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Better way to hay

Quality or quantity? When it comes to hay production, it’s not an either/or question. You want both.

Every year, we are asked by producers, “How can I make high-quality hay and lots of it?” There’s no sim­ple answer. That’s what Ben Buckner, one of our MFA customers in southwest Missouri, discovered when he started managing forage more attentively on his cow/ calf operation in Walnut Grove. He raises 275 acres of hay and produces an average of 750 bales each year to support his beef herd.

“I’ve come to realize there are better ways to do things than the way I’ve done them in the past,” Ben told us, emphasizing that proper harvest timing and fertilization are two of his most important consider­ations.

For the past few years, Ben has worked with his local MFA to soil sample his forage fields and create a custom fertilizer blend, rather than spreading a blanket 3-1-1 analysis as he had done for many years. Last year, he enrolled in MFA’s Nutri-Track precision pro­gram, which helps him manage soil fertility on an acre-by-acre basis. He plans to add more acres this year.

Following other recommended management practic­es, Ben said he sprays his hayfields for weeds as much as his budget will allow and tries to start harvesting hay as early as possible to maximize quality and quan­tity. He’s learned that achieving the best of both worlds in hay production requires multistep management that starts long before baling.

If you, too, want a closer focus on high-quality, high-quantity hay, we offer these management tips to help accomplish your goals.

Species selection and diversity

The type of forage you grow is a driving force behind the quantity of hay you produce. Here in the Midwest, we have plenty of forage choices, and over time we can make species changes that improve production and create an abundant supply for the majority of the year.

Fescue is the predominant forage in the Midwest and yields 1 to 3 tons per acre in a single cutting and 3 to 5 tons in two or more cuttings during the season. These totals are quite typical for any cool-season grass.

To increase tons per acre by species selection, look to alfalfa, bermudagrass, native warm-season grasses (NWSG) or summer annuals. Alfalfa and bermuda are both capable of 6-plus tons per acre in three to five cuttings per season. NWSG yields can average 4 to 5 tons per acre on the first cutting, depending on the species, and may yield a second cutting. Eastern gammagrass, big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass all work well for haying operations. Sorghum-Sudangrass is an annual capable of two to three cuttings of 2-plus tons per acre.

We highly encourage you to have a portion of your farm in warm-season grasses. They’re harvested later than cool-season forages and can provide good-quality hay without increasing your workload during the busiest part of spring. Plus, native grasses are inherently more efficient with fertilizer than most other forages.

When it comes to quality, there is a fair amount of variabil­ity among various species. Legumes, as a rule, test higher in crude protein and digestibility than perennial, annual and native grasses. That being said, stage of maturity at cutting has the largest impact in crude protein, digestibility and energy in baled forage.

Grid soil sampling

Many growers use composite soil samples, which can get you started in the right direction. A composite soil sample gives you the average fertility and pH of the field. That means roughly half the field is above that mark and half is below. When you apply the recommended plant nutrients and lime, you meet the needs of half the field, but it won’t be enough for the other half.

Grid sampling through a program such as MFA’s Nutri-Track gives you a comprehensive look at the fertility and pH of every acre. Composite samples are taken on a 2.5-acre grid, which allows you to precisely apply nutrients and lime. Think about it as a report card with details on how you can maximize forage production more efficiently.

On the Buckner farm, Ben had seen an increase in sage grass in a hay field where he’d always applied the same fertilizer analysis. After working with MFA on soil testing and custom application, he said the sage grass has decreased and hay yields have increased.

“MFA has really helped me by making a fertilizer blend that is not only what my soil needs but also the most economical for my operation,” Ben said. “Most producers have limited acres, and Nutri-Track allows me to maximize every acre of my hay fields to be more efficient and productive.”

Variable-rate application of lime and fertilizer

The soil-test reports generated through Nutri-Track allow pro­ducers to use variable-rate technology to spoon-feed each acre with the proper amount of fertilizer and lime. As a result, you maximize production while more efficiently investing fertilizer dollars.

