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Conversion complete

conversionSince the new, integrated Merchant Grain software went online, the process of buying and selling grain has been much smoother, says Tosha Alexander, center, bookkeeper at MFA Agri Services in Sweet Springs, Mo., and Manager Dan Tate, right, agrees. Tyler Verslues, left, MFA field accountant, helped oversee the Merchant Grain implementation at this store as well as the last few locations that were converted to the updated platform in July.A major milestone for MFA came in late July with the conversion of the last of the company’s grain operations to the new Merchant Grain software system.

It was the final achievement in a large-scale endeavor that began in late 2012 to replace MFA’s outdated mainframe computer with modern software that would integrate all of the company’s business processes. An implementation team of MFA employees worked with EFC Systems, a software development company based in Brentwood, Tenn., to customize the platforms to fit MFA’s hybrid structure of company-owned stores, local affiliates and whole­sale operations. The process included converting wholesale operations to EFC’s Vanguard system and retail operations to a program called Merchant Ag.

After Merchant Ag deployment was completed in February 2019, work shifted to de­veloping the complementary Merchant Grain program to handle the intricacies of MFA’s grain marketing operations. The software was completed in 2020 and rolled out in stages to ensure adequate technical support. The final locations were converted to Merchant Grain on July 29, wrapping up a process nearly a decade in the making.

“The way we handle grain made developing that part of the software much more difficult,” said Lori Kahler, MFA retail accounting manager, who supervised the Merchant Grain Con­version Team. “MFA centralizes grain hedging but records profitability at the location level. We needed a system that could accommodate all the complexities of our system.”

Collaborating with EFC and MFA’s Information Technology Department, Craig Poppinga, MFA manager of accounting services, and Brenda Imhoff, manager of Agri Services computer information systems, led the Merchant Grain development team along with MFA field accountants, who helped to test the new platform and train employees to use it. Their hands-on involvement ensured that the software offered all the functionality, flexibility and features that MFA required for its grain operations.

“Creating a company-wide, one-database system gives the Grain De­partment the ability to see and hedge grain quantities immediately rather than waiting on a phone call from the locations requesting the home office to place hedges,” Poppinga said. “They can now key in contracts for the loca­tions, reducing calls and duplication of efforts.”

On the operational side, Merchant Grain has streamlined other processes for marketing, reporting and account­ing, such as making settlements, recording grades, moving customers’ grain obligations and tracking daily position reports.

For customers, the benefits include improved access to their grain accounts and detailed reports to assist in finan­cial planning. Patrons have the option of emailed delivery of tickets and contracts, and Merchant Grain records are readily available through the online customer portal.

“The biggest benefit to customers is the real-time aspect of this system,” said Tyler Verslues, MFA field accoun­tant who helped oversee some of the first and last locations converted to Merchant Grain. “Customers can drive off the scale and see their grain tickets and contract balances online. They don’t have to keep track of it them­selves or wait until the store gets all the tickets loaded into the computer.”

With 15 years of experience in handling grain transactions, Tosha Alexander, bookkeeper at MFA Agri Services in Sweet Springs, Mo., was tapped to help test Merchant Grain as it was being developed. While admitting that the new system takes some acclimation for those who are used to the “old” way, Alexander said the benefits to both the company and its custom­ers are worth the time it takes to get past the learning curve.

“The versatility of this program is endless,” she said. “I’m super excited about the potential it brings to the farmer. It reaches out like a vine with branches into every little part of their account. We can see what they’ve bought and sold and run detailed reports. And custom­ers can access all their grain infor­mation through the online portal, which is something they couldn’t do before.”

Although transactions in Mer­chant Grain may take a little longer on the front end to access a cus­tomer’s account and create a ticket, Alexander said it greatly reduces workload on the back end.

“We’re doing everything as the trucks cross the scale, instead of having to hand-stamp the tickets and then spend more time keying them into the computer at the end of the day,” Alexander said. “Before, I’d mentally have to keep track of who sold what until I got all those tickets entered. When everyone’s running nonstop, it could be over­whelming. With the new system, when you’re done, you’re done.”

Plus, Merchant offers the ability to easily make changes to grain tickets, including correcting cus­tomer names, altering status, split­ting transactions, adding grades or making important notations. In the old system, Alexander said, making such changes was a cumbersome process, often requiring the ticket to be voided and rekeyed.

While the software was in development, grain transactions were recorded on MFA’s “legacy” system, a 26-year-old, DOS-based mainframe computer that will be retired after a few more programs are converted to Merchant. That’s good news for Verslues, who said he’s looking forward to having all the locations he works with on the same platform.

“From an accounting standpoint, having everyone on Merchant is awesome,” Verslues said. “For two years, some of my stores were on the old system, and some were on the new one. I think we will be a lot more efficient on the accounting and financial side of our business now that we’re all on the same page.”

Indeed, Kahler said, getting all locations on the Merchant platform is a tremendous accomplishment, but the full extent of abilities and advantages are yet to be realized.

