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Divide on Livestock Rules

03/27/2017

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

OMAHA (DTN) -- Major livestock and meatpacker groups on Friday called on USDA to withdraw proposed rule changes to the Packers and Stockyards Act.

The extended comment period ended Friday for an interim final rule and proposed rules under the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration -- GIPSA. The "Farmer Fair Practice" rules were released by the Obama administration in late December after roughly eight years of steady industry infighting over what the rules would do.

Among the major livestock groups, there is little gray area regarding the impact. The livestock marketing rules are either draconian and would kill producer premiums, or would bring needed fairness and leverage to smaller producers facing increasingly concentrated livestock and poultry industries.

The rules were derived from language in the 2008 farm bill and immediately became controversial after USDA made its first proposed rules in 2010. The rules were blocked by Congress refusing to fund any effort to advance them, until last year when Congress relented in the Fiscal Year 2016 funding bill. USDA began advancing the rules shortly after.

The rules include an interim final rule regarding how USDA, under the Obama administration, wanted federal courts to interpret a provision of the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act. Federal courts have repeated rules in cases between poultry growers and poultry companies that a grower must demonstrate that a company's negative action toward an individual producer harmed competition in the entire poultry market. Since the 1980s, USDA has used the standard in cases involving beef and pork producers that the livestock producer does not have to show such harm to competition to bring a Packers and Stockyards case against a meatpacker. USDA has repeatedly argued the same language should apply to poultry contracts as well.

A proposed rule would give producers more rights when dealing with marketing contracts. The rule would ensure packers cannot retaliate against producers who show their contracts to legal counsel. The rule also would prevent a packer from giving undue price preferences in those marketing contracts. The proposed rule has been opposed by packers that increasingly buy livestock through such contracts. Livestock groups such as NCBA and NPPC argue this rule would lead to packers ending contracts that offer specific premiums to producers.

The second proposed rule would restructure the tournament payment system used in the poultry industry by giving USDA authority to determine if a ranking system for poultry growers is fair or unjustly discriminatory, or deceptive. The poultry industry has opposed any USDA rules that could create problems with the company tournament systems.

The National Chicken Council on Friday called the combined three rules "draconian" and detailed several reasons why the rules should be withdrawn. The chicken council stated the rules "would inflict billions of dollars of economic harm to American agriculture." Further, the rules exceed GIPSA's statutory authority and "represent an arbitrary and capricious abuse of federal regulatory authority."

Craig Uden, president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said the rules would threaten market incentives for producers, as well as threaten the quality of beef produced in the U.S. Citing a study by Informa Economics for NCBA and the National Pork Producers Council, Uden added that the rules could cost the cattle industry $954 million. The interim final rule would hurt alternative marketing agreements that NCBA states now reward cattle producers. NCBA indicated the rules would increase litigation because producers would simply have to state they are being treated unfairly by a packer to start litigation.

"What incentive would a packer have to pay for superior cattle when they may be sued for rewarding quality? The industry will be forced back to treating all beef as commodity beef under a one-size-fits-all approach," Uden said.

The National Pork Producers Council also indicated the rules would seriously harm the pork industry. The rules would replace negotiated contracts with standard terms that NPPC called unworkable. Further, NPPC said the rules risk an "explosion" in Packers and Stockyards lawsuits and would lead to the federal courts regulating the industry.

Supporting the rules are the National Farmers Union, Organization for Competitive Markets, U.S. Cattlemen's Association and the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund.

In testimony before a House Agriculture Subcommittee this week, Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, said the Farmer Fair Practices rules provide some basic protections for farmers and ranchers dealing with anti-competitive and abusive practices by packers.

"For years, USDA has attempted to address the anticompetitive behaviors of the meatpacking industry most recently by promulgating the Farmer Fair Practices Rules," Johnson said. "Family farmers and ranchers operating in an extremely consolidated marketplace should have the full protection of the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921."

OCM wrote President Donald Trump earlier this month, calling on the president to allow the rules to go into effect. On the interim final rule, OCM stated the rule is necessary because of the high market concentration involving the four largest meatpackers, which demands basic safeguards for individual farmers and ranchers selling to the giant packers.

"We are hopeful you and your administration can take these rules across the finish line on behalf of America's independent family farmers and our rural communities," stated OCM President Mike Weaver in his letter to Trump.

It's unclear how Trump's administration will handle the rules. The interim final rule on harm to competition would go into effect April 22 unless the administration delays it or withdraws the rule.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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Kentucky Farmers Still Waiting for Pay

03/27/2017

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

TRENTON, Ky. (DTN) -- Hart AgStrong created a lot of fanfare when the small Georgia oilseed processor expanded into southwest Kentucky in 2014 and offered farmers a way to diversify their crop production by raising canola.

Hart AgStrong got a $450,000 tax incentive for job creation from the Kentucky Business Investment Program. Steve Beshear, Kentucky's governor at the time, came to the groundbreaking for the $7.3 million, 23,000-square-foot facility and said the canola crushing operation "will also provide a significant boost to our local farmers and Kentucky's food production industry. I look forward to seeing this Kentucky-made product on store shelves throughout the U.S."

More than three years later, Hart AgStrong's license to buy grain directly from farmers has been suspended in Kentucky because the small crushing company still owes farmers roughly $2.5 million on what they were supposed to receive on last year's crop that was delivered to the Trenton crush facility.