A proper diet of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulfur plays a key role in hay quantity and quality. Phosphorus, in particular, has many uses in the plant. One of the most im­portant is developing and maintaining a vigorous root system for uptake of nutrients and water. Potassium, too, has many essential functions in the plant, such as improving standability and water-use efficiency. In drought situations, low P and K levels indicate poor root systems that can’t hang on to what little water is available.

Variable-rate applications of lime are just as crucial to hay health. Having the correct pH on every acre makes all nutrients more available to the plant, therefore improving leaf matter, pal­atability and crude protein levels. Better palatability improves consumption and animal performance.

Weed control

It goes without saying that controlling weeds increases forage quality. This is especially true with the huge influx of toxic weeds we have seen in recent years, such as poison hemlock, horse nettle, perilla mint and nightshade. Unfortunately, most remain toxic when cut, baled and fed, so control of these weeds is a must.

Controlling weeds isn’t just about improving quality, howev­er. Long term, controlling weeds also has a huge impact on tons per acre. For every pound of weeds you terminate, you get 1 to 2 pounds of desirable forage in return. Start with a clean field and keep it clean for maximum yields.

Mowing height

Before harvest begins, be sure your cutter bar is set to the right height. For cool-season grasses, it should be at least 4 inches high, while alfalfa and bermudagrass can be cut at 2 inches without adverse effects. Annual and native warm-season grasses should cut to a height of 6 to 8 inches.

Growers often ask why we recommend leaving so much for­age in the field. The answer is two-fold: stand life and recovery time. Repeatedly cutting below the recommended height, or the growing point of the plant, decreases tillering and thins the stand, allowing more room for competitive weeds to encroach. Short cutting heights also remove much of the carbohydrate reserves and photosynthesis capacity, delaying recovery of the grass stand. Rapid recovery leads to a higher likelihood of a good, timely second harvest, and honestly, you really don’t add that many pounds to the harvest with shorter cuttings.

Harvest timing

Maturity stage at harvest is the most important factor influ­encing forage quality. As the crop matures, crude protein falls, fiber increases, digestibility decreases and palatability drops. Waiting for a great weather forecast usually results in more lost quality than a rain event would have caused. If rain is in the forecast, and you can time harvest correctly, precipitation right after cutting doesn’t cause nearly as much damage as rain on dry hay.

It’s a principle Ben Buckner says he tries to live by.

“We cut as early as weather will allow,” he said. “We realize that good-quality hay is not only better for the cows, but also you don’t have to feed as much to meet their nutritional needs.”

Cutting legumes in the bud to early bloom stage provides a great compromise of quality and yield. Cool-season grasses and NWSG should ideally be cut in the boot stage, which is very early in the reproductive stage of growth. Stem elongation is happening, and you can feel the seed head inside the stem, but it is not emerged yet.

Alfalfa is typically ready for the first cutting in late April or early May. Cool-season grasses such as orchardgrass, fescue and brome are typically in the boot stage by early to mid-May. When it comes to harvest timing, native warm-season grasses have a real advantage. Their first harvest, at the boot stage, is typically in mid-June. Not only are rainfall events a little further apart in June, but warmer temperatures encourage faster curing of the hay.

After baling, native grasses can be grazed rotationally, or a second cutting can be taken, as long as it’s before Sept. 1. Warm-season annuals should be cut each time they reach around 30 inches. Bermudagrass should be harvested at 15 to 18 inches. In cool-season grass pastures, you can generally take additional cuttings every 4 to 6 weeks after the first harvest.

Anything that shortens the time between cut­ting and baling helps to mitigate risk of weather losses. Using a mower/conditioner and tedder can be a great help in shortening that interval. Baling high-moisture hay (45-60%) and wrapping it for haylage is a practice that is expanding every year.

Preventing leaf loss during harvest is important. For this reason, alfalfa is frequently raked with the dew on. With the use of mold inhibitors, alfalfa can be baled at moistures approaching 30%. Likewise, grass hay should still be carry­ing some moisture when raked. Leaf shat­ter is unacceptably high when overly dry windrows are raked and baled. Use of net wrap greatly reduces loss of dry matter in movement and storage of the bale.

