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MFA's stewardship spectrum

Ask 100 different people the definition of “stewardship,” and there will probably be 100 different answers.

For MFA, however, stewardship is clearly defined in the cooperative’s core values:

“We take pride in applying business practices that respect the land, air, water and other resources. Our employees strive to protect the environment.”

Emphasizing stewardship helps to ensure that the responsible use of resources weighs in on decisions and recommendations made by MFA employees, said Matt Hill, MFA natural resources conservation specialist.

“Stewardship is a complete spectrum for MFA,” Hill said. “Putting it on paper as a core value is one thing, but it’s much more than that. The company, its employees and its customers live out stewardship every day.”

Spotlighting stewardship is appropriate for October, National Co-op Month. This year’s theme, “Co-ops see the future,” is what stewardship is all about, said MFA Chief Executive Officer Ernie Verslues.

“Stewardship is a long-term commitment to farmers and the land they farm,” Verslues said. “It’s thinking about the resources you inherited from previous generations and how you’ll manage them until it’s time for the next generation to take over. Both at our facilities and individual farms we visit, MFA has stewardship in mind. It’s big-picture thinking.”

The following examples are among the many ways stewardship is at work for MFA.

Application assurance

With today’s high-tech application equipment and highly regulated crop protection products, training sprayer and spreader operators has never been more important. And it’s a responsibility that MFA takes seriously.

“Stewardship is vital to the life of our business,” said Dave Boughton, operations supervisor at Emma Agri Services. “For us to prosper, we have to show that we are, indeed, good stewards—that we care about the product we apply, the land we apply it to and the customers we serve. They’re trying to leave their farms in as good or better shape as it was when they started farming. Our job is to see to it that we don’t do anything to damage their livelihood.”

MFA’s proactive approach to dealing with dicamba over the past couple of years is a prime example of stewardship. In 2018, MFA trained more than 1,200 applicators, chemical handlers and retail staff on regulations and application requirements for dicamba and proper use of the Roundup Ready Xtend crop system. The training focused on critical factors such as awareness of surroundings, placement of Xtend soybeans, weather conditions, boom height and best use practices.

Lessons learned from the 2017 spraying season allowed MFA to develop a better protocol, said Dr. Jason Weirich, MFA director of agronomy. A network of “sentinel plots” was established and scouted every Monday throughout the summer. MFA applicators were alerted to stop spraying when the majority of soybeans in their area reached the R1 reproductive stage, when dicamba injury can do the most harm to non-target plants.
Weirich said he considers the system to be a success.

“In 2018, we didn’t have nearly as many complaints as we had in 2017 and actually sprayed more acres of Xtend soybeans this year,” Weirich said. “We may have lost business to competitors who weren’t being as restrictive, but we didn’t want to take the risk. Based on our company’s core values, it’s important that we keep our customer-owners in mind.”

Input efficiency

Precision agronomy is another stewardship-focused service for MFA. Leading the way is MFA’s Nutri-Track program, which provides location-specific fertilizer recommendations through grid soil sampling and variable-rate fertilizer applications. This keeps growers from applying more fertilizer than can be used by the crop and keeping excess nutrients from washing into streams and rivers or leaching into groundwater.

“Nutri-Track is all about providing best recommendation we can, tailoring plant nutrients to every single acre in that field,” said Thad Becker, MFA precision agronomy manager. “We’ve been grid sampling since the mid-1990s, and it never ceases to amaze me how much variability is in our fields. Nutri-Track focuses on putting nutrients where they are needed and avoiding over-application in areas that won’t perform.”

Nutri-Track follows the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship—the right product at the right rate at the right time in the right place—and only if necessary. The same goes for MFA’s Crop-Trak program, which allows scouts to identify issues early with the crop for more efficient use of pesticides only when and where they are needed.

“I’ve been using Crop-Trak for several years now, and it’s a great help to me in managing and knowing what’s out there in the field,” said David Durham of Norborne, Mo., who farms 2,300 acres in Carroll and Ray counties. “There are years I don’t spray fungicides just from those recommendations. By making field-by-field decisions, I’m applying what I need, when I need it, rather than a scattershot program.”