Until financial troubles hit last year, Hart AgStrong looked like a small shining star of a family operation that grew from nothing a bit more than a decade ago. Four cousins started the company with a small pilot crush facility in northeast Georgia, working with farmers to grow canola and sunflowers -- not exactly typical crops in the Southeast. By 2009, they had built a crushing and processing plant in Hart County, Georgia.

The company grew quickly and sought to build out both processing and acreage. In striving to become a refinery operation, Hart AgStrong needed additional crush capacity.

Then they looked to broaden out into neighboring states and chose to build in Trenton. Robert Davis, the CEO and co-founder of Hart AgStrong, said the operation started well until the company lost a large share of its 2015 crop. Unable to build its own storage, the company relied on another business to store the oilseed in local grain elevators. The moisture at harvest in 2015 was high and the oilseed ended up with "catastrophic damage," Davis said. The oilseed was damaged in two bins, including a complete loss in one of the bins.

Canola is a challenging crop to store. It has to be thoroughly cleaned of foreign material. Canola also can clump quickly and generate biological activity such as molding if the moisture is not low. The crop was under a stock insurance policy and Hart AgStrong filed a claim. Unfortunately, the claim was denied as the loss was not caused by an insurable cause, Davis said. Because of a forward contract, Hart AgStrong hedged the crop and part of the agreement required the company to buy the crop back if it failed because of quality. It bought back the damaged oilseed and took a 100% loss on the crop.

"That really set us up for failing on the acreage contracts for 2016," Davis said. "We had to bear the financial ramifications of that and it set us back for the next harvest. We have been struggling to get into a position to meet our obligations to farmers."

As the storage problems came to light, so did a great harvest last spring. To help farmers develop the crop in Kentucky, AgStrong was offering acre contracts rather than bushel contracts. Historically, production had been roughly 50 bushels an acre. Excellent growing conditions in 2015-16 bumped production over 59 bushels an acre.

"In hindsight, we should have said we can't take the canola or have to take much less of it." Davis said. "It was just a progressing problem that unfortunately we did not address soon enough."

Hart AgStrong operated as if the company would find a solution through the crop marketing year. Davis said the company has paid out roughly $7.5 million to farmers, but deliveries were $10 million in value.

Hart AgStrong's CFO wrote letters to farmers last summer noting the company's payment challenges for oilseed that had been delivered. The letter stated that "AgStrong is either beyond our payment terms or is about to be past the payment terms per the agreement you have with us." The letter went on to apologize and state the company is working diligently to correct the situation. The goal, the letter stated, was for all the Kentucky farmers to be paid in full by Jan. 20.

CANOLA ACREAGE GREW

Predominately a northern crop, little canola is grown in the Southeast. Still, Kentucky farmers were growing more after Hart AgStrong came into the picture. Crop insurance reports show Kentucky farmers insured 7,318 acres in 2016, but the number of insured acres dropped to 5,226 this year. Georgia farmers bought policies on 2,346 acres. Alabama farmers insured 4,040 acres and Tennessee farmers insured 3,121 acres.

Late last summer, Hart AgStrong staff and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture held a meeting with nearly 60 growers to talk about the situation. Davis and others explained the challenges and told farmers they were looking for investors to help inject more capital into the company.

Katie Hancock, one of the Kentucky farmers waiting for payment, said the situation highlights some of the problems farmers such as herself have to deal with in the current business climate. Producers saw a chance to diversify, but it has led to problems they didn't foresee.

"This is a side of risk management that's less talked about," Hancock said. "We worry about price and production, but getting paid isn't usually a concern. The company was easy to work with, but at the end of the day, we need to be paid. Cash flow is already tight."

Davis told DTN that Hart AgStrong is "in the midst of trying to make another significant payment" to farmers. "Hopefully, we will be able to make that soon."

The company is trying to find a comprehensive solution to pay the farmers the full amount owed in a reasonable timeframe, Davis said. He added that includes trying to get some investment capital injected into the company. "We've been diligently seeking to find a partner or investor, and we do have a good option there that hopefully is going to materialize shortly in a joint venture," he said.

As Hart AgStrong deals with its cash-flow problems paying farmers, the company has been able to get organic certification from USDA for both of its crushing facilities. That allows the company to contract out and crush for other companies marketing either organic or non-GMO oils.

IN CONTACT WITH FARMERS DAILY

Richard West, grain program coordinator at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said he is in contact with farmers nearly every day about Hart AgStrong, but the company hasn't been able to make payments since November. The company can't buy oilseed from producers, but Hart AgStrong is crushing organic canola being shipped from overseas. All of the canola is being receipted to a commodity group.

West said Hart AgStrong has paid around 60% of what farmers are owed, though Davis said it's closer to 75%. Kentucky officials will set a deadline with Hart AgStrong "in the very near future," West said. Kentucky officials are trying to avoid having to use the state's indemnity fund, which hasn't had to pay farmers for a failed grain business in nearly 17 years.

In Hart AgStrong's home state of Georgia, Hart AgStrong's surety bond was due to expire, but Georgia officials allowed the company to use a letter of credit. That letter of credit, however, was reduced because Hart AgStrong told state officials they were facing a cash-flow problem as a company, said Jack Spruill, director of the marketing division at the Georgia Department of Agriculture. The Georgia state bond will be reviewed again in late April.