“This will be the first harvest sea­son that Merchant Grain has been fully deployed, and all the stores are doing really well with it,” she said. “There’s still some work to be done, making processes smoother and that sort of thing, but the biggest part of our job is done. However, I don’t think we’ll see the whole picture until have an entire year under the new system. Then, we’ll truly realize just how much this means to MFA and our customers.”

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Grand upgrade for grain

Just 18 months after an explosion destroyed part of the grain facility at West Central AGRIServices in Adrian, Mo., employees, customers and MFA leaders celebrated the grand opening of a brand-new, state-of-the-art complex that is well positioned to serve area farmers far into the future.

It’s a prime example of turning a negative situation into a posi­tive, said Dale Guss, who has managed the Adrian location since 2005, about a year after MFA Enterprises purchased West Central.

“That fateful day is what started this whole deal, moving us for­ward, and it developed into what you see here today,” Guss said just prior to a ribbon-cutting ceremony on July 26. “There’s been a lot of talk through the years about what to do to increase our capacity. We could put more bins up, but we were always going to be throt­tled by receiving capabilities. Our job is to make sure the combine never stops running. I’m pretty excited to see what we can do this fall and how our customers respond.”

With an original capacity of 1.6 million bushels, Adrian’s first elevator was built in the mid-1970s to serve farmers in this row-crop-rich area. The new facility is 40% larger, capable of handling 2.5 million bushels of grain with an additional 2.5 million bushels of temporary storage.

“We struggled in the ’70s for elevators and places to dump our grain, with our 40-bushel pickups and 200-bushel trucks. You were always waiting in lines and waiting on railcars. It was a wreck,” said Carl Ferguson, a local farmer who was one of West Central’s original investors. “It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come. What MFA is done here is just amazing, and we appreciate it. Good personnel, good facility.

Phase 1 of construction on the rebuild­ing project started less than six months from day of the explosion, which happened on New Year’s Eve 2020. It was operational in four and a half months in time for soybean harvest that year. The first load of grain was received Oct. 19, 2021, and the first railcars were loaded Dec. 28, 2021. Phase 2 of construction was completed this summer, with the first load of grain received June 28.

Guss said the biggest improvement is the elevator leg capac­ity, which increased from 25,000 bushels per hour to 90,000 bushels per hour. The new facility is capable of loading a railcar in less than 5 minutes, where previously it took about 12 minutes. The main truck receiving pit also increased from a 900-bushel to 1,300-bushel capacity, cutting unload time in half.

Among other improvements, three new concrete grain silos added 1.2 million bushels in storage space. In addition, the grain dryer was upgraded from 1,000 bushels per hour to 5,000 bushels per hour with a fully automated continuous flow system served by its own wet and dry legs. New truck scales, intercom system and ticket printer have also been installed, making the loading and unloading process more efficient for drivers.

The improvements had been in long-term plans, said Ernie Verslues, MFA Incorporated CEO. In identifying strategic objectives for the future of the company, leaders recognized the potential benefits of increased capabilities at the Adrian location, he said, and the explosion in December 2020 just accelerated the process.

“What you see here today is actually a part of a plan that this group presented more than five years ago,” Verslues said at the grand opening. “Yes, they had a tragic event hap­pen, but they had a plan, they had a dream, and they had a vision. Without that, you don’t get this far, this fast. As a company, MFA is excited about the investment we’ve made here, and we’re excited about the opportunities it brings for producers in the area.”

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In this August/September 2022 Today's Farmer

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Spread too thin

Like many livestock producers facing record-high plant food prices, Lloyd Jones cut back on applications to his hay and pasture ground this past spring, choosing to fertilize only a small portion of the forage acres on his farm near Houston, Mo.

This summer, as drought conditions settled over southwest Missouri and temperatures reached triple digits, Jones started to regret that he hadn’t fertilized more. By mid-July, the cat­tleman was already feeding hay—the earliest he remembers—and worrying that he will have to reduce herd numbers because of limited forage supplies.

“Because prices were so high, we fertilized maybe 300 acres where we usually do 900 or 1,000, and we only put on a 4-1-2 (N-P-K ratio). Just a pat and a promise is all it was,” Jones said. “And here we are, going into the fall after hardly any rain this summer. It’s burned the grass up. We’re in a pickle, and I know we’re not the only ones.”

He’s right. In late July, nearly 75% of the Missouri was in some stage of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Several neighboring states were even worse, with more than 80% of Kansas and 100% of Arkansas under at least abnormally dry conditions.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued an executive order July 21 in response to the growing threat of serious drought. The measure calls upon the Missouri Department of Natural Re­sources to activate the Drought Assessment Committee and the drought impact teams.

“This situation for our cattle producers is dire from a forage perspective,” said Landry Jones, MFA Incorporated conservation grazing specialist. “A lot of folks didn’t fertilize at all this spring or at least didn’t replace all the nutrients that were needed. As a result, we’re seeing re­duced hay yields and stressed pastures. Now is the time to make a game plan for what to do.”

