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Stabilizers can help protect yields and your fertilizer investment

Going into the 2021 growing season, producers have a better opportunity for profitability than we’ve experienced in several years. Commodity prices have been on the rise, and the weather outlook points to a great start for spring in MFA’s trade territory.

We’ve also seen fertilizer markets surge over the past several months. Nitrogen, phosphate and potash prices have all been on the upswing, subject to the forces of shorter supplies and larger demand, and that trend is expected to continue throughout the spring and summer.

This is definitely a year when growers need to focus on maximiz­ing yields—taking full advantage of higher grain prices—while protect­ing their fertilizer investment to make sure the nutrients are used most efficiently for top crop perfor­mance.

When it comes to corn, wheat and forages, nitrogen is the nutrient we need to be most concerned about protecting. Nitrogen impacts nearly every major process in the plant and is a large driver of yield. Without nitrogen, nothing happens. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got all the phosphorus and potash in the world. And the greater the yield, the greater the crop’s nitrogen needs.

Unfortunately, the potential for nitrogen loss is huge. As soon as we put a nitrogen product on a field, it’s bombarded by many different environmental factors that are trying to break it down into forms that can be lost either to the air or through the water. Under certain conditions, we can lose 30% to 40% or more of our applied nitrogen to leaching, denitrification and vola­tilization. Just do that math against the price of your fertilizer, and you can figure out pretty quickly just how important it is to protect that investment.

And you can’t mitigate the problem by simply using more nitrogen. The reality is, if you’ve got conditions causing loss, putting on more nitrogen just means you have that much more to lose. We really have to do something to stop the processes.

That’s where nitrogen stabilizers can help. To explain how stabilizers work, let me first explain how these losses occur. Through a process called nitrification, the ammonium in nitrogen fertilizers is converted to nitrite in the soil and then further oxidized to nitrate. Once in nitrate form, the nitrogen is subject to loss because it moves freely through­out the soil with moisture and can leach below the root zone. Nitrate is also susceptible to denitrification, a biological process that converts nitrate to gas that is lost to the atmosphere. This can often happen in waterlogged soils.

When using dry nitrogen, namely urea, volatilization is the issue we’re usually dealing with. This process has several steps. First, an enzyme called “urease” in the soil and organic residue convert urea to an unstable form, which can quickly change to ammonia and carbon dioxide. If you lay urea on top of the ground and do not incorporate it with tillage or a good rain, the nitrogen can volatilize right into the air. We want to stop the urease and slow that process down as much as possible until the product can be incorporated into the soil.

Depending on the weather, MFA’s own N-Guard stabilizer can protect nitrogen from volatilization for about 10 days to two weeks, which hopefully gives us time to get a good incorporating rain. N-Guard is applied to urea fertilizer when it’s blended at your MFA location.

Many locations also offer SuperU, a urea-based granule with the sta­bilizer built-in when it’s manufac­tured. SuperU has additional tech­nology that protects against losses both above and below ground, keeping the nitrogen in its ammoni­um form as long as possible.

We do a lot of things in agricul­ture because we can put a bottom line to it, and stabilizing your nitro­gen is one of those practices. MFA, our suppliers and universities have all done studies with these products and have shown there is consistent­ly a positive economic return on investing in nitrogen stabilizers. Not only does it protect the farmer’s fer­tilizer dollar, but it also makes sure the nutrition is there to boost yields.

At the same time, using nitrogen stabilizers is simply good steward­ship of the land. Anything we can do to keep these fertilizer products stable until the crops need it is not only a benefit to our grower but also a benefit to the environment.

Learn more about Nitrogen Stabilization:

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Disappearing dirt can erode profitability

When it rains, it pours—quickly. That’s how precipitation patterns have been developing over the past several years in MFA’s trade territo­ry. We seem to get more brief, large rain events than the long, soaking rains farmers prefer. And that per­ception is backed by data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has weather stations throughout Missouri.

Between 1895-2019, the state’s average number of rainfall events over 3 inches was 17.2 days. From the period of 2008 to 2019, nine years were above the historical annual average. Since NOAA began keeping records in 1895, the five highest years had a multitude of days with rainfall events over 3 inches, four of which were record­ed during the last 12 years. In fact, 2008 was the highest year of pre­cipitation ever recorded in Missouri with 50 days that had 3-plus inches of rain.

As producers strive to make a profit on every acre, they may try to farm as close as possible to creeks and rivers or remove trees and vegetation along the banks to gain more crop ground. The problem with these practices is that remov­ing permanent vegetation in these riparian corridors also removes stability of the soil, increasing the chance of erosion because the banks are not armored and protect­ed by deep-rooted vegetation.