"We agreed to reduce that bond for 90 days based on their warehouse inventory and the fact that they lost two grain bins," Spruill said.

Still, state department of agriculture officials have confiscated Hart AgStrong's receipts, with the company's permission, so Hart is not allowed to "receipt" grain as a warehouse in Georgia until Georgia's review is completed because grain receipts are often used by farmers to secure operating loans when grain is in storage. If Hart receives an oilseed delivery from a farmer, it must be paid in cash.

The situation has been a blow for the cousins who saw themselves as giving farmers an opportunity to grow an alternative oilseed that has a strong market, but is not traditionally grown in the Southeast.

"It's obviously very difficult because it's not what we intended at all to do," Davis said. "We found ourselves in this position and it's been difficult to undertake."

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

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Dr. Dan Talks Agronomy

03/27/2017

By Daniel Davidson
DTN Contributing Agronomist



Selling alfalfa isn't as easy as I thought. In a depressed commodity market, it is hard to convey quality.

I started working toward producing high-yield alfalfa over the last few years. I'm on the hunt for 10 tons per acre yield. Perhaps if I do everything right and the weather cooperates, I'll be able to meet the goal this year.

However, one of the things I came up against this past winter was marketing nearly 1,000 large round bales of alfalfa. In previous years, the market was better and we had fewer bales. It only took a few phone calls to get it sold with no questions asked about quality. This year, I had to resort to advertising and trying to explain alfalfa quality.

My harvest strategy for alfalfa is to windrow it in about 30-to-40-acre blocks so I can bale in the late evening in a three- to four-hour timespan. After windrowing and drying (about three to four days after cutting), we flip two windrows together into one between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. I come back in the evening about 9:30 p.m. to bale and want to be done by 1 a.m. before the hay starts to toughen up as moisture increases. I have a moisture sensor on our baler and monitor readings from the cab. I target the 16%-to-21% moisture range. At 14% or less, there is leaf loss. Above 22%, the hay gets tough. I will stop baling if I am outside that moisture window.

When I pull into a field and harvest, I collect a hay sample for the field as I bale, gathering handfuls from multiple locations. I take the sample to a laboratory for alfalfa forage analysis and like to focus on relative feed value (RFV) as a general indicator of quality. We were able to pull off up to five cuttings in 2016, with the first cutting about May 15. The RFV started out in the 160-range for the first cutting and dropped about 20 units with each subsequent cutting (140 to 80 from the second to the fifth cutting). The declining quality trend surprised me because it seemed inverse to the feel of the hay during the baling process.

MARKETING DIFFICULTIES

When the phone started to ring, buyers asked questions about cutting and quality. I began to realize the importance of separating bales by cutting. Unfortunately, in 2016, I comingled all my cuttings in rows of bales and it was difficult to separate them. This year we will make sure to organize and identify by cutting. I'm not sure they will be sold on that basis, but I'm trying to be prepared for that opportunity if a buyer makes the request.

Again, I am finding that trying convey quality of the alfalfa difficult. It seemed that talking about RFV, dry matter, crude protein, fiber, digestible nutrients falls on deaf ears because buyers don't seem to know the terms, nor understand the numbers. Instead, I found myself talking more about how I harvested and baled the hay, monitoring moisture and assuring them that I strive to put up the best quality of hay I can. Often though, the final sale had more to do with price and freight.

The buyers know what they want in good quality hay and usually can judge by seeing it. Most don't rely on laboratory numbers, so I need a better way to convey appearance, smell and feel. Gary Steele with WHB Video Auctions in Vale, South Dakota, recommends that alfalfa producers use a scoring chart to describe alfalfa in terms that buyers can more readily understand including protein, relative feed value, color, smell, leafiness, maturity when cut, purity, softness, bale shape and damage. He has a scoring system that he has his customers (sellers) use to score their hay.

I am not sure that buyers will appreciate another score, but at least I can talk about quality in terms they appreciate. I am going to incorporate these physical aspects into my hay evaluation as I bale in 2017.

For more information on relative feed value from Kansas State University, visit https://www.asi.k-state.edu/…

Dan Davidson can be reached at djdavidson@agwrite

(PS/AG/SK)

Underground Movement - 15

03/24/2017

By Susan Winsor
Progressive Farmer Contributing Editor



Paul and John Dubbels parked their soil finisher and chisel plow in the 1980s after an inch of spring rain carved gullies in their newly finished field. They'd run a disc chisel the previous fall, but farm-rolling highly erodible land near Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and seeing that much erosion was unacceptable.

Today, they spring strip-till corn and continue to no-till soybeans. For farmers looking to streamline agronomics and cut soil loss, there are lessons aplenty in their 33-year tillage journey taken on their west-central Minnesota clay soils.

"Paul and John have successfully no-tilled and strip-tilled for many years," said Jodi DeJong-Hughes, University of Minnesota Extension educator, crops. "That's quite a feat, being so far north."

"People said you have to really work those eroded yellow clay hilltops to get a crop from them, but when we stopped tilling them is when we really got nice crops," Paul said. Besides farming with his brother, John, Paul Dubbels is a seed manager for CHS-New Horizons Ag, based in Herman, Minnesota.

