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Extreme season proves modeling nitrogen pays

The 2019 growing season was certainly memorable, but it may be one that many would like to forget. Despite the stress it put on both growers and input suppliers, I feel there are many lessons to be learned in such an extreme year.

Last year, MFA used a new nitrogen-modeling tool called Nutri-Track N. It was certainly an interesting year to roll out this new technology. While we had been experimenting and demon­strating Nutri-Track N since 2016, last year was the first time we had such extreme potential for nitrogen loss. Previously, we had seen this recommendation tool help improve nitrogen use efficiency to 0.8 pound of nitrogen for every bushel of corn yield in many areas. That wasn’t possible in 2019, with excess rainfall pushing nitrogen below the root zone of the corn crop before it could be utilized.

During the past growing season, it took significantly more nitrogen to raise a bushel of corn than it did in previous years. For example, in one field where a check strip was left with no top-dress application, there was a 40-bushel per acre yield penalty. Nutri-Track N let us see the trend developing and respond appropriately, which is exactly what we hoped would happen. This recommendation system allows us to tailor nitrogen applications to the current weather pattern.

What makes the Nutri-Track N system different? It is based on years of university research that explains and models nitrogen’s life cycle in a field. It collects rainfall, tempera­ture, soil data and all the agronomic field practices we can provide, and then it estimates the amount of N that is available when the crop needs it most and models the need moving forward. Not only does it track what nitrogen is applied but also estimates what has been min­eralized from soil organic matter (OM). The more information we can feed to the program, the better the recommendation.

The best recs are achieved with the combination of grid sampling to provide OM levels and historic yield data to give us variable yield potential. By evaluating all these factors, Nutri-Track N shows the current status of the field and where it is expected to be at the end of the season—assuming typical weather patterns. The model is constantly improving by updating every night with new adjustments based on the previous day’s actual recorded weather.

In practice last year, this tech­nology worked as we had hoped. In mid-May, the MFA Precision Agronomy team started to send out alerts to our staff, warning that fields with unprotected fall nitrogen applications were at extreme risk of running short of this essential plant nutrient. By late May, we began to see more fields—even some that had received spring applications— that would benefit from topping off the nitrogen mid-season. The windows were tight to get that N applied, but it paid dividends when the combines rolled this past fall. In my estimation, nitrogen manage­ment was second only to stand es­tablishment in terms of importance to overall yields in 2019.

So, what did we learn from last year?

  • While we’ve always understood that using split applications with a planned top-dress application could improve nitrogen use efficiency, this past season, the system paid big yield dividends as well.
  • The later we can wait to make our overall total nitrogen invest­ment, the better off we are. The more information we have about our growing season, the better N rate decisions we can make.
  • Protecting your nitrogen with proven stabilizers pays. Any­thing we can do to maintain nitrogen in the ammonium form in the soil for a longer period is critical, not only to protect your investment but also keeping that nitrate out of surface waters.
  • There is no single right rate or application method for all of our nitrogen needs. It is a system with many variables. However, with the right tools we can con­tinue to improve efficiency and yields as we gain experience and knowledge.

I’m excited to see the results from those producers who used Nutri-Track N last year. While no two years are the same, I feel confi­dent that we are managing nitrogen better today and will continue to improve into the future.

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Gone to seed

Thanks to the sinister survival skills of weeds, seeds from as far back as 30, 40 or 50 years ago can be hanging out in the soil profile waiting for the right conditions to grow.

When weeds succeed, they are actively building a seed bank in your soil. One mature Palmer amaranth plant in a soybean field can add thousands of seeds to the soil. Other weeds aren’t as prolific, but each weed that goes to seed carries out its biological imperative to survive by depositing seed for the next generation.

In some ways, the weed seed bank in each field is a memory—not just from escapes but from cultural practices and field use history. Farmers of a certain age remember a different weed profile from the days of 30-inch rows or deeper tillage. The same can be said for major chang­es in herbicide chemistry.

Multiple factors dictate how long a weed seed will remain viable in the soil. Seed coat type is an obvious factor. Seeds with dura­ble coverings tend to stay viable longer wherever they land in the soil profile. But even long-lasting weed seeds are susceptible to microbial decay, being eaten by insects or birds, and germinating in fatal conditions.

