Dry times are trying times for cattle producers

Think rationally, not emotionally, when weighing options to manage forage shortages

For much of MFA’s trade territory, the past 12 months have been a challenging time for livestock operations, to say the least. Drought has kept its hold on our Kansas producers and spread and intensified in Missouri. Many producers had their fingers crossed that spring would give us the moisture needed to recharge the ground. Instead, what we got was a very cool, dry spring. By the time it finally warmed up and some rain did arrive, most forages were already in survival mode.

WatsonThe dry conditions have exacerbated nutrient deficiencies in pastures and hay fields. The farmers who hustled and applied their fertilizer this spring were helpless as they watched it sit and not go to work. For those who tried to combat high fertilizer costs last year by cutting back normal rates or simply not applying any nutrients have seen the biggest reduction this year. Many dedicated hayfields still had cattle grazing them well into May, telling me that those producers were out of hay and those fields were their last option. So far this summer, hay harvest is resulting in less than half of normal production, and I would dare say most are one-third of normal. The hay that made it into a bale has few leaves and lots of stems.

Faced with these challenges, what’s in store for livestock producers this summer and fall? What options do they have? What can be done to help get through the unknown?

When I was approached to write about the current situation many livestock producers are experiencing, I was also asked to share how I help make decisions for my own cattle operation that I run with my family partners. I had to give some thought about how we do that. For us, we tend to look at return on investment, considering what the payback will be for the actions we take. We also use logic and focus on the need while taking emotion out of the decision-making process. This can be hard to do, but, in most cases, produces a better outcome.

Last summer on our family farm, when discussing what we needed to do stretch, find or produce more forages for the winter, there were two obvious options: Either buy more hay or fertilize for fall stockpiling. For one group of cows, we had already bought the hay we needed to get them through an average winter with normal fall pasture growth. After some discussions, we felt that we had better do more to protect ourselves if average rains and improved growing conditions didn’t come. We evaluated and calculated how each option would benefit our operation and how much it would cost. In the end, we went with fall fertilizer. 

We applied a 25-34-40 analysis in the middle of August. A grand total of 2.8 inches of rain fell on those pastures before a killing frost stopped growth. The stockpiled pastures took those cows almost to the end of January before we began to feed hay. This was a huge success. We were able to feed those cows a lot more efficiently while also realizing “backside benefits” (a phrase I heard from MFA Conservation Grazing Specialist Landry Jones). Those benefits included less wear and tear on equipment, reduced fuel and better herd health. The big one for me was more time doing other things.

During our deliberations, I kept thinking that spending the money on hay that was available and having it sitting in our bale lot would make me feel better. In the end, it would have cost us a lot more money, and we would have never realized the other benefits. By starting earlier with the decision-making process, we had time to weigh the options and to sleep on it. It also allowed us to implement the plan sooner and apply fertilizer much earlier than normal, which helped extend the growing days for our pastures.

I obviously cannot tell you when our normal rain patterns will return, but what I can tell you is that sitting down now and analyzing your situation is a great start. Determine your options. Is there hay available, or do you need to fall fertilize? Look at the cost of fertilizer and the asking price for hay. Currently, fertilizing for more pastures seems to be a better buy, even with limited rain. Estimate the cost of activities associated with hay. Will there be benefits of not baling, hauling and feeding hay? All these activities play into the cost of doing business.

Another option to consider—and many cringe at the idea—is whether you need to reduce the herd. Will selling now before others flood the market be a better option? Remember to think rationally.

The takeaway from this article is not what I did to help get our herd through last winter or what I am going to do going forward but to encourage you to have an early plan based on good business decisions and not emotion. Stick with that plan to achieve the goal. Get help and advice from your MFA key account manager, precision specialist or location manager. Any one of them would love to get together with you to help you get through these dry times.

CLICK HERE to read more articles from this August/September 2023 issue of Today's Farmer Magazine.

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Shorter may be smarter in corn production

Bayer has developed an innova­tive technology known as the Smart Corn System, which is designed to increase corn yields and maximize profits for farmers. At the heart of this system are short-stature corn hybrids, which grow to 5 to 7 feet versus 9 to 12 feet in traditional hybrids. The shorter height offers increased standability while allowing for season-long access with standard ground rigs.

Currently being tested on about 30,000 acres in 2023, this revolu­tionary system has a target full-scale launch date of 2024.

Making plants shorter for in­creased production is not a new concept in production agriculture. Cereals such as wheat and rice were shortened during the Green Revo­lution from the 1960s to mid-1980s to achieve higher yields and help alleviate poverty and malnutrition around the world.

