USDA invests in water quality

CoverCropsPlanting cover crops are among practices encouraged by USDA's water-quality initiatives.Continuing two of its successful landscape-level water-quality programs, the USDA will invest $56 million this year to help agricultural producers in more than 300 high-pri­ority watersheds across the country.

The Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative and the National Water Quality Initiative, administered by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, offer technical and financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to implement practices that avoid, control and trap nutrients and sediment. Practices include filter strips, cover crops and manure manage­ment, which promote soil health, reduce erosion and lessen nutrient runoff.

“When we partner with producers to deliver conservation practices to critical watersheds, we see a positive impact,” NRCS Chief Matthew Lohr said. “Through these partnerships we maximize the delivery of our conservation efforts, which yields greater results to water quality and benefits the public, our natural resources and farmers’ bottom lines.”

NRCS launched the Mississippi River Basin Healthy Water­sheds Initiative in 2009, then took the concept nationwide in 2012. Since then, priority watersheds across the country have seen improvements such as delisting of once-impaired streams.

Within the Mississippi River Basin, NRCS will make available $17.5 million to producers in 13 states, including Missouri, Iowa and Arkansas in MFA territory. Goals are improving water quality, restoring wetlands and enhancing wildlife habitat while ensuring economic viability of farmland along the nation’s largest river.

Additionally, NRCS will make available $38.9 million this year through the National Water Quality Initiative, a partner­ship among NRCS, state water quality agencies and the EPA to identify and address impaired water bodies through voluntary conservation. Financial and technical assistance is provided for small watersheds most in need and where farmers can use conservation practices to address impaired surface water.

NRCS accepts applications for conservation programs year-round, but enrollment periods are set locally. For more infor­mation, contact your local NRCS field office. To find the one nearest you, visit www.farmers.gov/service-center-locator.

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Big-box beef

Walmart, the largest food retailer in the U.S., officially entered the beef business in January when it opened a case-ready beef plant in Georgia after establishing its own Angus supply chain.

Creating an end-to-end beef supply chain is the latest step Walmart has taken in its vertical integration strategy for food and toward its stated goal of improving the quality of its food offering, according to a new report from the Knowledge Exchange division of CoBank, a cooperative bank serving agri­businesses across rural America such as MFA Incorporated.

If Walmart’s new beef plant and Angus supply chain succeed, it could lead the retail giant to take another step toward the producer in the form of harvesting fed cattle or through a joint venture with a current packer.

The new plant will cut and prepare steaks and roasts produced by Walmart’s Angus beef supply chain for 500 stores in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Walmart will need to convince customers that the attributes of its beef, which is hormone-free, traceable and potentially of higher grade, make it worth buying at a premium price.

“While Walmart’s new beef strategy could make waves for the industry in the future, in its current state we don’t see it shifting the price and leverage dynamics of U.S. beef production,” said Will Sawyer, animal protein economist with CoBank. “By our calculations, this new supply chain will account for less than 5% of Walmart’s U.S. beef busi­ness and less than 0.5% of U.S. beef production.”

Sawyer said U.S. cattle producers, feeders and packers will not likely suffer any significant near-term changes from Walmart’s beef strategy, which the report described as “more of a test” that could lead to much bigger and more significant investments in the future.

Watch a video synopsis and read the report, “Walmart’s New Beef Plant is More Sizzle than Steak, For Now,” at cobank.com.

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Native grasses can provide pasture peace of mind

This winter’s weather has been hard on pastures. Between weaning calves and feeding hay, we have several areas on our farm that need to be rehabbed or reclaimed to get ready for the spring growing season. Many producers— myself included—rely on cool-sea­son grass or summer annuals for a hay crop. If you haven’t started to consider what to plant in those fields, now is the time.

As you’re making those decisions, take a look at native warm-season grass (NWSG). This forage comes back every year, requires less fer­tilizer and produces tonnage that rivals any perennial or annual you can plant. Most folks are aware of the benefits of NWSG for grazing opportunities, but these grasses can make a great hay crop as well.

The key to having a good NWSG field is proper establishment and proper management. The first step is to obtain soil samples to make sure that any necessary soil amendments can be applied prior to spring planting. Before planting, the current forage needs to be killed with a non-selective herbicide. Also, just prior to or shortly after planting, I recommend spraying a pre-emergent herbicide such as Panoramic with the active ingre­dient Imazapic. This herbicide was formulated to suppress weeds and cool-season grasses but allows NWSG to germinate and grow during establishment.

NWSG is typically drilled with a native grass drill in the spring from April to June, depending on your location. Plant into a clean seed bed no deeper than ¼ inch. I tell folks that you want to see about half of the seed you are planting laying on top of the ground. The two biggest reasons that NWSG plantings fail is planting too deep or the seedlings being out-competed by weeds. Once planted, keep a close eye on weed competition through the summer and be prepared to spray the proper herbicide to reduce competition. Be sure to follow the herbicide label to prevent injury to NWSG seedlings.

Managing NWSG can be prob­lematic for producers who are not familiar with it. Remember that the first growing season will be dedicat­ed to allowing the NWSG to grow, and no hay harvest should be made. Depending on the vigor of the stand, the second year a single hay cutting may be made.

After the establishment years, try to avoid cutting NWSG for hay until the end of June. Keep in mind that if you are using state or federal cost-share funds, this date may change due to program policy. This start date accomplishes two things. First, it allows ground-nesting birds an opportunity to have a successful hatch. Second, it allows the plants to reach optimum quantity and still produce good-quality hay.

For the health and longevity of the NWSG stand, do not cut it too late in the growing season—gener­ally after Sept. 15 or about 30-45 days prior to frost. This allows the plants to put their next year’s grow­ing reserves into their root system. If you cut it too late, you interrupt this process and weaken the stand for the following year.

You may be saying, “I have to wait two years before I can poten­tially get my first cutting?” This is correct, but you have to look at the long-term value in this grass. It can produce up to 4 tons per acre of forage. Its optimum time to cut is in the summer when you are typically not dodging rain showers to put up hay like most folks who are cutting cool-season grasses. It requires less fertilizer than fescue and doesn’t produce ergovaline like fescue that restricts blood flow in cattle. If you remember 2012 and 2018, when fescue dried up due to drought, NWSG was actively growing, and producers were able to get two cuttings off those fields. Not only is NWSG a great forage, it is great insurance.

If you are interested in planting native warm-season grass on your farm or potential cost-share pro­grams available, contact me or any of your local conservation offices for more information.

Landry Jones joined MFA as conservationLandry Jones joined MFA as conservation grazing specialist in southwest Missouri in December 2019 after more than 12 years with the Missouri Department of Conservation, where he managed both public and private lands. Landry lives in Polk County, Mo., with his wife of 10 years and their two daughters.

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