Several years ago, Steven Fenni­more, a weed scientist at the Universi­ty of California, Davis, did a meta-study on weed seed banks. The data Fenni­more collected showed that most weed seed banks have multiple species but that a few dominant ones make up 70% to 90% of viable seed in the soil. A sec­ond group of seeds, those not adapted to survive in the current cropping system, make up 10% to 20%, with the balance being newly introduced weed species and seed from previous crops. These percentages make sense in terms of what we call “weed shifts,” as dominant weed species change with tillage or herbicide practices.

Those figures assume there has been no significant physical movement of weed seed, of course. Growers who had land inundated with floodwaters in 2019 might experience a weed shift as flooded land returns to production.

“When soil moves, we can see more emergence of weeds like cockleburs, a seed that can remain viable in the soil for 30 to 40 years,” said Dr. Jason Weirich, vice president of sales and agronomy for MFA Incorpo­rated. “Where we see soil deposits from riverbanks or scouring of topsoil, we are going to see weeds in some fields that we haven’t seen in a while. That’s the nature of seeds that can remain dormant in the seed bank.”

The good news is that the seed banks are affected by efficient weed control. Iowa State weed scientist Bob Hartzler has done work to show that consistently clean fields reduce the number of weed seeds in the soil, making control easier to maintain. The same research offers a significant caveat: It only takes one management disaster to rebuild weed seed bank deposits.

Whether talking to research weed scientists or agronomy advisors, they all insist the best defense against future weeds is control.

“First and foremost, we’re thinking about yield this season,” said Weirich. “And right now, the overlapping-residual method is proving itself effective. A full rate of a pre-emerge herbicide applied at planting followed 20 to 30 days with a post-emerge application of another residual is effective weed control, and effective weed control is going to keep weed seed out of the bank.”

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Prized advice

Mefford CCA MFAJason Worthington, MFA senior staff agronomist, left, presents Jason Mefford, Crop-Trak area sales manager, with a plaque for being named Missouri's 2019 Certified Crop Adviser of the Year.MFA Crop-Trak Area Sales Manager Jason Mefford was named the 2019 Missouri Certified Crop Adviser of the Year Dec. 17 during the University of Missouri Crop Management Conference in Columbia, Mo.

The award is designed to recognize a crop consultant who delivers exceptional customer service, is highly innovative, shows leadership and contributes substantially to the exchange of ideas and trans­fer of agronomic knowledge within Missouri’s agricultural industry.

“Jason takes pride in his CCA certification and the code of ethics it stands for,” said MFA Senior Staff Agronomist Jason Worthington, who serves as chairman of the Missouri CCA board. “He’s not only one of the most skilled con­sultants I’ve been around, he is also a valuable resource for other Crop-Trak consultants he mentors, instilling those values and working diligently to train them with the agronomic knowledge they need. He has coached several employees who stepped up in the compa­ny and is responsible for a lot of their success.”

The Certified Crop Adviser program is coordinated through the American Society of Agronomy. To become certified, a candidate must have two years of crop production experience and a bachelor’s degree in agronomy or at least four years of post-high school experience, pass a CCA state and international exam as well as sign a code of ethics. CCAs must earn continuing education credits to remain certified.

“Jason exemplifies the CCA program with his internal motivation and desire to learn new things,” Worthington said. “To get certified, you not only have to have agronomic expertise but also real-world experience and commitment to customers. You are expected to continue learning throughout your career and stay involved with changes in the industry. Jason is never satisfied not knowing the answer and seeks out knowledge constantly.”

Mefford, who earned his CCA designation in 2013, began his MFA career as an intern working with crop consultants to scout fields. Within a year he joined MFA full time as a crop consultant and now serves in a re­gional agronomist role, supervising four other crop con­sultants in west central Missouri. Together, they scouted more than 45,000 acres in 2019, assisting around 60 growers with pest management, fertility, variety place­ment and scouting other field issues.

“My main goal is the do the best we can for the grower, agronomically, economically and environ­mentally,” said Mefford, who also holds the Certified Professional Agronomist, 4R Stewardship and Resistance Management Specialty designations. “We measure our success as consultants by the success of our growers.”

Worthington added that the values of the CCA program mirror MFA’s core values of customer partnering, steward­ship, innovation and technology, honesty and integrity. That’s why out of Missouri’s nearly 300 certified crop advisers, MFA employs 75 of them.

“We expect any of our employees who make grower recom­mendations to have their CCA certification,” Worthington said. “That not only includes crop consultants but also precision specialists, key account managers, applicators and store man­agers. Even our livestock specialists are CCAs because they deal with forages—one of our region’s major crops. It’s an important program for agriculture and valuable to growers, and I hope it instills confidence that MFA is doing the right thing.”