Bayer is not the only company working on developing short corn. Syngenta, Corteva and Stine are also working on short-stature hybrids. Stine introduced a shorter hybrid about a decade ago as a result of its breeding program.

Bayer’s short corn system uses a combination of genetic modifica­tions and improved digital processes to produce plants that are shorter in height but still produce high yields. The system optimizes corn plants’ growth and development by selecting key genetic traits as well as altering their hormone balance, inhibiting the production of gibber­ellin that causes cell elongation. This process redirects the plant’s energy from vegetative growth toward the production of kernels.

ShannonMCEven though plant height is short­er, ear size and height are expected to be the same as that of traditional corn, with placement estimated to be at least 2 feet off the ground. Plants will still have the same num­ber of leaves as traditional corn but with a shorter distance between each node, contributing to the smaller stature.

There are several key benefits of this new technology that make the idea of short corn enticing. One of the most obvious benefits is increased tolerance to green snap and lodging. Bayer research has shown that its upcoming short corn lines can tolerate wind speeds up to 50 miles per hour. Much like the industry saw with shorter cereals, an increase in standability should allow for seeds to be planted in higher densities. Increased population should have a direct correlation to yield when the system is used to its fullest capabilities.

With plant height expected to only reach 5 to 7 feet, there is an opportunity to use existing standard ground equipment in a way that hasn’t been previously possible. This opens the door for better nutrient management and more timely and efficient plant health applications, such as using fungicides later in the season. These new hybrids should help alleviate the stress that comes with the logistics of trying to get corn side-dressed before it gets too tall for standard ground equipment.

Once the new technology is launched full scale in 2024, there will be a little bit of a learning curve to maximize the system’s potential. The short-stature hybrids are expect­ed to bring increased water usage efficiency as well as improved fertili­ty management. The ability to make later in-season applications should have a significant impact, especially with nitrogen use efficiency.

The short corn system is an ex­citing advancement in the agricul­ture industry, with the potential to increase yields, maximize profits and provide numerous benefits to farmers. In the big picture, its suc­cess could have a significant impact on global food production. At MFA, we’re eager to see the potential in the field, and I’m sure many of our growers are keeping a close watch on this development, too.

Cutline for top aireal image: Bayer showcases breakthrough innovations in agriculture, including Short Stature Corn and CoverCress™, at the company’s Jerseyville, IL site as part of its Fields of Opportunity Technology Showcase. Photo by Bayer.

READ MORE from the June/July 2023 Today’s Farmer’s Magazine, the MFA Incorporated member magazine.

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In-season N for the win

What can I do to be more profitable? How can I grow more bushels on the acres I’m current­ly farming? Those are a couple of questions many farmers find themselves asking. Having a solid plan for nitrogen inputs and using industry-leading technology such as MFA Nutri-Track N is a good place to start.

There is a growing trend to split nitrogen applications, and I’m definitely a fan. By split-applying N, growers aren’t putting all their eggs in one basket. This practice spreads out the fertilizer investment risk and limits potential nitrogen loss due to many factors we cannot control. Splitting nitrogen applications is also good stewardship because growers are putting the nutrient down at the right time for plant uptake.

In the past, many producers in my area applied most—if not all—of their N in the fall, allowing that to carry them all season long. These producers were managing their farms just like their dad and grand­dad did before them. It also means they were not pushing yields. Now, I see more progressive producers moving away from a single nitrogen application and coming back after the crop is planted with a sidedress or topdress application, typically a flat rate of 40 to 80 pounds of nitro­gen per acre.

This is heading down the correct path, but Nutri-Track N can take it a step further.

MFA’s Nutri-Track N is a com­plete nitrogen management tool. It allows growers and agronomists to put their heads together to come up with the best possible in-season N recommendation on a given acre. This program complements the MFA Nutri-Track system by allow­ing seamless data transfer from one program to another. Soil properties and sample results collected for Nutri-Track flow into the recom­mendation creation process, getting away from generic field averages and factoring each sample point’s data into the recommendation. Examples such as pH and organic matter come to mind. Other factors that go into the creation of these recommen­dations include previous nitrogen applications, tillage practices, plant­ing date, variety maturity, etc.

After entering all the data by field, the Nutri-Track N system figures in local rainfall events to show the effect moisture has on nitrogen ap­plied within that field. With a simple click of a button, a new recommen­dation is generated. After a rainfall event, I like to run a report on a couple of fields for each grower to help monitor what’s going on. This tool allows you to see something that you may have missed by just looking at the fields.