Most years we do not realize that banks of rivers, streams and creeks are slowly widening and our field edges are gradually disappear­ing into the flow of water. When short-duration, flash-flooding events wash away several feet of field edges with each storm, it becomes obvious. However, that erosion has been happening for a while with every rain event, just at smaller, unnoticeable amounts.

It is hard to put a value on this lost acreage, but it’s safe to say that none of us would like the loss of production that typically those fertile river bottoms provide. How much production goes down the river each year? How many bales or bushels do you lose because the streambanks keep eroding?

Fortunately, there are several ways producers can slow or stop bank-side erosion. It might be as simple as adopting no-till practices or incorporating a cover crop so there are growing roots all year. It may mean a change in grazing management to increase residual forage heights, which, in turn, will increase root mass.

Most times though, curbing erosion along rivers, streams and creeks usually includes creating a natural buffer extending away from the bank. In some less-severe situ­ations, you can do this by farming farther away from the water’s edge and allowing Mother Nature to reclaim this land by herself. You can also speed up the process by planting trees and shrubs to create that buffer. Typically, a 50-foot buffer is a minimum to create good riparian habitat that will slow down and stop the erosion but, in some cases, it may need to be wider.

In more severe cases, after that buffer has been established, heavy equipment may be needed to place large rocks along the riverbank or divert the stream channel to slow the erosion until the riparian buffer can become established. Each situa­tion is different and can be complex.

There are professionals in both private and public sectors across the state who are very knowledgeable on how to protect these riparian areas and know what it will require to slow down and stop the erosion. MFA has two conservation special­ists, Adam Jones and myself, who can assist producers with stream­bank erosion issues. Also, the Natu­ral Resources Conservation Service, Department of Natural Resources and Missouri Department of Con­servation have staff who can assist producers. These organizations typically have financial assistance available to help with some of the costs of establishing their recom­mended solutions to widen riparian corridors.

Often, we think about the short-term effects of our current manage­ment decisions, but when it comes to streambank stabilization, we have to think long term. If you were to do nothing about the erosion occurring along the rivers, streams and creeks on your land, just imagine what would it would look like when your kids or grandkids take over your operation. Now, take action to improve that future.

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Feed forages a balanced diet

It’s the time of year when the “new” in new year really shows— newborn calves, blooming redbuds and fresh growth of green grass. Sure, we’ll keep some hay out until the cattle refuse it, but we can see light at the end of that tunnel we call winter. Now is the time to plan fertilizer applications so your herd will be rolling in grass this year.

I like to fertilize hay fields some­where in the last half of March or early April. For pasture ground, I think a bit differently. The good Lord gives us a bunch of grass in April and early May, so I like to hold off on fertilizing pastures until later in those months.

Chances are, you eat a fairly balanced diet. If you’re like me that might be meat, taters and a bit of dessert, washed down with a cup of good coffee or glass of tea. Your grass will certainly respond better with a balanced diet, too. Feeding forages with the right blend of plant nutrients results in palatable, nu­tritious feed for our livestock—and plenty of it! Think N, P, K and S.

Nitrogen (N) is that cup of coffee. It provides tremendous energy for the plant and helps build protein. Phosphorus (P) is the potatoes. Phosphorus is responsible for de­veloping and growing a good root system that can find water and nu­trients. Potassium (K) is the meat in the diet. Without ample potassium, forages can’t conserve water and may lose the ability to stand. Sulfur (S) is the dessert. This element just makes everything better. The major role of sulfur is building amino acids and proteins.

When you properly fertilize, you set your forages up for success. You can make that investment even more effective by controlling weeds in your hay fields and pastures. Adding herbicides such as DuraCor or GrazonNext HL to your fertil­izer application removes the weed competition, allowing all the plant nutrients and soil moisture to feed the forages that feed the cows.

My herbicide of choice is DuraCor. It’s stronger, has great residual activity and kills more weeds. This will help control many of the sum­mer annuals that steal water and fertilizer from your forages. Serious reduction in ragweed, nettle, thistle, cocklebur, perilla mint, buckhorn plantain, pigweed and many other undesirable plants allows for an abundance of good, clean grass.

An efficient and effective way to provide both nutrition and weed control to forages is through dry fertilizer impregnation (DFI). This process applies a concentrated herbicide solution on dry fertilizer during the blending process. The practice has steadily been gaining adoption throughout the state and has proven to be an effective way to pair fertility and weed control. The real advantage of this system is the herbicide’s residual control, which suppresses especially small or unemerged weeds. By allowing fertility and weed control to be applied simultaneously, DFI can be a tremendous cost and time savings during a busy time of year for many of MFA’s diversified growers.