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Stewards of the land

The old saying goes, “good help is hard to find.” We post open po­sitions for custom applicators on a weekly basis across MFA’s territory. There is no doubt it is a demanding position. Seasonally, these individ­uals put in long hours, working dawn to dusk many days and sac­rificing time with their families for their customers.

The job doesn’t just take hard work and time. With new products continually coming on the market, applicators have to keep up with agronomic knowledge and technol­ogy, both chemical and otherwise. Using some of these technologies, they try to ensure they’re not only taking care of MFA’s customers but also that customer’s neighbors.

With programs and apps to tell the most up-to-date wind condi­tions, where gardens are planted and where bee hives reside, they have tremendous responsibility to be stewards of the land. One of MFA’s core values is stewardship. It makes custom applicators account­able to ensure conditions are right to do a responsible, quality job.

This past year, MFA partnered with State Technical College of Mis­souri in Linn, Mo., to create a pro­gram that provides students with hands-on training and education in the field. After working one-on-one with our experienced professionals, these internships can move to full-time positions upon graduation.

MFA also hosts annual trainings to update our applicators on the latest in spraying techniques, herbi­cide systems and new crop protec­tion technology. At MFA, we pride ourselves on doing good work.

Though “good help is hard to find,” we find it. Annually, it’s my pleasure to recognize top custom applicators in each of our five regions for their excellence and commitment to MFA’s core values of honesty and integrity, accountability, team spirit, innova­tion and technology, stewardship and customer partnering. Year after year, these employees get the job done, and I’m proud of these talented folks.

Region 1: Tim SpickardRegion 1

MFA Agri Services, Trenton, Mo.
Years of Service: 7
Annual Acres: About 15,000

Trenton Agri Services Manager Dustin Cox said, “Tim treats each application as if he were taking care of his own crops. He takes pride in spraying. Most of our customers request Tim when they need spray­ing done.” Spickard typically runs a Rogator for the location, though he performs optimally in any piece of equipment, Cox added. Spickard is also an avid supporter of the local 4-H and FFA chapters, helping the organizations with functions and supporting his nieces and nephews who are members of both. “His workmanship is something special that’s hard to find these days,” Cox continued. “He’s willing to do any­thing we need to help our operation run smoothly, and he does it profes­sionally.” When Spickard isn’t work­ing, he enjoys spending time with his friends and family and riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Region 2: Tyler AllenRegion 2

MFA Agri Services, Centralia, Mo.
Years of Service: 8
Annual Acres: About 35,000

Centralia Agri Services Manager Jim Gesling said, “Tyler has consistently provided quality application and good stewardship to every field he applies. Tyler is very conscientious and takes a true interest in our cus­tomers’ fields. He does a tremendous job of treating each field as his own.” Allen is a team player and talented mechanic, Gesling added. These attributes make him an exceptional asset to his location and MFA as a whole. Outside of work, Allen is ac­tive in his church. “I am very proud of this young man,” Gesling said.

Region 3: Andrew Hanke Region 3

MFA Agri Services, Salisbury, Mo.
Years of Service: 5
Annual Acres: About 14,000

“Andrew always takes the time and effort to make sure he is doing a quality job,” Assistant Manager Mike Lampe said. “During spray­ing season, Andrew always has his sprayer ready to go first thing in the morning no matter how late he ran the night before. He works holidays and weekends if needed, and we appreciate his dedication.” Hanke also runs the location’s NH3 application machine when needed. He always covers the whole field and monitors field and weather conditions to ensure he’s doing a quality job, Lampe added. Hanke’s hobbies are hunting and fishing. He also helps his father and uncle on the family’s cattle and row-crop operation.

Region 4: David BlackmonRegion4

MFA Midsouth, Piggott, Ark.
Years of Service: 4
Annual Acres: About 17,000

“David takes pride in his work,” said Steve McChristian, MFA Piggott branch manager. “He stays late to make sure the job is complete and has a good relationship with all the growers.” Blackmon’s equipment is always ready to go, clean and well maintained, McChristian added, and he helps fellow operators whenever possible. “He is very proficient at his job, setting an example for others,” McChristian said. In his off hours, Blackmon helps raise money for school backpack programs and for less-fortunate children at Christmas. He also builds benches and picnic tables in memory of community members who have passed away. His hobbies are raising calves and wood­working. “He’s a family man above all,” McChristian said.

