were burning it down toward each other, until we met up in the middle, and the fire died out.”

Give plots a shot

Prescribed fire is one of very few management practices needed once the plot is established, Jones said. Controlled burns are recommended every three to four years to clear out unwanted veg­etation and allow native plants to regenerate.

“Pollinator habitat requires very little care,” he said. “Once you establish it and know what you’re doing, it’s mostly hands off. Mowing and burning, that’s about it, just to reset succession and keep the trees out of it. These are all perennial species that come back every year. There’s just not much else you have to do.”

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all pollinator plot, Jones said. The “best” seed mix and establishment methods will depend on the targeted pollinator species, soil type, drainage, size, budget and other factors. However, there are some recommended practices to help ensure success.

“The more diverse the seed mix, the better, but the more diverse, the more expensive,” Jones said. “My plot has about 15 species total, and it looks pretty good. Purists will tell you that if you’re going to do good pollinator work, you need these insanely diverse mixes that have 30, 40, 50 species in them. That’s fine, but then you start get­ting into the range of $400 to $600 dollars an acre, and there’s not much appetite for that. If you keep it to fairly common, commercially grown seeds, you can keep the cost of the seed down.”

For those who are establishing pollinator plots from scratch, fall is the ideal time to start, Jones said, emphasizing that proper site preparation is crucial. Eliminating competition from weeds and other undesirable plants is key to the success of pollinator habitat. The site also needs to prepped so that seed can make direct contact with the soil.

“The No. 1, easiest way to establish something like this is planting into soybean stubble,” Jones said. “Most of the weed competition is already gone. You can scatter seed, and it’ll hit bare soil. You can plant into corn stubble, too, but with soybeans you don’t have as much residue out there.”

Planting into a grassy area, such as a yard, pasture or hay field, is also entirely feasible, Jones said, although it takes a little more work on the front end to get rid of existing vegetation. Fall is also the best time to tackle that task.

“That’s when cool-season grasses are very susceptible to herbicides because they’re trying to store nutrients into the root system for next spring,” he said. “You want to use a broad-spectrum product like glyphosate but nothing with soil residuals that could impact germi­nation of your pollinator seed. You may have to burn down multiple times to take care of the competition. That’s very important in the es­tablishment year because the young, native species can pretty easily get shaded out by more robust plants.”

Cold is cool

After the site is prepared, growers should plan to sow their pollinator plot over the winter, ideally December, January or February, Jones said. Seed mixes are available through any MFA location, along with site preparation products and tools. Broadcasting is the typical meth­od, but the seed can also be drilled. Planting during colder months allows the seeds to go through the natural freeze-thaw process these native cultivars need for establishment.

“A lot of these seeds need to be what we call ‘stratified’ before they’re activated,” Jones explained. “They need that whole seasonal cycle to recognize that the next time it warms up, it’s time to grow. That’s what they’re used to in nature. If you wait and throw the seed mix out there later in the spring, you’ll likely have a lot of species that will not germinate.”

Plus, he added, the freeze-thaw cycle helps work the seed into the proper soil depth for spring germination.

“Seeding on snow is good, too, because you can see where the seed lands,” Jones continued. “And frozen ground allows you to traverse it easily without mudding it all up.”

Although the CP42 practice he used on his farm is one of the most well-known government programs for this type of conservation effort, many other USDA offerings and public-private initiatives exist to help growers install and maintain pollinator plots. Funding and assistance are available through the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Departments of Natural Resources and even groups such as Quail Forever and the National Wild Tur­key Federation—just to name a few. MFA Incorporated is also active in Missourians for Monarchs, a collaborative of conservation and agricultural organizations, government agencies, utilities, agribusinesses and citizens committed to monarch and pollinator conservation. Jones, who serves on the collaborative’s steering committee, says MFA terri­tory falls in the epicenter of the monarch’s breeding and migratory path from Mexico to Canada.