While producers can’t control Mother Nature, they can be prepared to help pastures recover and boost forage growth this fall—provided that conditions improve. Those plans should include fertilization, Landry said, even with higher-than-normal prices.

“We can’t make up for what we’re missing now, but putting fertilizer down in the fall will replace what’s been removed and keep from mining nutrients,” he said. “We have to pay back what we’re taking out, like a savings account.”

Grass pastures, particularly those with a large percentage of fescue, will respond to nitrogen in the fall if moisture is available, Landry said. Phosphorous and potash are also important for getting pastures back into productivity. Soil fertility helps keep plants healthy over the winter, encourages early spring growth and enhances water-use efficiency and root development, which are important under dry conditions.

“Fescue produces one-third of its overall seasonal growth in the fall,” he said. “If you allow it to accumulate—what we call stock­piling—in pastures and hay fields until dormancy, the forage can be grazed through the winter.”

Landry recommends clipping, mowing or grazing fescue to 3 or 4 inches around mid-August, and then applying nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium from mid-August to mid-September. Applying stabilized nitrogen such as SuperU will help protect this key nutrient from volatilization, denitrification and leaching.

At a minimum, Landry said producers should follow tradition­al soil test results to determine fertility rates. Even better, MFA’s Nutri-Track grid-sampling program can provide precise recom­mendations and allow variable-rate applications to put nutrients exactly where they are needed. Lloyd Jones and his farm man­ager, Don Evans, enrolled in Nutri-Track six years ago, and the technology has allowed them to reduce weed pressure, improve forage quality and increase stocking rates in their pastures.

“We’ve seen such a difference in the quality of grass and the carrying capacity,” Don said. “On the 240-acre farm I manage down at Elk Creek, we went from 48 cows and feeding hay all winter to 75 cows and feeding no hay. We were able to back­ground enough grass to get by, and I’d say there’s been a 70% to 75% improvement in the number of weeds we’re fighting.”

“That precision thing is amazing,” Lloyd added. “It’s not just for the grain farmer. Cattle producers need to grow grass as efficient­ly as we can, too.”

While precision is fairly new for the lifelong farmer, Lloyd said fall fertilization is not. It’s been a standard practice on his farm.

“We’ve always done some fall fertilization because you can grow a lot of grass that time of year if you get the moisture and give it a little boost,” Lloyd said. “By getting that P and K on early, it has time to work, and the grass is ready to go in the spring.”

After fertilizing, producers should keep cattle off the stockpiled forage until they’re ready to graze, Landry said. In fescue-based pastures, the majority of growth will be complete by mid-October or first frost, providing high-quality forage with protein levels around 15% and total digestible nutrients in the low 60s.

“If you’re stockpiling properly, you’ve probably got more forage than cows need to maintain body condition,” Landry said. “One option for producers is to feed hay October through December, and then put cows on fescue from December to March or April. Those stockpiled pastures should still provide adequate nutrition through the winter months.”

Considering the cost of inputs for hay production, feeding stockpiled fescue can be a more cost-effective option, Landry said. On a dry matter basis, with adequate moisture, he estimates about 90 cents per head per day to stockpile versus $2.25 to $2.40 for purchased hay.

“You see the cost for fertilizer and think you can’t spend $80 an acre for grass,” Landry said. “When you look at the economics of hay, it’s better to stockpile.”

Dividing pastures into smaller paddocks and using rotational grazing or strip grazing will make better use of the forage, he added. With this method, cattle will only waste 15% to 20% of the standing forage. If turned out on the entire pasture, 50% to 70% can be wasted. Plus, the herd will graze in more uniform pattern and distribute manure more evenly, which helps soil fertility by recycling the nutrients they’re consuming.

“The waxy cuticle of the fescue leaves protects the plant, which is why it survives over the winter,” Landry explained. “When the cattle walk on it, they break the cuticle and forage quality de­clines. Providing a smaller section to graze and moving the herd every one to three days keeps them from damaging and overgraz­ing any one site and gives the other areas time to recover.”

It’s a practice that Lloyd Jones uses on his farm, where pastures are divided into 18- to 20-acre paddocks for rotational grazing. All the best management practices in the world, however, cannot make it rain. The veteran cattleman said he’s holding out hope that the drought will abate in time for his pastures to recover from the summer stress and give him an opportunity to replenish much-needed nutrients for good growth this fall.

“If we get some moisture, the fertilizer truck is going to be running,” Lloyd said. “We have to do something since we missed the spring—N, P, K, all of it. That’s my plan. But I don’t know what the plan upstairs is. If we don’t get rain, we won’t be able to do anything but sell cows.”

For more information on creating a forage fertility program on your farm, visit with the agronomy and livestock professionals at your local MFA or AGChoice affiliate.

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