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Bringing a Horticulturist’s Eye for Nutrients to Montana’s Golden Triangle

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Bringing a Horticulturist’s Eye for Nutrients to Montana’s Golden Triangle

ONE-ON-ONE WITH CHRIS BARGE OF CHS AG SERVICES

The ‘Golden Triangle’ in north-central Montana is called that for its bountiful wheat harvests. Chris Barge looks at the near-perfect moisture conditions this past fall and winter, sees the know-how of the growers in his area, and foresees an exceptional year for winter wheat in the Golden Triangle.

Barge is the regional manager responsible for all the marketing and sales for agronomy, seed and chemicals at CHS Central Montana Co-op and the CHS Cut Bank Group in Montana. He came to the position five years ago after spending 15 years working in the horticulture industry, and he credits that background for giving him an exceptional focus on crop nutrition.

“A plant is a plant,” Barge says. “In the horticulture world, we were really good about tissue sampling, looking at micronutrients, and really dialing in our crops. It struck me that this wasn’t always the case in the agricultural world.

I graduated from the University of Georgia, with a degree in agriculture and an emphasis in horticulture. When I moved from Georgia out to the Northwest — my wife, Kirsten, is from there — I did have to learn the cropping systems.”

Barge arrived at CHS in Montana just as it was introducing growers in the Golden Triangle to the finely tuned crop nutrient products from Mosaic.

“When Mosaic came to the table with its products, especially MicroEssentials® SZTM which has sulfur and zinc in it, I saw it as a huge opportunity to teach and train our producers about the importance of our micros in relationship to our macronutrients,” Barge explains. “The small-grains growers had always focused on N, P and K. And they should do that, number one, but let’s also look at sulfur, copper and zinc — these can be some of the deficiencies that limit nutrient uptake in the plant.”

Barge found his new role was a natural fit, because he could introduce some of his agronomist colleagues to the methods and the benefits of using micronutrients, and then they could all turn around and teach the producers.

“We had to translate micronutrients for our farmers and producers,” Barge says. “To teach them why it is important to know your sulfur levels, why it is important to know your zinc levels. Once we got them on board, though, the transition was quick. Changing them over from a traditional MAP product like 11-52-0 — it was almost overnight. They got a little taste, and it was up to about 25 percent of sales in that first year. By the second year, it was about 75 percent, and by year three, they’d pretty much made the complete switch. They saw the value. They saw the crop response.

“We did our part, teaching them, training them,” Barge explains. “We did multiple grower meetings, and introduced the use of tissue sampling. It was pretty fun watching the transition. I remember one farmer was waiting for the report on the tissue sample, and I don’t think he was quite sold on it at the time, but he couldn’t wait to see what it said. When the results came back, it just opened his eyes to a whole different world. We haven’t looked back since then. The popularity of micros here has grown, and grown fast.”

Growers stick to a rotation of two-thirds cropping, and one-third lying fallow, in Barge’s region. The stubble on the fallow acres catches snow and acts as a moisture collector. No-till cultivation also helps conserve the precious soil moisture in a region that may get 12 to 14 inches of annual precipitation.

“They start seeding winter wheat right after Labor Day, and go until mid-October,” Barge says. “There are different approaches: A lot of growers will spread, say, 100 pounds of 46 units of urea from the drill. They’ll come back and do a drill blend, which will have MicroEssentials in it. They may still put down 20 additional units of urea, as well as 80 to 100 pounds of MicroEssentials SZ, and they may add potash to that — everyone has their own formulations. Growers will seed right into the urea that they spread in front of the drill. Then they’ll see what kind of moisture we get, and see how the crops respond. They may go back and top-dress, depending on many factors. They’ll start top-dressing February 1 and be done by April, and that’s when they’ll seed their spring wheat or barley.

“Everything is no-till. Our soil depth is not very deep; you are lucky to have 3 feet, but 2-foot soil depth is average,” Barge adds. “No-till is a great practice to help build soils, build their organic material. I can’t think of a farmer now who does not have a no-till drill. They all are practicing that concept.”

Precision agricultural methods, which CHS brands as YieldPoint,TM are a growing segment at CHS Central Montana Co-op and CHS Cut Bank Group. With precision ag specialists on staff, CHS can cater to the high demand for variable-rate spreading of urea.

“As the farmers buy newer equipment, they’ll be able to variable-rate their seed, as far as population and/or seed, by variety,” Barge says. “For example, on a hilltop that’s got a lot of gravel — it’s not your highest-producing area — you would put different varieties than those you put down in the valleys, where you get more moisture. That hasn’t hit here yet, but we know it’s coming.”

With the average farm size in the region around 3,000 acres and the 6,000-acre segment growing quickly, Barge finds that these farmers engage CHS for its custom application services just in order to get it all done.

“They’ll pay us per acre, and we’ll come in and spray, or they may just be trying to clean up their fallow acres,” Barge says. “We can do any custom application for them. Many farmers own their own equipment, but because of timing, we may end up running right alongside them, just so they can get across all their acres.”

The co-op’s arsenal of high-tech equipment is expanding rapidly, with additions like ‘green-seekers’ — light meters attached to the sprayers that can identify weeds and direct chemical in just the right places.

Chris and Kirsten call Belgrade (near Bozeman) home, where he does have an office. But Chris rarely finds himself there.

“I’m on the road every day, driving between business units,” he says, describing his daily routine. “I’m not only working with locations, with all the sellers, with our chemical suppliers and with our fertilizer suppliers, but I’m also working on programs and marketing. We do a lot of radio, and utilize all kinds of collateral to help promote our business, and promote value to our farmers and ranchers. I like the variety — I definitely don’t get bored.”

Chris is very grateful to Kirsten’s great-uncle (whom he never met), because he is the reason Chris and Kirsten ended up in Montana.

“Her great-uncle was in World War I,” Barge says. “When he got out of the service, he went to work as an oil speculator. He was prospecting oil all over the world. They sent him to South America, and then they sent him to Wyoming. While he was prospecting in Wyoming, he took a side trip to Montana. He found this acreage in the mountains, south of Big Timber; it’s about 20 miles north of Yellowstone. He bought this property in 1944, and then he built a cabin on it. It sits on the upper Boulder River in the Rocky Mountains. It’s a really pretty area, and it’s been passed down through the family, and now my wife and I own it. We’ve spent a lot of summers there, fly fishing and enjoying the lifestyle.”

Barge feels that his work is all about putting more money in the pockets of his producers.

“This is the sixth spring they’ll be using MicroEssentials SZ up here,” Barge points out. “After year three, we had the producers actually coming to us, saying, ‘Wow, I just harvested not only higher yields, but also higher protein values,’ and then maybe in a particular field, they’d say, ‘We’ve never cut those types of values before.’”

Winter wheat averages a protein value between 11 and 11.5 percent, according to Barge.

“When they get 11.5 or 12 percent — for a winter wheat producer, that’s a home run,” Barge says. “Every half-point protein increase is worth more to the producer, so it’s a big deal. It’s about quality for the mills. With the higher protein level, the quality of the flour goes up for the mill. This is the wheat our brand-name mills want to buy. If you can help a producer get even half a point, it’s dollars in their pocket.”