We realize that management of pastures and hay fields is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but putting these recommendations to use on your farm houls allow you to produce more - and better - hay on fewer acres than you have in the past and give you more forage for grazing this summer. 

If you need more information on forage management or are interested in MFA's Nutri-Track program, contact either of us: David Moore at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or Landry Jones at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

David Moore is a MFA range and pasture specialist. Landry Jones is MFA's conservation grazing specialist. 

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Having 'brave conversations'

Row-crop grower and swine producer Bob Hemesath is no stranger to speaking out on behalf of the agricultural communi­ty, whether in national news interviews, visits to Capitol Hill or hosting groups on his farm in northeast Iowa.

At the recent 2020 Commodity Classic in San Antonio, how­ever, Hemesath’s advocacy became extremely personal during a panel presentation on mental health hosted by the National Corn Growers Association. The fourth-generation farmer talked candidly about his struggles with depression and the challenges he and fellow producers face in talking about their problems and finding professional help.

“When they were looking for a farmer to be on this panel, I offered to do it myself,” Hemesath said. “I’ve dealt with depres­sion for 20 years. It can be difficult, but for me, the biggest issue is getting over the stigma of mental health, especially among farmers. We think we’re tough; we shouldn’t have those problems. We have to get past that. It’s a health issue. Period.”

Aptly titled “Brave Conversations,” the panel also included perspectives from Cammy Hazim, area director for the Ameri­can Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Sue Springer, who founded the Suicide Prevention Corporation of Iowa County, Wisc., in 2014 after losing her brother to suicide. The discus­sion was moderated by Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, of which MFA Incorporated is a member.

“Over the past few years, there’s been growing concern over mental health issues in rural America,” Conner said. “In particular, we have seen an increase in people dying by suicide and more efforts by local communities, co-ops, government agencies and trade associations to improve suicide prevention. Agriculture can be a stressful way of life, and some of the traits that make the best farmers—independence, self-reliance, stoicism—often get in the way when they need to seek help. We hope to change that dialogue.”

Indeed, Hemesath said, the inherent isolation of farming often makes it more difficult for producers to talk about the problems and pressures negatively affecting their mental health.

“As a farmer, you work alone a lot,” he said. “There are days where I don’t interact much with people at all. That makes it hard to reach out, especially when I’m feeling down. It makes you want to become even more reclusive or just work harder and hope that feeling will go away. Well, I’ve learned it doesn’t go away if you don’t deal with it and find ways to cope.”

In those situations, suicide can be a very real threat for peo­ple who don’t share their thoughts with others or seek profes­sional care, Hazim warned. Recasting mental health conditions in the same light as someone with cancer, diabetes or heart disease can go a long way toward eliminating the stigma that often keeps people from getting the help they need, she said.

“Suicide really is a health issue. The brain is part of our body, and a lot of times we forget that,” Hazim said. “We also know through our research that suicide is preventable. Just like heart attacks have risk factors and warning signs, so does suicide.”

Those warning signs are typically in the form of talk, behav­ior and mood, Hazim continued. People who talk about ending their lives, dealing with unbearable pain or feeling trapped could be having suicidal thoughts, she said, even if those things are said casually or kiddingly.

Other suicidal signals are behaviors such as increased substance abuse, sleeping too much or not enough, acting recklessly, withdrawing from activities or giving away possessions. Though depres­sion is most often associated with suicide, Hazim explained, other mood changes that can indicate such risk include apathy, rage, irritability, impulsivity and anxiety.

“Trust your gut,” she said. “If you are worried about someone and feel something isn’t right, say something. Don’t be afraid to ask directly, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’ It’s a myth that if you ask some­one about suicide, you’re going to plant a seed in their head. In so many situations, you just need to be a good listener.”

Support exists for people who need help with those conversations, said Springer, who is a certified trainer in the “QPR” method for suicide prevention—question, persuade, refer. She said learning how to recognize the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to question, persuade, and refer someone to help can save the life of a friend or loved one.