TILLAGE TRANSITION

The Dubbels brothers tried no-till wheat and soybeans in 1982 and began ridge-tilling corn about the same time. When rainfall patterns became too wet to build ridges, they switched to no-till corn and soybeans for another couple of decades. However, trying to put enough fertilizer on with the planter was an ongoing issue. That's when they turned to strip-till.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding in 2007 helped the Dubbels purchase Dawn Pluribus spring strip-till units, making strips 8 inches wide and 5 inches deep. "We used it for tillage only and continued applying fertilizer with the planter," Paul said. "Adding more work and no yield gain [compared to no-till] made us pretty half-hearted strip-tillers for a few years."

In 2013, they decided to get the fertilizer off of their planter and set up a strip-till bar with a Montag cart. Paul likes the ability to put 100% of the fertilizer into the strip without additional trips. "We can carry 8 tons of fertilizer with the Montag compared to 2 tons on the planter," he said. "A big reason for strip-till's success is incorporating your fertilizer." Adding all of the nitrogen (N) in the strip didn't burn the seed, as long as they applied the total fertilizer blend (N, P, K, Su, Zn) below the seed.

The slopes the Dubbels farm have caused them to modify their strip-till unit to form slightly narrower strips to address the hilly terrain and erosion concerns. "The smaller strip also prevents the soil from drying out and forming clods [baking]," Paul said.

RESIDUE-FREE STRIP

Managing residue begins with a Case IH 1083 corn head (with knife rolls frequently replaced to keep a square, sharp edge) to chew stalks down to about knee-high. "In our no-till days, chewed-down corn stalks and rolling after soybean planting was all we needed to keep up with residue," Paul said. A chopping head isn't necessary. In a wet fall, it leaves a wet mat on the ground; and it takes more power, he added.

"The key to making strip-till work is row cleaners pushing residue aside, then the planter row cleaners move it further, creating a reasonably clean strip," Paul continued. "Some people think the 'till' part of strip-till makes it work, but it's actually the residue-free fertilized strip." Residue drifting back in the row after planting is less of an issue when strips start out clean and is the reason they strip in the spring.

The Dubbels went from an eight-row to a 16-row planter and didn't gain much. "Filling fertilizer boxes was a real drag -- something had to change," John said.

They traded their 16-row, pull-type planter for a new 12-row semimounted planter and strip-till bar because they didn't think 3-point-hitch implement steering could handle 16 rows. The brothers removed the fertilizer openers from the old planter, stripped everything off the old Pluribus units, put single-disc openers on and fed them with a Montag cart.

After various configurations, they ended up putting on Ausherman/Great Plains single-disc fertilizer openers the third year. They've used them since the 1980s on their planter for both ridge-till and no-till.

"After easily running 12 rows for a year, we thought returning to 16 rows would be easy," Paul said. "Steering 16 rows worked fine, but turning on steep headlands didn't work well. We removed the row-unit gauge wheels to shed weight and now run without any -- openers will go to the depth of their hubs and run OK. We may add some type of closing wheel to break up occasional ribboning in wet clay. Our current configuration probably doesn't pull much harder than a central-fill planter."

It's so hilly in west-central Minnesota they have RTK (Real-Time Kinematic) steerable 3-point hitches on their strip-till bar and planter. "No question, no-till is easier and far simpler," Paul said.

THE TRADE-OFFS

The bottom line is the Dubbels' system allows them to stick with spring strip-till to get all of their fertilizer down in one spring strip-till pass and "to get the fertilizer off the planter," Paul said. "We never tried fall strips since our lightweight units would not penetrate fall soils, and shank machines in the area had issues with conditions being too dry or too wet. After years of no-till, we weren't interested in going back to fall tillage. We are also concerned with washouts from spring snowmelt."

One issue with spring strip-till is wet soil. "In our no-till days, if we could walk across the wet areas, it was firm enough to plant, even if it was squishy," Paul said. "We could never make that work in our tillage days -- our soil structure wasn't there. We were concerned that strip-till would lead to clod problems like we had with tillage."

In extremely wet fields, they leave the strips to dry out for a day or two before planting. "We keep working on settings and modifications such as fertilizer-tube adjustments to accommodate wet conditions," Paul said. "We typically follow with the planter hours after a strip-till pass, which is often enough time to see a little dust."

ADD COVERS

The brothers began experimenting with cover crops two years ago. Although it can be a challenge to establish cover crops before a frost, their experience no-tilling into pasture convinced them of the merits. "Thanks to outstanding soil structure with internal soil drainage, the corn emerged looking green without issues. Harvesting 200-bushel corn and 50-bushel beans with sod and cowpies still intact was as good as it gets," Paul said.

He sees cover crops are one way to mimic the prairie with year-round growth, building soil structure with internal drainage and allowing soil to warm up while remaining covered. The year-round roots also improve soil structure and organic matter, even on hilltops.

"I think over time, cover crops might take soil structure to a new level and allow a switch back to no-till," he added. Increasing earthworm populations are further confirmation of improved soil structure and soil health.

Jill Clapperton, principal Rhizoterra Inc. scientist, called worms ecosystem engineers. "They dramatically improve soil structure, they're severely affected by disturbance, and they benefit strongly from crop diversity and rotation," she said. "If a shovelful of Corn Belt soil has fewer than five earthworms, you have work to do [to improve soil health]. If it has eight, you're good. If you have 10 to 12 earthworms, that's excellent; and if you have more than 12, that's outstanding."

