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Game Changer

David Heggemeier broke from his family’s farming tradition to raise upland birds

Tucked between the rolling hills of mid-Missouri farmland and the white oak forest of the Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area lies Heggemeier Game Birds and Kennels, a thriving farm for pheasants, quail, chukars and ducks along with a popular hunting club.

“I bought this 80-acre farm in 1998,” owner David Heggemeier explained. “I knew there wasn’t enough room for me on my family’s farm in Nashville, Ill., and frankly, my interest was not really in farming dairy cows and sheep.”

Heggemeier began raising ducks in high school but soon migrated to a different flock.

“I started working for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources at the Mount Vernon Game Propagation Center while in college,” Heggemeier said. “I saw doctors, lawyers and other white-collar professionals hunting game birds, and I was interested in learning more.”

Realizing that the stock of game birds was relatively low and that there were few public places open to hunt, Heggemeier saw that the opportunity was there.

“I knew that birds were the wave of the future—my future,” he said with a laugh.


The game bird farm 
Venturing across the Mississippi River into the Show-Me State, Heggemeier purchased an old cattle farm west of Higbee, Mo. He began transforming the land, barns and outbuildings to raise game birds and open a hunting club. From the egg to the air, he started his operation from scratch, learning more each year as he built his business.
Now, producing more than 30,000 birds a year, Heggemeier sells his pheasants, quail, chukars and ducks to well-known hunt clubs in Texas, Wisconsin and Kansas and to farms throughout the United States.

“I really enjoy all the birds,” he said, not wanting to pick favorites. “It’s very satisfying to see them hatch, develop and then thrive.”

In addition to being a nationally recognized game bird supplier, Heggemeier also operates his own hunt club from Sept. 1 through March 31, offering upland hunters a unique experience with five different fields located on 500 acres. “I lease the land surrounding my farm to provide a challenging and enjoyable hunt,” he said.

Grassland birds require a quality habitat of native grasses and ground cover to provide concealment for nests and protection from predators, Heggemeier explained. To improve and maintain the natural habitat, he mows strips into the fields so hunters have a few walking paths. Controlled burns help stimulate regrowth of native grasses and forages.
Heggemeier works with Larry Kramm, Agri Services manager at MFA’s Fayette location, to obtain the proper nutrition for all the birds. In particular, the producer noted that having the right nutrition helps his ducks mature naturally and develop the oils needed so they don’t sink once they are killed.

“We raise our ducks right,” he said. “The MFA feed we use is of such great quality that the ducks can produce oils to lubricate their feathers properly. As they are growing, we feed them well, and they are exposed to ponds and water. We sell quality birds that perform.”

As evidence of his customer satisfaction, Heggemeier added, “I have a client from Texas that I have been working with for 10 years.”

With more than 20,000 birds on the farm at any one time, there are many bellies to fill. Each week, between 5 and 6 tons of feed is delivered to the Heggemeier farm.

“Pellets are the best way to receive the feed because there is less waste,” he said. “MFA feeds do a great job for all our game birds. I tried others in the past, but I stay with MFA because of the quality of the feed and the performance I see to start them and grow them.”

January and February are the most difficult months when it comes to raising birds, according to Heggemeier, because “it’s so cold, and you have to keep the babies from freezing.” As part of this process, he uses three incubators and three hatchers.

Once the birds are moved from the hatchers, they live indoors for several weeks until they are fully feathered and ready for the weather. The growing birds are moved to flight pens so they have room to fly, move around, develop muscle and mature.

At about 16 weeks the birds are ready to go to market.

“My reputation in the industry depends on how well my birds perform,” said Heggemeier. “My game birds are very similar to birds living in the wild and are of the highest quality because of the care and nutrition they receive.”