Jones advises farmers or landowners to reach out to their local USDA offices to find out what program would best fit their situation.

While such assistance is welcomed, Jones added, he said his motivation to implement more pollinator-friendly practices goes well beyond any monetary incentives.

“I truly enjoy seeing the blooming plants and all the wildlife and insects that are out there because of this plot,” he said. “It makes me almost as proud as growing a decent crop. It’s all about wanting to do better, not just for nature but also for the legacy of your farm.”

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In this August/September 2021 Today's Farmer

Click story headlines below to view stories

Kaskaskia Island - Cover Story
Tenacity, tradition, tribulations

Planting for premiums
Niche markets give producers incentive to grow non-GMO crops

Q&A with MFA
Learn more about your cooperative leaders (Click for flipbook version)
by WAYNE NICHOLS, MFA Chairman of the Board of Directors

FDA takes veterinary feed directive to next level
All forms of animal antibiotics will soon be prescription only

2021 MFA Foundation Scholarships announced
(external link - MFA Foundation)

Producers trust in Health Track
MFA’s own preconditioning program continues to provide value-added opportunities.


Invest in P and K instead of Fe this fall
Farm equipment may be hard to come by, but soil fertility is money well spent

Stretch your forage resources
Treated corn stover can provide alternative when faced with shortages

Country Corner
Help wanted is a sign of the times

Soaring through a century
MU seeks input for land rental rate survey
Taking back control

MARKETS - (Click for flipbook version)
Corn: Next crop production reports will clarify supply demand
Soybeans: Prices sensitive to weather in U.S., South America
Cattle: Prices headed higher as inflation returns
Wheat: Production of all wheat down significantly

RECIPES - (Click for flipbook version)

BUY, SELL, TRADE - (Click for flipbook version)

Shaping the ag workforce


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Producers trust in Health Track

The ability to capture critical data on each animal in a beef operation is more important than ever as livestock traceability increasingly becomes a focus of producers and consumers in every corner of the globe.

Radiofrequency identification (RFID) ear tags, such as those used by MFA’s Health Track program, assures that the data is accurate. Each tag is guaranteed to have a unique number and is permanent and non-removable. Information such as weaning weights, vaccination dates and more can be tied to that RFID number in a digital database for quick, accessible reference.

“When your cattle receive Health Track ear tags, you are qual­ified for every single program that wants to trace product all the way back to the original people who produced that animal,” said Mike John, MFA’s director of Health Track operations. “I think that’s a huge benefit not only from a production stand­point, but also for future market access.”

This technology is just one example of the benefits Health Track has been bringing producers since its beginning 21 years ago. It’s one of the oldest, largest and most unique precondition­ing programs in the nation with nearly 800,000 head of cattle tagged—and counting. Health Track participants give enrolled calves two rounds of vaccinations, provide MFA-recommended feed and follow a 45-day weaning period.

In addition to helping ensure animal health before and after weaning, Health Track can help producers earn a premium price at the sale barn.

One such producer is David Sudbrock, who raises Hereford and red Angus cattle near Centralia, Mo. Prior to using Health Track, Sudbrock would take his feeder calves straight to the sale barn after weaning. He also tried weaning for 30 days, but the calves usually ended up getting sick before they were ready to be sold.

Since making the switch to Health Track in 2001, Sudbrock says he has seen a sig­nificant difference in the overall health and quality of his calves. Nearly 20 years later, the program has become a tried-and-true method on his farm.

“You keep better track of your cattle. You get your weights and proper vaccinations, then you wean them longer,” Sudbrock said. “I also believe they sell better. It’s worked out well for us.”

He says a contributing factor in the de­cision to stay involved in the program has been his positive experiences with MFA, particularly with Key Account Manager (KAM) Wendy Flatt Beard. She and other MFA livestock KAMs work closely with producers throughout all stages of the program. This includes tagging calves, setting up the vaccination protocols, collecting and inputting data and following up after the calves are sold.