Worm castings and heavy residue are a new look and language for many farmers. "We're fortunate to have understanding landlords with an interest in soil conservation who are strong supporters of maintaining residue-covered soil and appreciate seeing their farm survive heavy rains without gullies," Paul said. "Many are lifelong farmers who understand that high-residue farming looks a little different."

(ES/AG)

2017 Wheat Contest

03/24/2017

By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter

ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- Wondering how your wheat management stacks up against other growers? Now is your chance to find out: The National Wheat Yield Contest is open and accepting entries for its second year.

"We're going into the year with a lot of excitement among wheat leaders," said Steve Joehl, executive director of the wheat contest for the National Wheat Foundation, which hosts the contest. "A lot of growers are starting to understand how [the contest] can help transfer technology among growers so they can improve their productivity."

Because it was new, last year's contest flew slightly under the radar but still ended up with 169 entries, Joehl said. He's optimistic that this year's participation will double and possibly even triple that number. Registration is already far ahead of last year's pace, with 50 growers signed up and months to go before the May 1 deadline for winter wheat and the August 1 deadline for spring wheat.

Entries will likely pick up as growers get a sense of the crop's potential as it comes out of dormancy. David Eickholt, who placed in the contest last year with a dryland winter wheat yield of 147.74 bushels per acre (bpa), is already eying his central Michigan fields for the 2017 contest.

"We're planning on entering, but it just depends on how the spring plays out," he told DTN. "We started scouting last week and some of it looks very good."

Last year delivered ideal wheat-growing weather for much of the country, and the overall national yield winner, Phillip Gross of Warden, Washington, hit 192.85 bpa with an irrigated WestBred winter wheat variety.

The 2016 contest helped cast a spotlight on an innovative group of wheat farmers who manage wheat as intensively as they do corn and soybeans. "I can't tell you how much I learn from these growers," Joehl said. "They're scouting their wheat weekly and -- in critical times of the season -- two or three times a week."

Among the inputs and management tactics that were highlighted by the winners of last year's contest were fungicide applications, nitrogen use and seeding rates carefully calibrated to each growers' region. This year, Eickholt has his eye on a new variety from the Michigan Crop Improvement Association, and says the spring weather will determine how he manages fungicides and micronutrients in any contest fields.

"We do more scouting on wheat and we use more fungicides, and that's been very successful," he said of his operation.

Growers must be members of either a state wheat association or the National Association of Wheat Growers to participate in the contest. Youth is no barrier; the minimum age is 14, and last year's national winner for irrigated winter wheat was Jagger Borth, a high school senior from Meade, Kansas.

The contest will be divided into the same four categories as last year: dryland winter wheat, irrigated winter wheat, dryland spring wheat and irrigated spring wheat. The winner of each category will be determined by how many percentage points the crop yields above the county average, and an overall highest yield winner will also be recognized. The contest also recognizes the growers recording the highest yield above the county average within each state.

The entered field must have at least five continuous acres of a certified or branded wheat variety. Growers who are planning to enter should keep careful records of every planting metric and input throughout the growing season. The entry fee is $100.

The contest has very specific rules on how to harvest and check yield for the entered field, and a recheck is required if your field yields above 150 bpa. You can find those specifics, along with all the rest of the contest's rules and regulations, here: http://bit.ly/…

The contest's original four sponsors of BASF, Monsanto, John Deere and Croplan are joined by Syngenta, Indigo Agriculture and The McGregor Company this year.

For more information, see the contest website here: http://yieldcontest.wheatfoundation.org/…

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at Emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee

(PS/BAS)

Crop Tech Corner

03/24/2017

By Emily Unglesbee
DTN Staff Reporter



ROCKVILLE, Md. (DTN) -- This bi-monthly column condenses the latest news in the field of crop technology, research and products.

A NEW KIND OF APHID REPELLENT

Illinois researchers are taking the concept of "spraying for aphids" to a whole new genetic level, according to an Illinois News Bureau press release. University of Illinois entomologist Allison Hansen and her graduate student Margaret Thairu have found a way to aerosolize RNA, the tiny genetic molecules that regulate the expression of our genes. They can be used to shut specific genes off in a target pest in a process called RNA-interference (RNAi). In the past, this has been achieved by injecting the RNA into the pest or genetically engineering a plant to produce the RNA in its tissues and then waiting for the pest to feed on it. The size of the soybean aphid (think a grain of pollen) makes both techniques extremely tedious and difficult.

So Hansen and Thairu created a spray made up of nanoparticles coated with RNA. They then blasted the unsuspecting aphids -- who hate getting wet -- to see if the insects would take up the RNA through tiny breathing tubes called tracheoles. It worked; the RNA in the spray appeared to block the targeted gene's expression and the resulting aphid adults were significantly smaller than the control aphids. The experiment was not a complete homerun; other species of aphid did not react the same way, and another RNAi spray targeting a different gene failed. But the Illinois scientists are optimistic that they have uncovered a valuable new pest control tool, particularly for small, sap-sucking insects like the aphid. "This method is going to propel our field forward, especially for insects where other techniques fall short," Hansen concluded in the news release.

See the release here: http://bit.ly/… and the researcher's study here: http://bit.ly/….