The pheasant hunt
On a gray Saturday this past December, a collection of Quail Forever members gathered at Heggemeier’s farm for a pheasant hunt. The group included first-time pheasant hunters such as Pia Broccard of Cedar Hill, Mo., along with young men, fathers, grandfathers and Quail Forever youth leaders plus agents from the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

PheasantPia Broccard was thrilled with her grassland bird hunting experience with the Quail Forever and was able to take home a beautiful ringed-neck pheasant.To begin the day, hunters had the opportunity to warm up their shooting skills and to review safety and hunting etiquette.

Then the first two groups set off to different fields with an experienced guide and bird dog for their hunt.

As the hunters were divided, Heggemeier drove into the fields and placed six ring-necked pheasants for each group before each hunt. “Since this morning’s group has less experience with upland hunting, I disorient each bird before placing it in the field,” he explained. “I don’t do this for most hunts.”

Originally from Asia, the ring-necked pheasant is successfully bred in captivity and found in many countries as a game bird. Introduced into much of Europe by the Romans, pheasants possibly arrived in Great Britain with the Normans in the 11th century, according to the Wildlife Trusts. In 1773, the common pheasant was introduced to the U.S.

Heggemeier pointed out a Hungarian genetic trait in one of his male pheasants. “Genetics are very important to me with the birds, just like it was for the animals on my dad’s farm,” he said.

The adult male’s plumage is iridescent green and blue with shimmers of gold and copper. Trailing behind is a long brown tail with black stripes. A red patch of skin around his eyes and a white ring of feathers around his neck are the regal markings of this bird. While not as colorful, the female’s brown feathers are elegantly decorated with stripes and elaborate black markings. Her long neck and pointed tail are distinguishing features.

These ground-loving birds prefer to run through the grass to seek protection from predators rather than fly, explained J.T. Denbigh, a guide for the day. When flushed by a dog or hunter, pheasants will use their short, rounded wings for brief, powerful bursts of flight.

Walking through the tall grass, Denbigh told his young hunters, “You have to be ready.”

For first-time game bird hunters, the experience can be exciting as well as a lesson in patience. The equipment is minimal: a good pair of boots, a blaze orange hat and jacket or vest, a shotgun and shells. A well-trained bird dog, a helpful guide and respect for other hunters in the area are also keys to a successful venture.

After bagging his first pheasant of the day, Trey Holt from Urich, Mo., said he was a bit nervous but also excited when the bird was flushed.

“We might have 20-30 people a day and then some days only four,” said Heggemeier. “We are centrally located, so we attract hunters from all over the country. In addition to the hunt lodge, we have a house on site that we use as an Airbnb for those looking for a longer hunt and a place to stay.”

A half-day hunt with either four pheasants, five chukars, eight quail, or four wild ducks is $100 per person. Heggemeier said that his business has evolved to 50% percent hunts and 50% game bird sales.

“You really have to enjoy working with people, and I do,” Heggemeier said. “I truly believe that raising game birds is a great opportunity for small farms and young farmers.”

Heggemeier enjoys sharing his passions with others. For the last decade, he has worked with the University of Missouri and local high schools to teach students how to raise birds and improve their habitats as well as the business side and marketing of such an operation.

There are usually a few interns from MU working on the farm, and with Heggemeier’s reputation and relationships in the industry, he is able to help place students in jobs once they graduate. He works with MDC for all his permits, bird testing, youth mentoring and habitat improvement.

“I enjoy meeting new people and building lasting relationships,” Heggemeier said. “All that effort pays off. When you come out here for a hunt, it’s just like what the old-timers say—it’s a good bird. I’m really proud of that.”

For more information about Heggemeier Game Birds and Kennels or to reserve a hunt, contact David Heggemeier at 660-676-0776 or visit Heggemeier Game Farm on Facebook.

Read more of the Feb. 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine Issue HERE.