“Don’t worry about saying the wrong thing. It might be scary, but keeping silent won’t help,” Springer said. “Speaking up lets people know you want to help them get through this hard time. And you don’t have to do it alone. Whether you are struggling yourself or worried about someone else, there are resources out there to help.”

The organization she founded in Wis­consin offers extensive online resources at suicide-iowacountywi.org as does Hazim’s organization, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, at afsp.org. The National Suicide Hotline can be reached any time by calling 1-800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. The American Farm Bureau also provides mental health resources through the Farm State of Mind/Rural Resilience program.

While such assistance is valuable, the shortage of mental health professionals is an ongoing problem, especially in rural ar­eas, Hemesath said. For those who do have access to therapy, it’s even more difficult to find someone who understands agriculture.

“That’s not easy to do,” Hemesath said. “One therapist couldn’t understand why I couldn’t come in for an appointment on the first of May. I’m kind of busy then. We’re planting corn. I’m not saying that we need special therapists, but we need thera­pists who relate to farmers.”

All the panelists agreed that there is a critical need to bridge the gap in mental health care for rural areas while recogniz­ing such changes don’t happen easily or quickly. In the meantime, they hope rais­ing awareness will encourage more brave conversations in the farming community.

“The notion we are in a period where mental stress and suicide are increasing among those who feed and clothe and provide energy for us is just not accept­able,” Conner said. “While we struggle for those solutions, we’re not going to drop this topic. We’re going to continue to work to make sure that people have the resources they need.”

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In this April 2020 issue


Chickens and the eggs (COVER STORY)
Folks have flocked to Cackle Hatchery for birds since 1936
by Kerri Lotven

Conservation in concert
Pigs, crops and wildlife coexist on Brinker Farms, Missouri’s 2019 Leopold Award winner
by Allison Jenkins

Health care in the country
Rural areas look for ways to cure the shortage of doctors, hospitals
by Nancy Jorgensen

2020 insecticide eartag comparisons
Click to view chart as printed via flipbook.
Click to download pdf of chart.

Creating a safer future - Click to view as flipbook
Annual poster contest raises awareness of risks on the farm

‘Bee’ing good stewards and applicators
Use best practices when spreading or spraying this spring
by Adam Jones

Cocklebur can be a pasture peril
Young spring seedlings of this annual weed are especially toxic to livestock
by Dr. Jim White

Everything under the sun
Running on solar power, MFA Exchange in Meta expects bright future ahead
by Allison Jenkins


Country Corner
Will hemp live up to the hype?
by Allison Jenkins

Building for beans
Barn bedding benefits Missouri State Fair cattle exhibitors
New leaders elected to MFA board

Acreage expected to return to 2016 levels
Chinese purchases could influence spring markets
Record exports, strong demand expected
Buyers waiting on new-crop harvest

Stalk of the town-Click to view as printed
BUY, sell, trade - Click to view as printed

Resilience in a harsh environment

by Ernie Verslues

Click to view flip book

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Everything under the sun

Around this time last year, MFA Exchange in Meta, Mo., found a way to breathe new energy into the business.

Two arrays of roof-installed solar panels are providing electricity for the en­tire facility, including Meta’s modern feed mill that turns out more than 10,000 tons each year. The clean, renewable energy generated by the sun-powered system not only represents the cooperative’s commitment to environmental stewardship but also saves substantial amounts in utility costs.

At the end of February, Manager Rick Brune compared the electric bill gen­erated from the system’s first eight months to the same period of the previous year. The difference was impressive—$3,000 in energy costs versus $13,000.

“That’s a $10,000 savings in less than a year,” Brune said. “I’m pretty happy with that. I was a little disappointed it wasn’t more, but we didn’t have much sun this winter. We’re entering into the months where we should break even or make a little money back because our usage is down and production is up.”