AFLATOXIN-RESISTANT CORN

In another triumph for RNAi technology, University of Arizona scientists have engineered corn plants that express RNA molecules that prevent fungi from producing aflatoxin. All corn producers -- and especially Southern growers -- struggle with aflatoxin, a dangerous toxin produced by the Aspergillus fungus. It is deadly to both livestock and humans at very low levels and can render an entire corn harvest useless.

According to a University of Arizona news release, UA plant scientist Monica Schmidt worked with a team of scientists to produce corn plants that pass RNA from their kernels into the Aspergillus fungus when the plant is infected. Once in the fungus, the RNA targets a gene that produces an enzyme that is key to the toxin production. The RNA switches the gene off, and although the Aspergillus fungus continues to grow, it produces no aflatoxin.

The scientists did extensive testing to ensure that the GMO corn plants didn't produce any undesirable side effects. "This corn plant would be like any other," Schmidt said in the news release. "The only trait that sets it apart is its ability to shut down the toxin production. It shouldn't have any other effects, but obviously, a lot of downstream testing will be required before it could be grown in the fields."

See the news release here: http://bit.ly/… and the scientists' study here: http://bit.ly/….

A BETTER GENE EDITING TOOL FOR AGRICULTURE

CRISPR-Cas9, a fast-developing gene editing technology, has taken the world of genetics and breeding by storm. The technique allows scientists to cut and paste genes in and out of the DNA of plants, animals and even humans. However, gene editing with CRISPR is not always perfectly precise, and the potential for mistakes to slip into the targeted genome remains a concern. Now, a University of Maryland scientist has fine-tuned a version of CRISPR specifically for use in plants, with a great improvement in accuracy, according to a UMD news release. UMD plant scientist Yiping Qi tinkered with a CRISPR version called CRISPR-Cpf1 and incorporated a specific RNA molecule that can act as an enzyme. Using this new method, Qi and his team of researchers were able to produce 100% of the desired targeted gene changes in a transgenic rice crop. "This represents a new and cost-effective breeding tool that will help generate elite plant varieties in agriculture within a few generations," the UMD release concluded.

See the press release here: http://bit.ly/… and Qi's study here: http://go.nature.com/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com.

Follow Emily Unglesbee on Twitter @Emily_Unglesbee.

(ps\SK)

Cash Planted Into Cover Crops

03/23/2017

By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor

OMAHA (DTN) -- Research and promotion of soil health and cover crops got a major boost Wednesday as the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research and The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation announced a $6.6 million national cover crop initiative.

The foundation is jumpstarting the research initiative with a $2.2 million grant, which will focus on promoting soil health through the development and adoption of new cover crops across the country. The groups announced the foundation's grant at a press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

"The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is committed to improving the nation's soil health, which is essential to ensuring a productive and sustainable future for food and agriculture," said Sally Rockey, executive director of the foundation. "We look forward to working with the Noble Foundation and a talented team of researchers to develop better-than-ever, soil health-promoting cover crops that will contribute to thriving farms across the United States."

The announcement comes as agriculture has put increased emphasis on soil health and cover-cropping techniques in recent years. DTN/The Progressive Farmer highlighted several issues involved in the growing soil health movement in the mid-February issue of The Progressive Farmer magazine and on the DTN website over the past month. The array of articles from the magazine can be found here: http://dtnpf-digital.com/…

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research was created in the 2014 farm bill as a quasi-private group meant to take federal seed money to leverage more private investment in agricultural research. Congress established the group to recognize the need for greater agricultural science and studies. The foundation was based on a similar effort used to fund health-care research.

The Noble Foundation has taken a growing interest in both cover crops and soil health in recent years. The group spearheaded a new group, the Soil Health Institute, specifically to develop a better understanding of national soils and ways to boost agricultural productivity through soil improvement. Bill Buckner, president and CEO of the Noble Foundation, stressed the need for cover crops to help deal with soil erosion and fertility, preserve moisture content, and control weeds and diseases.

"Cover crops play a significant role in sustainable agriculture practices," Buckner said. "It's only fitting to help further research advancement in this area at the national level, which is made possible through the FFAR grant and our team of collaborators."

The groups noted there were multiple other collaborators in this new initiative, including groups involved in the seed industry, as well as USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service. Further involvement will come from three land-grant universities, and an existing Legume Cover Crop Breeding Team, comprising another six land-grant universities, ARS sites and a producer network.

The groups stated the main focus of the initiative will be to identify cover crop species with the greatest potential to improve soil health and evaluate such species over a broad geography within three groups: small grains (wheat, rye, oat and triticale), annual legumes (hairy vetch, winter peas and clovers), and brassicas (turnips, radishes, kale and mustards).

"The majority of cover crops are forages," said Twain Butler, Noble Foundation research agronomist, who will serve as the project manager. "We will work with seed companies, a broad network of researchers and producers, and other evaluation sites to assess, evaluate and develop a broad solution to impact agriculture and soil health across a significant portion of the United States. Our goal is simple: to get new cover crop solutions into the hands of those who use them or will be using them."

Researchers will also look to identify and introduce key traits that can improve crop performance and soil enhancement. Scientists at the Noble Foundation plan to use advanced breeding techniques that largely have been limited to high-value row crops.