Feed to succeed

When it comes to animal agriculture, stewardship means using environmentally sound practices in pasture and forage management as well as nutritionally sound feeding programs. MFA gives producers the tools, products, resources and expertise to do just that.

MFA Shield Technology fits well with a stewardship mindset. This all-natural, proprietary product helps prevent sickness and promote performance in livestock without antibiotics.

“Now that we’ve brought Shield Technology to our customers, we’re feeding about 95 percent of the hogs in our area,” said Paul Brune, manager of MFA Cooperative Association No. 2 in Washington, Mo. “One of our largest producers is getting more pigs per litter and sending an additional trailerload to market with the same number of sows but only using about 5 percent of the antibiotics they used to.”

That approach is important for today’s challenging agricultural environment in which farms are increasingly regulated, medicated feeds are being restricted and more consumers want to know what’s in their food. At the same time, global demand for meat is growing as the population continues to climb.

“In livestock production we have stepped into the technology era,” said Mike Spidle, MFA director of sales, livestock products and feed marketing. “That’s the only thing that’s going to feed people in the future. With Shield, we’re taking care of livestock and helping our farmers raise healthier animals. We’re going to have to produce more with less, and Shield is an avenue to help get us there.”

This commitment to nutritional stewardship extends to all MFA Feed Division manufacturing facilities, which are certified by the Safe Feed/Safe Food program administered by the American Feed Industry Association. The certification is only given to facilities that demonstrate best-in-class manufacturing practices that protect workers from harm and produce safe food for animals in compliance with current regulations.

“We have an obligation to produce a safe, nutritious product for farmers and consumers,” said MFA Feed Division Vice President Dr. Alan Wessler. “The Safe Feed/Safe Food certification shows that we’ve gone the extra steps to put processes in place and pay attention to detail. It helps to ensure the integrity of what leaves our feed mills and keep our workers safe while producing it.”

Conservation in action

MFA strengthened its commitment to stewardship last year by hiring Matt Hill as natural resource conservation specialist in partnership with the Missouri Department of Conservation and NRCS. In this one-of-a-kind position, Hill works with the partnering organizations and other groups to identify conservation methods and funding opportunities that will improve nutrient management, soil, water and wildlife.

The main goal, Hill explained, is to help farmers meet their stewardship goals by fostering collaboration among conservationists and their MFA counterparts.

“In both directions, there is great knowledge to be shared,” he said. “I want a wildlife biologist, for example, to feel comfortable picking up the phone and calling an MFA agronomist or location manager and vice versa. We’ve sent out contact lists of MFA staff to folks at the Fish and Wildlife Service, Quail Forever, MDC private lands conservation and so forth. Building better relationships could benefit everybody, and it certainly would benefit stewardship.”

For example, Hill is coordinating efforts to train and certify MFA employees as NRCS technical service providers. The designation will allow them to write nutrient management plans and integrated pest management plans for producers. It’s an intensive process, involving 30 hours of online training and a two-day, in-person classroom session in mid-October. To become a technical service provider, individuals must also have some combination of college degree, experience and professional certification such as being a Certified Crop Adviser.

“By the end of the year, we’ll have 30 of our agronomy employees certified as technical service providers and ready to write,” Hill said. “These plans will help farmers identify areas where they could be better stewards, and then we can work with them to find ways to mitigate those issues while keeping their operation efficient and productive.”

Stewardship naturally correlates to conservation practices on the farm, such as planting cover crops, using no-till methods, establishing wildlife buffers and putting in pollinator plots. While there is still work to be done in expanding these practices to more farms, Hill said producers and landowners should be commended for the progress they’ve made.

“We really need to give producers credit for the things they’re doing,” Hill said. “We don’t talk about contour farming or no-till or crop rotation because today those things are the norm. Twenty years ago, those were the conservation farming practices we were asking for, and producers have been doing all these things voluntarily because they know it’s the right thing to do. It’s not just about protecting the environment but also making sure their land is productive today and for future generations.” 

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