“We not only interact with the producers, but we become part of their operation and they trust us with the information we’re giving them,” Beard said. “If we don’t have that trust built up—proving that we know what we’re talking about—then they’re not going to utilize our services. That’s just what it comes down to.”

In the future, the information captured and stored by Health Track could also influence consumers’ relation­ship with agriculture by promoting greater trust, trace­ability and transparency in the beef industry, John said.

It’s not necessarily a matter of if, but when, this will become a reality, he adds. “It’s not going to be anony­mous anymore,” John said. “People are going to know where their food came from.”

Putting people first

It’s no surprise that Tony Koger, recently retired MFA live­stock specialist, has been called a Health Track legend. Out of the 800,000 calves enrolled in the program, Koger has tagged 104,697 of them, approximately 13% of the total.

Koger retired in June 2021, after almost 29 years with the company. His contributions to the Health Track program and its participants exemplify the program’s focus on customer partnering.

“Building relationships with the producers and people I work with has been one of the most rewarding parts,” Koger said. “As far as the value of these relationships, I’m not sure you can put a number on it.”

During his career, Koger said he truly became part of his producers’ operations. He’s not the only one. Health Track is founded on the partnerships formed between customers and employees, said Mike John, MFA’s director of Health Track operations. He believes this relationship-driven mindset is the main reason for the program’s continued success.

“When we step on somebody’s farm who’s in Health Track, we know that they’re committed to doing something better, and that’s been incredibly valuable for both parties—both for MFA and for our customer base,” John said. “When you start developing that relationship, it gets to be about not only customer service but also results.”

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Kaskaskia Island: Tenacity, tradition, tribulations

The sound of a thousand mosquitoes buzzed in their ears as they pushed their way through the thick woods and un­derbrush of southern Illinois along the Mississippi River. Sweat stung their eyes as they peered toward the Kaskaskia Native American village on the other side, just visible through a gap in the thick foliage of elms and oaks impeding their movement toward the east bank of the river. Wriggling tails of campfire smoke rose slowly toward the moody sky, which promised the imminent return of rain.

It had been raining sporadically but torrentially for nearly a week as Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette, a Catholic missionary, and French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet hewed their way from their overnight campsite toward the river bank, back to their worthy boat and across the Mississippi toward the village.

They were hungry. They were tired. And everything they had was wet.

The year was 1675, and only two years had slid by before Father Marquette and Jolliet made their missionary return to this area. The Kaskaskia natives and French traders eagerly awaited their arrival.

The boat carrying the weary two gently ran aground on the bank of the Mississippi, lurching the passengers slightly forward. Jolliet jumped out and into the sticky clay, water up to his knees, to help pilot the boat further inland. Marquette couldn’t help a slight grin as he watched the natives’ excitement. Presently, Jolliet pulled the boat far enough ashore to secure it, and both disembarked onto solid ground. The missionary and his companion explorer were greeted warmly and provided shelter and warmth.

* * *

Later, Marquette would proclaim the nascent church in the village as the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. Although he died on his way back to Quebec, in 1703 other French Jesuits transferred their Illinois Native American mission from the Illinois River near Starved Rock to Kas­kaskia in present-day Randolph County, Ill.

“When the French first came (to Kaskaskia Island), they had to start from scratch with whatever they had,” said Emily Lyons, Kaskaskia historian and former Island of Kaskaskia primary school teacher. “They built it up until it was the most prosperous town in the whole area for many years.”

Kaskaskia had by then become a relatively well-known trade and agricul­tural stop along the Mississippi River. The relationship between Kaskaskia natives and French traders was peaceful and neighborly, punctuated by fair dealing and brotherly love.

Because the river’s path has changed over time, Kaskaskia Island is the only inhabited piece of Illinois land west of the Mississippi. Hundreds of years ago, the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers were slower moving and created a peninsula at Kaskaskia. In 1881, a harsh win­ter froze the Mississippi, creating an ice dam that dredged through that peninsula. Today, those rivers have changed so much that Kaskaskia is now considered an island, separat­ing it geographically from the rest of Illinois and Missouri.