The American Seed Trade Association and its member companies will be involved in supporting the crop breeding, screening and evaluation of cover crops, said Andrew LaVigne, ASTA president and chief executive officer. "This initiative is a key step in helping foster the next generation of cover crop innovation," LaVigne said.

Field trials will be conducted in Maryland for the Northeast, North Carolina for the Southeast, Oklahoma for the Southern Plains, Nebraska for the Northern Plains and Missouri for the Midwest.

Among the universities involved is the University of Nebraska. John Guretzky, associate professor in the department of agronomy and horticulture, is a co-leader on the project. Guretzky said that once Noble identifies superior germplasm for some cover crops, the trial sites will test the germplasm regionally.

"We'll be evaluating the germplasm to see how it performs in different environments," Guretzky said.

The groups stated that researchers involved in the project will share results from this project with the public through national meetings and peer-reviewed publications. Certain outcomes, including molecular markers, will be made available through publication and publicly accessible databases, the groups added.

Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @ChrisClaytonDTN

(AG/BAS)

White House Adviser Talks Ag

03/23/2017

By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- President Donald Trump's No. 1 priority for agriculture is international trade, followed by a "reliable, affordable workforce," Ray Starling, special assistant to the president for agriculture on the National Economic Council, told a National Ag Day event at the National Press Club on Tuesday.

In what appears to be his first public speech since taking the job at the White House about four weeks ago, Starling also announced that Trump had issued a proclamation of National Agriculture Day and also talked about regulation, infrastructure and nominations for subcabinet positions.

The president's proclamation stated, "American farmers and ranchers are the heart and soul of America and they represent the determined, self-reliant character of our Nation. We are proud of American agriculture and we recognize agriculture's critical role to our Nation's bright future."

Starling, who grew up in North Carolina, previously worked for Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. He told reporters afterward that the White House realizes there has been "angst" among farmers and ranchers due to some of Trump's statements about foreign countries and trade agreements, but that the administration recognizes the importance of trade to agriculture and intends to pursue trade agreements that will help the sector.

Starling also told reporters, "Over the course of the last couple of weeks, we have been cycling ag groups into the White House to make their case and what their priorities are. A lot of people on the ag front think what we got out of NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] was generally good and that we certainly don't want to regress any of the gains we made there for agriculture."

Starling noted that Tillis, his former boss, had problems with the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement from which Trump has withdrawn, but that when he was on Capitol Hill "certainly we heard from the ag community [that] TPP was this great thing for ag, was going essentially to be a bit of our nirvana in terms helping us raise prices. All of that is instructive. I hope that we don't retreat from that. I don't get a sense that we will."

Many of the provisions that were in the TPP agreement "will become a floor as opposed to a ceiling," Starling said. But he acknowledged that other countries have "fierce negotiators" and that the Trump administration "will still have to work hard to get there" and that he hopes "to get back to some of those wins we already negotiated."

Starling said farmers and ranchers should be reassured that what's said inside the White House about agriculture and trade is "nothing but good stuff" about how agriculture is contributing to lessening the trade deficit.

"The president has talked a lot about our manufacturing imbalance on trade, but that is not meant to neglect ag. That is essentially to say we know ag is doing a good job, we are making strides there, we need to do more," he said.

"One of the quickest things" that could increase exports is for the value of the dollar to drop or world demand to increase, he added. But given the level of world stocks, "we won't clear the backlog anytime soon," he concluded.

When asked about immigration policy, Starling said, "I am pretty sure I did not use the word immigration; I used access to a reliable, affordable workforce."

The most important goal, he said, is to secure the current workforce. Farmers are worried about potential raids on fruit and vegetable and dairy farms that have a lot of undocumented workers, but Starling did not say how workers would be secured.

The issue of the farm workforce must begin "early on, just admitting that ag has to be part of that conversation," he said, adding that "there are really two things ag is looking for as part of that conversation."

One, he said, is "how do we stabilize the current workers to the extent that there are people currently engaged in agriculture and farming activities whose legal status may not be sure -- how we stabilize that and create a situation where we don't lose all those workers or they don't move to another industry?"

The second part, Starling added, is that "we are going to take a look at these temporary guest worker programs to reform them in a way that they are more secure, they are more reliable, and that, frankly, for the users that are trying to follow the rules and do it right, to make sure they are not as cumbersome, that they are easier to use."

But Starling said that he and others on the National Economic Council have been charged with determining "what are the factors inhibiting economic growth in the sector you represent" and that, in agriculture "we are coming to a point of push comes to shove when it comes to a reliable workforce."

After trade and the workforce, Trump's third policy priority for agriculture is to "evaluate the existing regulatory landscape and make it less onerous," Starling said. Trump also wants to create "a systemic mechanism" across the government so agriculture has a voice in all the agencies after he leaves office, he added.

Starling noted that agriculture already has a voice within the Agriculture Department, but the biggest problems have been with the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Labor Department and others. Farmers are not usually "hounded" by the Agriculture Department, he said.

Trump's fourth priority, Starling said, is improving the infrastructure in rural America. That includes everything from the land grant colleges to ports, roads and bridges, he said.

"Rural America may need different solutions," Starling said.

On whether infrastructure will be a package, Starling said he would defer to D.J. Gribbin, the special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy. Starling noted that he and Gribbin had met with a group of ag and rural leaders on the infrastructure issues, and he said that Gribbin has already incorporated what he learned in that meeting into his presentations at the White House.