With these reports in hand, grow­ers have options:

  • Follow through with the rec­ommendation provided, only editing it with parameters you feel comfortable with, such as a minimum and maximum rate.
  • Use the data provided to deter­mine a more precise flat-rate option. The Nutri-Track N recommendation can help you make a knowledgeable decision.

After determining when it’s time to apply nitrogen, the recommendation can be exported to any controller. Nutri-Track N also has the ability to generate reports by field to print for MFA or grower record-keeping. After the application is made, we continue to monitor nitrogen throughout the season.

Splitting nitrogen applications in season helps producers in many ways. Spoon-feeding nutrients during key times during plant development will further your input dollar and help mitigate losses due to weather-related events. It also allows the producer to keep up with current market prices and be better stewards of the land.

Talk with your local MFA agron­omist to learn more about what Nutri-Track N can do for you and your operation. We want to help you reach for higher goals and not settle for the same yield year after year.

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Mounting resistance threatens pesticide power

Waterhemp resistance to her­bicides is old news. Since arriving on the scene, this pesky weed has quickly developed some level of resistance to multiple sites of action. The subject of this article, water­hemp resistance to Group 27 or HPPD-inhibiting herbicides, is also nothing new. What is new—and concerning—is whether we are ap­proaching a tipping point that leads to widespread resistance.

HPPD stands for the plant enzyme, hydroxyphenylpyruvate dioxygenase, thus the need for a much easier acronym. To simplify a complex process, the inhibition of HPPD by this type of herbicide prevents plant growth by destroying chlorophyll and blocking photosynthesis.

HPPD-inhibitor herbicides include products such as Balance (pre-emer­gent only), Callisto/Explorer, Laudis, and Armezon/Impact. They are also part of many widely used premixes such as Acuron, Resicore and Lexar. HPPDs became popular in the late ’90s and early 2000s for their resid­ual activity as well as post-emergent activity, particularly with waterhemp.

Prior to HPPDs, dicamba was often the go-to herbicide for cleaning up waterhemp in corn, but products such as Callisto quickly took over. Crop safety, ease of use, low rate and overall efficacy won loyalty from growers and retailers alike. Glypho­sate also contributed to the transition from dicamba as Roundup Ready corn gained market share, but resis­tance issues made this a short-lived option for managing waterhemp.

The first chinks in the armor oc­curred over a decade ago. Resistance was reported in two seed corn pro­duction fields in Iowa and Illinois in 2009. Seed corn inbreds are not as competitive with weeds as hybrid corn. The problem is compounded by the open canopy that occurs after detasselling, so multiple post-emer­gent applications were used. The field in Illinois had also been planted in continuous corn, which created additional pressure.

Since that first discovery, HPPD resistance in waterhemp has been confirmed in multiple states, in­cluding Missouri. The University of Missouri reported several sites with resistant populations nearly 10 years ago. These trials looked at mesotrione and did not include atrazine in the mix. Atrazine tank mixed with mesotrione results in synergistic activity on waterhemp and is recommended on the label in certain circumstances. Mesotri­one alone can be effective on small plants, but atrazine becomes very important when taller plants also exist. The label cutoff for waterhemp is 3 inches without atrazine and 5 inches with atrazine. Unfortunately, plants much larger than 5 inches are often sprayed, and atrazine is almost always added when corn measures less than 12 inches.

When the MU data was released, most waterhemp in the country was still being controlled with HPPDs. At the time, the issue did not create major alarm like the other wide­spread resistance issues we had seen.

Fast forward to 2022. Multiple fields were reported to have wa­terhemp survive post-emergent applications of HPPD herbicides. Some of these included plants taller than 5 inches. A few mixes did not appear to have the correct adjuvant load. However, there were many fields where the weeds were small, the adjuvants were correct, and the weeds still survived.

In at least one field I observed, a second post-emergent pass using a different HPPD active ingredient failed after the first post-emergent pass of mesotrione failed. We collected seed in a number of these fields for resistance testing. At press time, the seeds have germinated un­der greenhouse conditions, and the plants are slowly growing. It will still be several weeks before we know whether the plants are resistant.

Even without those test results, growers should incorporate pre-emptive practices into corn weed-control programs. It is much easier to kill a weed in the soil when it has one growing point than when it has emerged with multiple grow­ing points. Relying on a post-emer­gent application to clean up emerged waterhemp in corn is fast becom­ing risky business, just as it is in soybeans. Using multiple effective modes of action prior to waterhemp emergence is key.