MFA has jumped on the opportu­nity to provide customers with DFI services through several locations across our region. For availability, check with your local MFA facility.

Do keep in mind that impreg­nated fertilizer is designed to combat broadleaf weeds, not brush. Buckbrush, blackberries and tree sprouts are not well controlled with impregnated fertilizer. Also, please understand that impregnated fertil­izer works best to stop weeds that haven’t emerged. If you have lots of emerged weeds, spraying may be the better choice.

Producers should work with their key account manager and location employees to determine exactly what fertilizer blend and herbicides to apply. Ideally, those recommen­dations are based on a soil test and realistic yield goals for the upcom­ing growing season.

Many MFA locations have SuperU available. This premium nitrogen source is protected from all three forms of nitrogen loss—leaching, denitrification and volatility. The wet spring weather we have expe­rienced the past two or three years really takes a toll on nitrogen if it’s not protected. Chances of volatility increase as the temperature rises. You’ll sleep better at night if you use SuperU. I highly recommend it.

Well-fed, weed-free fields fare much better through hot, dry months. They are able to conserve water and continue producing quality feed far longer when the going gets tough. Cattle producers get paid on pounds of beef. Produc­ing more grass—and higher-quality grass—will lead to more pounds of beef per acre, per year.

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Take note of dicamba changes for 2021

Most row-crop growers have now heard that dicamba products XtendiMax with VaporGrip, Enge­nia, and Tavium with VaporGrip have been given a five-year label going into 2021. This is great news and a much-needed addition to weed-control options. Additionally, Bayer released XtendFlex soybeans for the 2021 growing season. This technology allows for the over-the-top application of glyphosate, dicamba and glufosinate (Liberty) to XtendFlex soybeans.

Note that glufosinate and dicam­ba products cannot be tank mixed together. Glufosinate requires ammonium sulfate (AMS) to work properly, and new dicamba prod­ucts cannot come into contact with AMS. Strict cleanout requirements need to be followed when switching from a dicamba product to glufos­inate or vice versa on XtendFlex soybeans to ensure these dicamba products do not contact AMS.

Farmers need to be aware of some changes that have been made to the previous labels of Xtendi­Max, Engenia and Tavium going forward. First, note that June 30 is the national cutoff date for dicamba applications over soybeans, and July 30 is the national cutoff date for post-emergent cotton applications. These products can be applied up to and including those cutoff days.

MFA will once again monitor growth stages through its Sentinel Plot network in which multiple fields in different regions of our ter­ritory are scouted each week. Once flowering begins—the R1 stage—post-emergent dicamba applications are stopped in that region. With this protocol, some areas of our territory could see a cutoff at varying dates prior to the national deadline. We will continue this system and issue cutoff dates prior to June 30 or July 30 if necessary.

Another change to dicamba use is extended buffer zones. Downwind buffer zones have increased from 110 feet to 240 feet from the last treated row and the nearest down­wind field edge. The zones include roads, paved or gravel surfaces, mowed grassy areas adjacent to field, and areas of bare ground from recent plowing or grading that are contiguous with the treated field.

Perhaps a more important change to carefully note is the endangered species buffer zones. These have increased from 110 feet to 310 feet downwind PLUS a 57-foot omnidi­rectional buffer. There is no longer a list of counties designated as hav­ing endangered species. To know where endangered species areas are located, applicators will need to refer to EPA’s Bulletins Live! website before spraying. This live map can be updated whenever necessary: bulletins-live-two-view-bulletins.

The use of drift reduction technology such as hooded spray­ers may qualify an applicator for reduced buffer zones in soybeans. Specific drift reduction technolo­gy can be found at each product’s respective website.

Everyone is familiar with drift reduction agents (DRA), such as Impetro II, that must be added to dicamba tank mixes. However, in addition to the DRA, there is now a volatility reducing agent (VRA) that must be also be added to the tank mix. These VRAs are also called pH buffering agents, depending on the label. Vapex is a new approved VRA that MFA will be using with our dicamba mixes. Be sure to check your product’s respective label and website for approved VRAs specific to your product. XtendiMax, Enge­nia and Tavium all require a DRA and VRA for applications.

A change specific to XtendiMax is the maximum pre-emergence rate is 22 ounces per acre for a single application. Previously, an applica­tor could run 44 ounces per acre in a pre-emergence application. Now, there is a maximum of two applica­tions at 22 ounces per acre.