Region 5: Dustin ClarkRegion 5

MFA Lamar Group, Irwin, Mo.
Years of Service: 5
Annual Acres: About 20,000

Serving as both bulk plant manag­er and applicator, Dustin Clark is willing to take on any job, District 8 Manager Jared Hyder said. He works long hours to ensure custom­ers receive the best service possible and makes sure the machines are serviced and ready at all times, Hy­der added. “Dustin isn’t just a great applicator,” Hyder said. “He is also key in getting the ground pile filled during harvest at Lamar. He helps with any task necessary to help MFA and our customers be success­ful.” When Clark is not working hard for MFA, he is spending time with his two children. In addition, he enjoys working on old cars and fishing.

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White mold takes hold in Missouri

Year in and year out, soybean growers across Missouri and sur­rounding states have no shortage of pests. In 2019, in addition to nor­mal challenges, weed control was more difficult due to compressed windows for timely herbicide ap­plication. On the other hand, insect and disease pressure was lower than expected. That’s not to say that many growers did not benefit from measures taken to control insects and diseases. However, 2019 may be one to remember due to an emerg­ing threat that gained a foothold in our area: white mold.

For two consecutive years, this fungal disease has been detected in northwest and central Missouri. Perhaps the most serious late-sea­son soybean disease in much of the upper Midwest, white mold pro­liferates in cool, moist conditions, dense canopies and high-yield envi­ronments. Yield losses are estimated at 2 to 5 bushels for every 10% of plants infected with the disease. White mold infections can com­monly exceed 50% in areas where the disease is well established. It overwinters as sclerotia in the soil and persists for long periods, making crop rotation ineffective at reducing disease potential.

Scouting for white mold is more difficult than foliar diseases. The first sign of white mold develop­ment is not on the plant but on the soil. Overwintering sclerotia devel­op into mushroom-like structures called apothecia. These structures appear at or near canopy on the soil and produce spores that infect the soybean plant.

The second sign of development is lesions below the soybean nodes where white, fluffy mycelial growth occurs, giving white mold its name. The mold appears after spores from the apothecia infect the soybean plants through the flowers.

The last symptoms are the most visible—wilting of soybean leaves and plant death—but these issues show up far too late to indicate the need for treatment.

Being primarily a stem disease, white mold is difficult to control with fungicides. Disease hiding deep within the soybean canopy is difficult to reach. Further com­pounding the issue is the fact that many fungicides that control foliar diseases are ineffective against white mold, making product selection critical. Common fungicide prac­tices to control white mold are a triazole application at R1 (early flowering) followed by another application at R3.

To ensure fungicide applications are effective, first understand that not all triazoles are created equal. Certain products are much more effective against white mold than others. Selecting a fungicide active ingredient is just as important as choosing the class of chemistry. In­cluding the herbicide Cobra at the R1-R2 application of fungicide will improve white mold control. Cobra activates systemic acquired resis­tance in soybeans, which means it sensitizes the plants to white mold and allows them to trigger defense mechanisms quicker.

Other management practices for white mold often have to be incorporated with chemical control to be effective. Chief among those is canopy management. While lush, dense canopies provide several ben­efits for weed control, they provide an ideal home for white mold to develop and a physical barrier be­tween the disease and applied fun­gicides. Fields with known histories of white mold are best suited for 30-inch rows, allowing fungicides to cover the stems more effectively and air flow to slow white mold progression.

Similarly, variety selection becomes important, not just for plant resistance but also plant architecture. While bush-type varieties are often considered more desirable than pole-type soybeans, the opposite is true if white mold management is a driving factor. A pole variety provides fewer branch­es, more upright growth and less canopy cover.

Prevention is one of the best management plans for white mold, especially without widespread infes­tations. Sclerotia can be transported from field to field, by tillage equip­ment and combines, in residue and in soil. Thorough equipment cleaning between fields may be worthwhile.

While we don’t know to what extent we will have to deal with white mold in the future, we do know it now resides in Missouri. Going forward, control starts with a good integrated pest management plan, considering all practices and the threat level of a particular field. It’s paramount to understand the bi­ology of the pest to include cultural, biological and chemical strategies at the appropriate time. Our biggest challenge as new pests develop is to understand the limitation of our current control systems and determine when something new needs to be incorporated. Increasing understanding of white mold is the first necessary step

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