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In this February 2024 Issue

Features

Game changer (cover story)
David Heggemeier broke from his family’s farming tradition to raise upland birds

By Jessica Ekern

Learn, laugh, lead
Emerging Leaders Conference brings together young producers to build knowledge and connections

By Allison Jenkins

Strategic moves for uncertain times
MFA navigates headwinds to achieve profitability in 2023

By Allison Jenkins

2023 year in review
Taking a look at MFA’s opportunities and challenges


Understanding units
Learning more about your options can help guide crop insurance decisions

by Taylor Gilmore and Blake Thomas

Handle with care
MFA brings stockmanship expert Ron Gill to Western
Farm Show for low-stress cattle-working demonstrations

By Allison Jenkins

Faces of farming
Carley Esser McLean profile

By Allison Jenkins

NOTICE of District Meetings of MFA Incorporated
District Meetings of MFA Incorporated will be held within the districts from March 4 through March 8, 2024
Click to see the official notice or read the Feb. 2024 issue of Today's Farmer here.

Editorial and opinion

Country Corner
New Look for an old friend

by Allison Jenkins

UpFront/Blog
American Royal leaves Missouri
Governor Parson's order restricts foreign purchase of farmland near Missouri military sites
Partnership in stewardship

Crops
Does early equal better?

by Scott Wilburn

Livestock
Help calves overcome cold stress

by Dr. Jim White

Markets
Expected crop returns may mean acreage shift
Cattle Prices expected to continue rising


Recipes
Home sweet tooth

Viewpoint
Trust in technology, not the groundhog

By Ernie Verslues

Closing Thought
Photo by Lori Weier
Poem by Walter Bargen

Click to view the issue as printed as a flip book.

 

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Strategic moves for uncertain times

MFA navigates headwinds to achieve profitability in 2023

Despite the headwinds of market volatility, rising inflation and drought across much of MFA’s trade territory, the cooperative recorded a profitable year for fiscal 2023 by strategically addressing those challenges and taking advantage of opportunities to benefit MFA Incorporated and its members.

That was the message from Don Schlesselman, who represents District 5 on MFA Incorporated’s Board of Directors, as he led the cooperative’s annual meeting for the first time as chairman. Nearly 440 delegates, employees and special guests attended the meeting Nov. 21, 2023, at the Holiday Inn Executive Center in Columbia.

“Uncertainty in world events and markets affects the environment in which we do business. More locally, a significant portion of the MFA membership area suffered drought this year, and for many of you, the second year in a row,” Schlesselman said. “I want to thank the employees of MFA for helping us navigate those challenges, securing products and assisting us in marketing what we grow on our farms.”

Those efforts helped MFA close its fiscal year with pre-tax earnings of $13.7 million, Chief Financial Officer Karen White reported.

“We began the year with a very strong balance sheet, but we knew fiscal ’23 would present more challenges than the past two years,” White said. “We were facing a declining market in agronomy inputs, interest rate hikes by the Feds, higher labor and insurance costs and continued inflationary pressures on our other major expense categories. Our profitability for 2023 is not at the level of our two previous fiscal years, but all things considered, it was a good year for us financially.”

Overall, MFA Incorporated’s net sales reached $2 billion, with $198 million in net worth and just over $95 million in working capital. MFA’s average asset level climbed to $917 million, due in part to increases in commodity values and input prices. Revenues totaled $257 million, and expenses were $247 million, White reported. 

“As a company that relies heavily on rolling stock, facilities and labor, inflation had a significant impact on our expenses,” she said. “But by far, our single largest expense increase is interest expense. Increased borrowings tied to higher commodity values, along with rising interest rates, doubled our interest expense in 2023.”

The operating plan for 2024 is similar to 2023 with a profit level of $11.1 million, White concluded. “We have a solid start with sales and profits currently ahead of plan,” she said.
MFA’s board of directors voted to allocate $29 million in DPAD (Domestic Production Activities Deduction) to grain members but retain current year earnings. (See sidebar, “What is DPAD?" on page 12.) The decision to invest those earnings back into the company was based on the need for facility, equipment and technology updates as well as the higher debt level and interest expenses, said CEO Ernie Verslues in his address to the members. The overall financial strength of producers was also a factor, he added, with profitability and cash flow positive for most right now.

