MFA Precision Head Talks Precision Ag, Cover Crops at 2018 4R Summit

The 2018 4R Nutrient Stewardship Summit, held June 11-12 in Des Moines, IA, featured a post-event reception at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.

Although implicit to anyone that spends a good chunk of their career in agriculture, the link between advanced precision technology and conservation implementation on the acre is often lost in translation to outsiders looking in.

Truth be told, it’s just not as attention-demanding from a consumer point of view to talk about things like zone-based variable rate fertilizer applications, or edge-of-field bioreactors, when you can hit on people’s fear of the unknown and talk about things like GMOs and input price transparency. Those aforementioned topics tend to garner more eyes than most of the what I’d go so far as to characterize “meatier” subject matter contained within this very website, but I digress…

Last week I had the chance to attend The Fertilizer Institute’s (TFI) 2018 4R Nutrient Stewardship Summit in Des Moines, IA, where the intersection of precision ag tools and the effort to keep farm nutrients out of waterways couldn’t have been more clearly communicated.

Simply put, without many of the technological advances from ag tech and the equipment manufacturing world, we’d be damn close to SOL when it comes to precisely placing plant nutrients in what’s an inherently leaky system to begin with.

At the event I happened to catch up with MFA, Inc. (No. 8 on the 2017 CropLife 100 annual rankings) Director of Agronomy Jason Weirich, PhD, to ask his thoughts on how precision technology can result in less nutrients leaking off farm fields and entering waterways.

“Strictly when you look at what we’re doing in the state of Missouri, our geography across MFA, we look at variable-rating all of our nutrients, whether that’s being P, or K, and we’re looking at split applications of nitrogen,” Weirich shares. “We’re a heavy anhydrous state also, so we’re looking at fall-applied and spring-applied anhydrous, and even looking at VRT anhydrous. And then split applying that, so if we’re putting on 50 to 60% of that on in the fall, and then we can come back in near planting with a top dress based off data from remote sensing, NDVI, or optic sensors like GreenSeeker – whatever it may be.”

Weirich adds that the mega-cooperative (185 retail outlets across 5 states) is deploying sensing technologies like GreenSeeker mounted on its top dress rigs to help its team of agronomists and sales specialists dial in nitrogen recommendations with quality, more granular data sets.

“We’re using a lot of Adapt-N too, looking at water movement, how much rainfall we’ve gotten, the amount of organic matter in the soil, things like that,” he adds. “So we’re doing quite a few different things out there across the board in our geography, and then we’re hammering out about 450,000 precision sampled acres just this year alone.” (Editor’s Note: Weirich says last year the cooperative sampled around 386,000 acres)

MFA is also variable rate applying nutrients on just upwards of one million acres in the Show Me State alone, Weirich estimates, calling the figure “a pretty significant chunk.”

What I wanted to learn from Weirich specifically is how he coaches his Precision Advantage team to talk conservation and technology with the grower.

“It’s really simple, and it was talked about a lot here today, it’s yield,” he argues. “We do a grid sample where you show the grower that map of ‘Hey, this part of the field doesn’t have as much phosphorus or as much potassium as other parts of the field’ and it really becomes a simple story when the maps come back and they show past production histories and the father or grandfather sitting there says ‘Oh yeah, we used to spread manure on that part of the field, that’s probably why it’s not calling for any phosphorus.’ When you have those conversations and it starts clicking (for the grower) it’s an easy thing to do.”

A large part of the focus of the meeting in Des Moines was cover crops, how retailers can integrate a cover crops business with what they already do well, as well as how to properly keep grower expectations in check when implementing a cover cropping program.

“I’m a big fan of cover crops, but with cover crops come some other challenges, right,” Weirich proposes. “We talked a ton today about all the positives, but we didn’t really address some of the negatives, like soluble P loss. Is that one of the negatives to cover crops? Sure. But it’s not something that we can’t work through with a grower.”

“Then, we also have to think about the weed control aspect of it,” he continues. “Are we planting a weed out in the field that will become a headache down the road? At MFA we’re all about cover crops, we think it’s a great way to preserve that soil and preserve our nutrients in the soil. It’s a good trap crop. But I think we also need to prepare our producers and make sure we are up-front about some of the negatives that are out there. We have all of these positives out there, and as we’ve witnessed first-hand some guys will go gangbusters in Year One and do the entire farm (in cover crops), and then they’ve got a train wreck next year. We’ve got to manage those expectations.”

That “train wreck” Weirich referred to is the dreaded yield drag that many corn growers often experience after a winter spent growing cereal rye as a cover crop (research shown at the Summit indicates this yield drag can vary from single digits into the high thirties in some cases). A topic of much discussion at this year’s Summit, it begs the question of whether many growers, already hurting in a down farm economy, will readily sacrifice extra bushels for a more environmentally pleasing story to tell?

It’s all a matter of managing grower expectations and projecting that “trusted advisor” air.

“When you show them the maps, and you show the grid sample data, and those maps come back and match up perfectly to what’s been done on that field in the past, then you can start talking about bushels per acre, and maybe the ground that traditionally hasn’t always been producing the best needs better fertility,” he reasons. “Understanding our soil properties and talking in terms of yield to those producers is positive, but yet we’re also increasing our conservation and being good nutrient stewards with the crop.”

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