If you are forced to control emerged weeds, consider using an­other mode of action. In corn, that usually brings us back to dicam­ba. If you do use an HPPD after emergence, it’s important to scout the field to confirm the weed kill. Scouting may give you a chance to come back with another mode and still clean up missed weeds.

Last, but definitely not least, fol­low the label and include the proper adjuvants at the correct rates.

Regardless of whether last year’s issues are confirmed to be herbi­cide resistance or are attributed to weather or other conditions, we know it is now tougher to control weeds that we’ve controlled in the past. Incorporating an aggressive “start clean, stay clean” approach will help preserve one of the few weed control tools we have for waterhemp.

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Planter prep is first step to crop success

There are multiple factors at play in raising a tremendous crop. While many variables are beyond your con­trol, Team MFA encourages produc­ers to focus on the “Top 5” factors that you can absolutely influence:

1. Soil conditions at planting time

2. Seed placement

3. Seed quality

4. Planting the right hybrid in the right field

5. Post-planting management

As we approach spring planting, growers need to be thinking about all five of these, but today I will focus on the first two factors.

Planting into proper soil con­ditions is critical enough that you need to forget what the calendar says and keep a sharp eye on soil temperature and moisture. Corn, for example, requires a soil temperature of 50 degrees to germinate. A corn seed also takes in its first moisture needed to germinate within 24 to 48 hours after planting. If this moisture is cold, it can cause cell damage, which results in what is known as imbibitional chilling. The damaged tissue from imbibitional chilling can lead to poor and uneven emergence. It also opens the door for seedling diseases to attack. For these reasons, in addition to watching current soil temperatures, you need to watch the forecast for the 48 hours after the anticipated planting date.

For optimal emergence, it is important to wait for excessive soil moisture to dissipate. Planting into wet soils will cause disk openers to smear the sides of the seed trench to the point that the closing wheels cannot properly fracture them. This is known as sidewall compac­tion, which leads to improper root development. In this situation, the roots proliferate within the area opened by the disk openers but not the surrounding soil, resulting in hatchet-shaped roots. This reduces nutrient uptake, anchoring ability and overall root mass.

Proper seed placement is essen­tial. A corn stand will have higher yield potential if all its plants emerge within 12 to 24 hours. To attain such uniform emergence, you need consistent seed depth.

Generally, I recommend planting corn at a minimum of 2 inches to avoid temperature fluctuations and to promote good root development. In dry soil conditions, you may need to go deeper to get all seeds into moisture. Ensuring even spacing between seeds and minimizing skips and doubles also help protect yield potential.

For all these things to happen, you must first examine the planter to make sure all parts are properly adjusted and replaced if needed. I like to start by ensuring the planter is level when down. A bubble level is usually adequate to ensure that the 7x7 bar is even with the ground. You also need to check for excessive movements in the parallel arms. If this is an issue, look for worn bush­ings that need to be replaced. Nuts and bolts should also be checked throughout the planter for proper tightness. Then, make sure the drive system is running smoothly. In the case of a mechanically driven planter, all chains need to be checked for kinks or rust, properly lubricated and replaced if needed.

From there, I find it helpful to visualize the path that the seed is taking through the planter and think about all stages in that journey. The seed first goes through the meter. Meters should be checked and calibrated on a test stand to ensure proper seed singulation. Many MFA locations and equipment dealerships have a test stand and can calibrate planter meters.

The seed then travels down the seed tube, which should be checked for wear along with the seed tube protector. Worn parts should be re­placed. A worn protector will allow contact with the disk openers, which leads to increased tube wear.

The seed then falls into the seed trench, which was cut open by the disk openers to the depth allowed by the gauge wheels. Down pressure should be set high enough to reach this desired depth, but excessive down pressure can lead to compac­tion. Maximum allowed disk opener wear should be ½ inch of new. For example, if a new opener is 15 inch­es, it should be replaced when worn under 14.5 inches.

The seed is then pressed to the bottom of the trench by a proper­ly set firmer for best seed-to-soil contact. From there, an accurately adjusted closing wheel system will fracture the sidewall of the trench and cover the seed.

Many planters are also equipped with row cleaners, which, when cor­rectly set, will move surface residue without disturbing the soil. Since all planters are different, I encourage consulting the owner’s manual for more specific recommendations.

Finally, slow down, and enjoy the ride. Planting too fast can counteract some of the positive adjustments that you have made to your planter.

The preparations you make now will factor into your success this growing season. If you need assis­tance with planter setup and evalua­tion, talk with the agronomy experts at your local MFA or AGChoice center. We’ll be happy to help.

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