"We are still weeks away from really revealing how that is going to unfold," Starling said. "The key message there is that ag is going to have a seat at the table."

In fact, he added, agriculture is a "key part" of conversations about health care and tax reform as well as infrastructure.

Starling also said it was just as important to tell the attendees celebrating National Agriculture Day what the administration won't do, and in that vein made a series of pronouncements:

"This administration has already taken steps to minimize the implications of the last president's WOTUS [Waters of the United States or Clean Water rule] proposal, and we will never propose an expansive reading of the Clean Water Act that gives the federal government an opportunity and jurisdiction to regulate every ditch and mud hole on your private property.

"This administration will not use the Endangered Species Act to regulate in a way that doesn't respect the peaceful co-existence of productive agriculture.

"This administration will not release sensitive and private data on farmers just because ecologically driven fanatics and lawyers want it.

"This administration will not allow the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] to give taxpayer dollars to activist groups who then turn around and put up billboards that attack our farmers and ranchers.

"This administration will never lose sight of the fact that the No. 1 farm preservation tool we have is farm profitability -- not buzzwords, not catchphrases, or a federal grant program."

Speaking of "smart" farming, Starling said that agriculture "is always innovating, always looking to keep its environmental footprint as soft as possible" while creating the safest, most affordable food supply in the world.

On the issue of the nomination of subcabinet level officials at USDA, Starling said the administration's priority is to get the Senate to confirm Sonny Perdue, the former Republican Georgia governor who is Trump's nominee for Agriculture secretary. The administration wants Perdue to "weigh in" on the other appointments, he said.

Talking about all these proposals in his first weeks on the job is "fun," Starling said, but "nothing will be very fun if we don't actually get things done."

The president's full proclamation on National Ag Day: https://www.whitehouse.gov/…

Follow Jerry on Twitter @HagstromReport

(CC/AG)

Ag's HR Coach

03/23/2017

By Lori Culler
DTN HR Columnist

When working with new clients, one of the questions we ask is, what's your farm culture? Job seekers want to know what it will be like to work there on a daily basis. The typical answer from most clients is, "Hmm ... I haven't given that much thought before."

Whether you have a team of 20 or two brothers operating on your farm, you have a company culture. It has either been created on purpose or most likely just developed over time. The definitions for company culture are vast, but in its simplest form it's the personality of the organization. It's the shared values, behaviors, and communication styles from the team. The real question is whether your culture is driving increased performance and creating an environment that attracts and retains strong employees or is hurting your full potential as an organization. It is amazing what a group of highly motivated individuals can do when they are all contributing at their highest level, bringing more ideas and value than you had ever imagined.

As owners and managers, we can consciously accept the current culture or choose to change it into something more desirable.

EVALUATING CURRENT CULTURE

It's hard to see what your culture is when you're there in the thick of it. Understand your environment by doing these three activities:

1. Be an observer. Watch for interactions between employees; how are they speaking to one another? Listen carefully to the wording your team uses when interacting with one another. Watch for body languages. Look around you; if someone walked in today, what would they have to say about your farm?

2. Ask your employees. You can do this on an individual basis or in small teams depending on your farm size. Ask questions such as: If a friend were applying for a job here, how would you describe what's it like working here? Name one thing you do not like about working here. What do you love about working on our farm?

3. Conduct a confidential survey. Create your own survey or pull a template online to gather feedback from the team. Another option is to use an employee satisfaction survey to gauge your current team's view of their job and the company.

DEFINE YOUR IDEAL CULTURE

After a careful review of your current culture and taking a deep dive into what really drives performance in your organization, define your ideal culture. Start to list what elements you would like to see present in your culture. Those elements might be something like an environment of continuous learning, and defining what that would look like. There might be an element focused on driving creativity and innovative thinkers in the group. I would encourage an element that focuses on ensuring employees are valued for their efforts. Write down what elements you would like to see in your culture and communicate that to the team.

MAKING THE CHANGE

Analyzing and working toward an improved company culture is not a one-time event. It doesn't have to take a lot of time, but it does require a continuous focus and evaluation. Determine which changes and activities will have the most impact. Communicate with your employees where you would like to take the culture and what areas you will be focusing on to get there. Get your employees involved; create a team-committee with an employee as the lead to focus on initiatives that support the new culture. You may even consider giving the committee a budget to use toward their initiatives.

Just like old habits take time to break, so does changing a culture that has been entrenched for years, if not decades. The top farm cultures I know of say it's a constant work in progress.

TIPS FOR IMPROVING CULTURE

AgHires recently presented on a DTN/Progressive Farmer webinar with Sally Hollis of Lanehaven Farms called "Think Like Big Business: Creative Employee Benefits and Bonuses." Much of the discussion was focused on the intangible benefits farms can offer employees. I encourage you to watch the full webinar at https://goo.gl/….

You'll be amazed at how small changes and a focused effort will improve your overall culture and productivity on your farm.

**

Editor's note: Lori Culler grew up on a vegetable and grain farm and is the founder of AgHires (https://aghires.com/…), a national employment recruiting service and online ag job board based in Temperance, Michigan. Email lori@aghires.com and find other labor management tips under Resources at www.dtnpf.com

(AG/SK)

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