Solar power is just the most recent transformation made by the 95-year-old cooperative, a locally owned affiliate of MFA Incorporated. Meta Farmers Exchange was chartered in 1925, just 11 years after its parent company. Local farmers pur­chased the business from MFA in 1982 and a few years later moved the operation from its original facility to the current location on the edge of town. A fertilizer plant already existed on the 10-acre parcel of land, and the cooperative built a feed mill and warehouse in 1987.

“It’s just been one expansion after another since then,” said Brune, who has helped lead the Exchange through 38 years of its evolution—36 of those as manager. “We operated out of the little fertilizer office until 1993, when we added on to the warehouse and moved our offices over there.”

The most significant changes came in 2016 with the construction of a new showroom and enlarged office space followed in 2017 by an extension of the fertilizer plant and the addition of a state-of-the-art bulk feed mill. The improve­ments increased plant food storage by 800 tons along with adding another mixer and dramatically boosted feed produc­tion capacity and speed.

Brune said these advancements were necessary to meet the needs of its growing customer base, made up mostly of beef producers who farm in the rolling terrain of the Osage River hills. The co-op still serves a few dairies and hog operations, along with row-crop producers who farm the river bottoms.

“It’s pretty incredible when you think about where this co-op started and where it’s at today,” Brune said. “This place has always had good, loyal customers and a strong, open-mind­ed board with progressive thinking. We’ve had slow, steady growth through the years, and I think we’re well positioned for the future.”

Feed and fertilizer make up the majority of sales, although the expanded showroom provides walk-in customers a wide selection of farm supplies and rural lifestyle products. Brune said Meta’s members have evolved almost as much as the co-op itself.

“When I started, most of the farmers were full time with no other outside income,” he said. “Today, there’s only about a handful who don’t have some sort of job to supplement the farm. We have a lot of part-time, weekend farmers. About 80% of our revenue goes toward grass fertilizer and feeding beef cattle.”

The ability to reinvent itself has been key to the co-op’s success, said Rodney Luebbering, a dairy and hog producer and one of seven directors who help govern the business. He said customer loyalty helped the co-op survive some tough times in its beginning, but customer service and operational efficiencies are critical to carry the business into the future.

“This co-op was built on the loyalty of generations before us, which gave it the ability to expand during the good times,” Luebbering said. “The board and management have always been forward-thinking and try to do what’s best for the mem­ber. Investing in the new feed mill and putting in solar power are good examples of that mentality.”

The switch to solar power just made sense financially, Brune said, although he admits he was skeptical when first presented with the idea.

“It was about two years ago, in June or July, when I got a call from someone like a telemarketer asking if we’d ever consid­ered solar power,” Brune said. “I listened to what he had to say, and it sounded like a pretty good deal. They came out, looked at our situation and worked up a plan.”

The company, Artisun Solar, worked with the local utility provider, Ameren subsidiary Union Electric, and installed an array of solar panels on the feed mill roof and another set on top of the warehouse. The total cost was around $168,000, but rebates, tax credits and deductions lowered the out-of-pocket costs to about $60,000, Brune said.

The system operates on a two-way meter, he explained. When more power is needed than what the sun can provide, the extra comes off the grid from Union Electric. But when the solar panels pro­duce more power than the facility uses, that excess goes back to Union Electric, which, in turn, credits the co-op’s bill.

“When you put it all together, with our typical usage, the system will pay for itself in four or five years,” he said. “The compa­ny figured it up for us, and over 30 years, it should put $150,000 to $200,000 on our bottom line—just for using sunshine. The numbers really made it a no-brainer.”

A nearly 100-year-old company could easily become stagnant, but that’s not the case with MFA Exchange in Meta, Luebbering said. New ideas, new efficien­cies and new customers keep the co-op progressing.

“The solar panels may be thinking outside the box, but why wouldn’t you do that? It all makes perfect sense when you really take time to look at it,” he said. “The feed mill, too—it was a tough decision to spend that much money, but as soon as we built it, business instantly grew. The next generation of farmers coming up, they’re looking for service and stability, and they can trust that they will find both of those things here.”

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