Islanders grew so prosperous after Western settlement that Kaskaskia was the home of Illinois’ first territorial capitol in 1809 and first state capitol in 1818, after Illinois became the 21st state. Despite Kaskaskia’s historical pros­perity, the island has seen multiple, devastating flooding events, often resulting in major reconstruction, restoration and rebuilding efforts. The first village, closer to north end of the island, is partially buried under river sediment or washed away. The only hint of the old town’s original 325 acres is whispered by clusters of standing trees, marking probable structural foundations of houses or businesses. Most recently the great flood of 1993, which submerged parts of the new town in water, reduced the population on the island to a mere fraction of what it once was.

Dan Lankford is one of the last full-time residents on the island. He and his son, Alex, tend more than 1,200 acres of farmland in Kaskaskia—mostly corn and soybean. Lankford also served 12 years as levee commissioner.

“I had 13 feet of water in my house in ’93,” Lank­ford said. “But it was still standing. We just had to put in some insulation, sheetrock and fix it back up. So that’s what we did.”

Other farmers who did not have as much resolve or resiliency were forced to the surrounding areas. But islanders had seen a perhaps even more devastating flood in 1973, during which the school, homes, busi­nesses and other structures were mostly or entirely destroyed.

“In ’73 there were over 300 (residents of Kaskaskia),” Lankford said. That particular flood destroyed large portions of the new town.

At the same time, as farms and farming equipment expanded in size, the number of farmers needed to do the work shrunk, Lyons said. Many residents found work elsewhere, and an 8-to-5 job displaced full-time farming as a way of life.

The cost to rebuild is still another obstacle to remaining on Kaskaskia Island. Flood insurance is often economically pro­hibitive, said Lyons. Insurance and FEMA payouts are often not enough to entirely compensate for a total or even partial loss of farm equipment and inputs or rebuilding essential farming structures. And even though some Kaskaskia farmers continue to toil and till, their children may have explored other educa­tional and career opportunities.

Today, Lankford said he is one of the last full-time farmers and only one of about 50 residents who still live on the island. Records show just 11 island farmers continue to grow the Missouri and Illinois favorites there: corn, wheat and soybean. These farmers also rent acreage from several landowners.

So, if flooding continues to decimate crops and property on Kaskaskia Island, why do people persist in farming the land?

“You’re never going to find better dirt anywhere,” said Mary Sulser, full-time island resident and Village treasurer. That dirt is classified as “gumbo,” a heavy, sticky, clay soil that is rich in free-ion potassium, calcium, magnesium and sodium—nutri­ents essential to healthy crop growth. Kaskaskia’s relatively high water table, in concert with its abundantly fertile soil, helps feed and water hungry crops. Farming on the island can mean big yields and big profits for farmers.

That is, when the Mississippi River doesn’t interrupt agricul­tural efforts on the island.

To that end, a 21-mile-long levee was built around a major­ity of the farmland on Kaskaskia by the Army Corps of Engi­neers in 1916, Lyons said. After the 1973 flood, the levee was reinforced to its present height. Additionally, the section of the Mississippi that curves around the island was dredged and channeled to help mitigate heavy floods, Lyons said. However, that increased river water velocity. So now if it floods, faster, more furious river water pours over the levees of Kaskaskia.

“We came very close to a (levee) breach in 2019,” Sulser said. That year Missouri and Illinois saw record flooding, resulting in devastating losses for many river towns. In Kaskaskia, volunteer sandbaggers and workers helped keep the levee together and the swelling Mississippi River out.

“We don’t always get along, but when push comes to shove, Kaskaskians come together,” Sulser said.