Despite the tough agricultural and economic environment, Verslues said MFA is on “a very good path” with management and the board aligned on a strategy to move the company forward.

“Technology, artificial intelligence and sustainability initiatives open a whole new world of possibilities. We continue to actively evaluate their place in future operations for both MFA and for you and will only recommend and bring to market those that are based on sound agronomic or nutritional grounds,” he said. “Sure, we will have peaks and valleys. That is agriculture. But involvement by our membership is a strength throughout the trade area we serve. Most importantly, we have a talented team ready to deliver.”

After the business meeting, Gregg Doud, who recently took the reins as president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, provided a global economic outlook for agriculture in the year ahead and beyond. Before being tapped for his new role, Doud most recently worked at Aimpoint Research as vice president of global situational awareness and chief economist.

Doud said economic obstacles such as rising interest rates and the value of the U.S. dollar are thwarting our nation’s global competitiveness as world politics and economics continue to shift. Protein demand is driving much of this shift, and China is a key player in the market, he explained.

“We live in a world today where China’s total food imports from the world are more than U.S. total agricultural exports to the world,” Doud said, referencing China’s $236 billion in agricultural commodity imports in 2022, compared to U.S. exports of $196 million. “What happens in China in terms of food dictates everything else in the rest of the world.”
For example, he said, China is now the biggest corn importer in the world, largely due to the rebound in its hog industry coupled with its ban on feeding food scraps to pigs to help combat African swine fever. The Chinese also consume a tremendous amount of beef, and this past August, the country purchased an all-time record high in beef imports.

“The Chinese are now buying $18 billion worth of beef a year,” Doud said. “They are clearing the Brazilians, the Argentines, the Europeans, everybody in the world out of beef. But there’s no way the supply of protein in the world can come close to meeting projected demand. The only place on earth we can make more protein is here in the U.S. And so my charge to you today is, ‘Let's make this happen.’ This is the world of agriculture right now. This is where we’re headed.”
The same opportunities are true, he noted, for the U.S. dairy industry. Global growth and American capacity for innovation and production are combining to create a dairy powerhouse here, Doud explained.

“Last year, dairy was the fourth biggest thing we exported at $9.5 billion,” he said. “In terms of the world of protein, dairy is a huge part of the future.”
America’s farmers indeed have a bright outlook, Doud said, if the industry can capitalize on available opportunities for exports, technology and value-added products, such as producing soybeans for renewable diesel fuel.

“Renewable diesel technology can take soybean oil, refine it and get a product that can be used 100% as diesel fuel,” he explained. “This industry is expanding like crazy, to a point where we’re actually making more renewable diesel in the U.S. than we are biodiesel. That gives us mountains of soybean meal that can be fed to more pigs and chickens and cattle to meet the demand for protein, versus competing with the Brazilians to export soybeans to China.”

Motivational speaker David Okerlund finished the day’s events with his presentation, “The Power of Living a Passionate Life.” He reminded the farmers that nurturing their own minds, their passions and their overall wellbeing is just as important as fertilizing and caring for their fields and livestock.
“If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to take care of your farm,” he said. “And that goes for every person who sells products and services to farmers as well. Living a passionate life is critical to living a positive life.”

Illustrating his points with inspirational examples and anecdotes, Okerlund said the greatest attribute influencing stellar achievement is an individual’s level of passion. He defined passion as having two components: faith, believing you have both the will and the way to accomplish your dream; and optimism, a strong, enduring expectation that everything will work out OK.

“I know MFA is an incredibly successful organization. But can you imagine what it would be like if everybody here, from this day forward, set aside 10, 15 minutes a day to become a better member or employee of this organization, to become a better rancher or a farmer?” Okerlund said. “Success is no accident. It’s hard work, persistence, learning, study, sacrifice and, most of all, a passion applied to everything you do. It’s your attitude, so take care of it."

Read the related story: 2023: A year in review.