Runoff restrictions also have been updated. Previously, dicamba prod­ucts could not be applied if rainfall exceeding field capacity was expect­ed within 24 hours. That has been changed to 48 hours after applica­tion. So, if runoff is possible within 48 hours of application, dicamba products should not be applied.

Mandatory training and record-keeping are still required for all ap­plicators along with all other label restrictions listed for each product. The restrictions I have mentioned here are updates to the previous restrictions, and none of those has been removed. Make sure you con­sult the label specific to the product you plan to apply for all restrictions and information. Find the websites for each product in the box below.

The crop protection technologies at our disposal are great tools, but they also come with a great responsi­bility. I hope that we can use them responsibly, safely and according to all label restric­tions to ensure a successful 2021 season and beyond. 

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Don't cheat your wheat

In the Midwest, wheat is one of the crops that most responds to intense management. Many of those management steps occur after wheat breaks dormancy in the spring.

When wheat comes out of dor­mancy, the first order of business is to check the stand. A general eval­uation will reveal if large areas did not survive winter and whether lat­er-emerging plants were able to fill in. Next is a proper stand count. A rule of thumb for maximum wheat yields is to have approximately 70 to 80 plants and tillers per square foot. Knowing your stand count not only indicates the health of your crop but can also be used to de­termine nitrogen timing. In drilled wheat with 7.5-inch rows, a square foot is 19.2 inches. If you find your­self without a tape measure, this is roughly shoulder width for many of us. Count each plant and its tillers in that square-foot area. If you count 70 to 80, you may choose to delay a nitrogen application. Fewer than this may necessitate an early nitrogen application to encourage additional tillers. Randomize where you take stand counts by throwing something like a hoop or a ball and counting wherever it lands.

Nitrogen management in wheat focuses on rates and timing. Historically, wheat fields received all of their N in one application following green-up. This is often still the case and can result in excellent yields. In some situations, though, a split application should be considered. When a field has a low tiller count and requires early nitrogen, it is probably too soon to apply everything. A split application helps prevent loss of nitrogen that will be needed later in the season. High rates applied early, combined with good growing conditions, can encourage vegetative growth to the point that plants lodge later in the season. Splitting the nitrogen appli­cations helps mitigate this poten­tial issue. Nitrogen rates generally should total around 90-100 pounds in the spring, and some producers have seen benefits of going as high as 120 pounds. Using an N source with a urease inhibitor to protect loss from volatility is advised. Sulfur should also be added in the form of ammonium sulfate or ammonium thiosulfate. Avoid elemental sulfur for wheat top-dress because it is not immediately available.

Wheat is not the only plant in your field that responds to nitrogen. Henbit, chickweed and other winter annual broadleaves will compete for fertilizer and other resources. Top yields will not occur if weeds are not controlled. Winter annuals may also be sprayed in the fall, but you still need to scout fields for garlic in the spring. Garlic is not terribly competitive, but it destroys quality and must be controlled.

Herbicides may be sprayed as a stand-alone pass or combined with liquid nitrogen. They may also be combined with insecticides to help control aphids and other insect pests. Aphids in wheat are best known for transmitting barley yellow dwarf. This yield-robbing disease is viral, so fungicides won’t help. You must control the disease vector, which is the aphid. Keep in mind, aphids also work on wheat fields in the fall. They often do more damage during that time peri­od, so do not solely rely on a spring management strategy.

Managing fungal disease is imperative to achieving top yields and sometimes, more importantly, top-quality wheat. Fungal diseases such as common rust and its more aggressive cousin, striped rust, can severely affect yields. Fusari­um head blight or “head scab” is extremely detrimental to yields but can also affect quality of wheat to the point of being unmarketable.

Fungicides have often been viewed as an optional input for wheat, but many producers now consider them table-stakes, espe­cially the later applications made for scab. The benefits to quality and test weight more than justify their use, and often, there is a yield increase as well.

Disease threat reports and scouting have been helpful tools when timing fungicides, with the exception of fusarium head blight, which can only be controlled with an application during the small window of flowering. New products allow a wider application window that begins at 50% head emergence. This earlier window not only makes it easier to achieve a timely appli­cation for scab, but it also helps with diseases that may already be present.

Raising high-yielding, high-qual­ity wheat involves several import­ant activities, and correct timing is imperative to success. MFA’s Crop-Trak scouting program is an excellent tool to help make sure these decisions are being made on schedule. Weather too often gives us a narrow window to get every­thing done, so being proactive is a must. Crop-Trak consultants and agronomists make weekly trips to the field, which helps make sure none of these steps are missed or ill-timed. Contact your local MFA for more information.

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