In fact, almost all public service on the island is comprised of volunteers. “We all volunteer in some way,” Sulser said, whether that be maintaining the levee or organizing several village-wide celebration and tourism opportunities. The Independence Day and Labor Day gatherings are boons for the village’s economy. Lyons manages tours of historic properties, such as the Kas­kaskia Immaculate Conception Church and nearby Liberty Bell of the West Shrine. And although maintaining accurate histor­ical records, archiving data and the conservation of physical artifacts of the past is a full-time occupation, she doesn’t get paid a gumbo cent to do it.

“It’s a 24/7 job,” Lyons said. “These old places take a lot of maintenance, and there’s always the fundraising to keep that maintenance (going). You answer phones and emails at all hours, and you have to adapt to whatever is going on right now.”

Conservation of the few standing historic sites on the island requires a lot of work and money, especially after major flood­ing, either from non-draining rain or levee breach, Lyons said. The 1993 flood forced the Kaskaskia church to temporarily relocate its icons. In the flood’s aftermath, the parish made major renovations to the church’s woodwork, altar and interior accouterments involved in Catholic worship and service.

After the 2019 flooding, the historic church rectory partially sank into the ground, said MFA Precision Agriculture Specialist Rob Rickenburg, who grew up in the area. Rickenburg is now assigned to the MFA agricultural district that services Kaskaskia Island.

“I actually watched contractors drill into the bedrock of the island to install lifts under the rectory’s foundation,” he said. “I couldn’t believe what they were able to do. It took a while, but they got it back right.” Retired MFA employee Tom Sutterer volunteered two weekends to reinforce the rectory by filling its basement with concrete, Rickenburg said.

Today, the Kaskaskia Immaculate Conception Church still holds regu­lar services. Inside, various relics and religious artifacts dating back to the early 18th century continue to adorn the bright white walls and complement the intricate stained glass windows. An elaborately hand-crafted baptismal font nestles in the corner of the chancel, near the sanctuary. The ornately hand-carved altar also was restored by professional woodworkers who specialize in historical carpentry. And the original pipe organ with its glinting, polished brass still yawns its hollow tubes toward the vaulted ceiling.

“I just like to make sure that the history of our ancestors and the history and contributions that Kaskaskia has given to the whole state of Illinois are still out there,” Lyons said. “I feel it’s part of my experience or my representation to make sure that the story is told truthfully. There are so many wild stories. There’s some people who are good storytellers but never let the facts keep them down.”

On the other hand, there are some residents of Kaskaskia who never let a good flood keep them down. Mary Sulser and her husband, Mike, the village president, refuse to relocate off the island. They completely rebuilt their home using their original floor plan after the 1993 flooding—but this time on 18-foot-tall stilts. It’s the only house in Kaskaskia built that high off the ground.

“It’s a sense of freedom,” Sulser said. “You don’t have to worry about raising your kids. It’s not like the bigger towns and cities.”

Kaskaskia children attend school in the nearby town, Ches­ter, Ill., and violent crime rates and other criminal predation is relatively low, according to several state data-reporting sites. Children and grandchildren may play outside, explore the island, ride bikes and generally have the idyllic rural childhood.

It’s not just the relatively low crime rate, or the fertile soil or the rich history that draw people to the island. Maybe it’s also a handshake and a trustworthy smile. Or maybe that it’s a geographical ornament, suspended between two rivers full of fish, where the Milky Way can still be seen at night. What­ever “it” may be, there seems to be something about Kaskaskia that draws people to it through space and time, whether it’s to celebrate special times of year or to stand on the ground where others survived flood, fire and famine.

Kaskaskia’s gravitational pull that beckoned Father Marquette and Louis Jolliet centuries ago and built a classic American town endures just as strong today.

This is Andrew B. Church's first article with Today's Farmer magazine. We are looking forward to his contributions to the magazine.

SEE THE ARTICLE AS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED VIA FLIPBOOK HERE: http://mfa.uberflip.com/i/1396654-augsep2021todaysfarmermagazine/21?

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