Read more of the Feb. 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine Issue HERE.

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Faces of Farming

CARLEY ESSER MCLEAN is Professional Staff, U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

CarleyonRFDTVCarley Esser McLean is interviewed by RFD-TV. As Congress continues to draft a new Farm Bill, a former MFA Incorporated intern is in the midst of the action.

Carley Esser McLean, a native of Boonville, Mo., participated in the MFA Ag Experience program in the summer of 2016 and now serves on the professional staff for the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. It’s been a busy couple of years for McLean as the committee assists with efforts to draft 2023 Farm Bill legislation, a process that has now extended into 2024.

While working on her degree at the University of Missouri, where she majored in agriculture education and leadership, McLean was the first MFA intern to work in partnership with Missouri Farmers Care, an alliance of the state’s commodity groups and agribusinesses dedicated to promoting the growth of Missouri agriculture. MFA continues to share an intern with the organization each summer.

This past November, McLean was invited to speak on a panel for the U.S. Farm Report at the Missouri Governor’s Conference on Agriculture, where she discussed her insider’s perspective on the farm bill process and its prospects in the year ahead. After her session, McLean spoke with Today’s Farmer about her journey from MFA to D.C.

How did your experience as an MFA intern influence where you are today?
The MFA internship and working with Missouri Farmers Care was such a valuable experience, especially getting to collaborate with all the different Missouri ag groups. In particular, I enjoyed being involved with the first MFC Drive to Feed Kids at the Missouri State Fair. As part of that internship, I also helped put together a Washington D.C. visit for the MFA Incorporated board of directors and was allowed to go on the trip with them. We had a visit with (former Missouri Rep.) Vicky Hartzler while we were there, and I ended up working for her later, handling her ag policy. It was an amazing convergence of opportunities.

Did you envision working in farm policy as your career path?
I had no idea. I still have a picture of me and a couple of the MFA board members with Rep. Hartzler and looking back now, I’m like, “Wow. I would have never dreamed I would work for her.” After my summer with MFA, I took another internship with the U.S. Agency for International Development and then ended up with the U.S. Grains Council before joining Hartzler’s staff. I’ve been with the Senate committee two years. I never expected to be in policy or in D.C. for six years, but I love it, and I’m very grateful to be where I am.

Tell us about what you’re doing now.
As a member of the Senate professional staff, I’ve been working closely with ranking Sen. (John) Boozman
(Arkansas) on the farm bill, pretty much 24/7 for the past couple of years. I’m the policy lead for crop insurance, commodity programs and disaster programs—all the fun stuff. Seriously, those are some of the things that have the most direct impact on producers. My uncle still farms, my grandpa farmed, and my dad was raised on a farm, so agriculture has always been close to my heart. To be able to have a role in policy that is so important to Missouri producers is really special to me.

Here’s a question many of our readers have on their minds: Will we get a farm bill finished in 2024?
Some folks might see the extension as a bummer, but there is still a lot of work going on behind the scenes every day to get the right policy across the finish line. Sen. Boozman feels very strongly that we do need a farm bill—and we need one quickly—but, at the end of the day, we need the right farm bill. The extension gives a little bit more runway to get that policy right. I think we really need to see something by July, otherwise we’re in a similar situation as we are now. I think all four corners (the chairs and ranking members of the Senate and House Agriculture Committee) have indicated that they’re more than willing to get it done.

What’s your advice to other young people who might be considering an internship at MFA?
I really appreciate the foundation that my MFA internship gave me, and to this day, I’m still very close with the some of the other interns as well as with MFA employees I met during my time there. Mr. (Ernie) Verslues (MFA Incorporated CEO) is still very impactful in my life. My advice is to seize that opportunity, build genuine relationships and be open to where the experience may take you. Don’t be afraid to let good mentors help guide your path, because, for me, their impact has had the most influence on my life and my career.

Read more of the Feb. 2024 Today's Farmer Magazine Issue HERE.

 

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