The Willis Family
Andrew County, Missouri
Andrew County Soil and Water Conservation District
Ron and Nancy Willis, along with their sons Michael and Matthew, farm a diverse crop rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, cereal rye, oats, and winter barley near King City, Missouri.
Ron and Nancy both attended Northwest Missouri State University and have farmed together since 1984. Michael began farming full time after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting from Northwest Missouri State University in 2010. Matthew started farming full time in 2014 after graduating from Northwest Missouri State University with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business.
Soil Health Practices
We’ve used no-till practices on the farm since 1986 and started using cover crops in 2012. We adopted no-till for the erosion control and cover crops for even further erosion control and organic matter buildup. We’ve noticed improvements in soil structure and water infiltration due to cover crops.
We grew wheat and oats off and on throughout the years and started more fully incorporating small grains in 2012 to diversify our rotation. We raise corn, soybeans, wheat, cereal rye, oats, and winter barley. Summer-harvested small grains break up certain cycles of pests and weeds and offer an excellent window for planting more diverse cover crop mixes that can be grazed during the fall and winter.
We had some heavy rainfall events in 2013, and our cover-cropped fields did not have any erosion. We noticed similar erosion control in 2015, which was an incredibly wet year. We’ve seen reduced weed pressure in our cover-cropped fields. Our fields that have had cover crops the longest have higher crop yields than they did in the past. We don’t have to feed as much hay to our cows during the winter when they’re grazing fields with cover crops, which saves us money.
Nancy started using cover crops and no-till in her garden in 2013. She plants vegetables in permanent beds, mulching the lanes between beds with straw. The permanent beds have made it easier to grow a greater diversity of vegetables, and the layout of the beds lets her plant them more densely than in a tilled garden, increasing productivity per square foot. By discontinuing fall plowing of the garden, she’s extended her growing season well into the late fall by planting cool season crops, further increasing productivity.
We do our own spraying, so we always plant our crop first and then spray for our cover-cropped ground. If you spray your cover cropped fields too far ahead of planting, the resulting dead plant material from the cover crop will mulch the ground. This mulch will lock in whatever moisture you receive from rainfall, making your field too wet to plant into. That’s why we plant first and then spray.
Delayed harvest due to a wet fall means we’ve had to plant cover crops later than we’d like. We’ve planted cereal rye as late as November 10, but you won’t have much growth heading into the winter. Later-planted cereal rye will resume growth quickly in the spring, but you lose the benefit of having some increased winter cover. Ideally, we want to plant cereal rye in September or early October.
In November 2016, Michael was a guest speaker at the Kansas Rural Center’s annual conference held in Manhattan, Kansas – sharing his experience using a roller-crimper for cover crop control on terraced ground as part of a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant he received. Later in February, Ron and Michael participated in a producer panel at a cover crop and soil health meeting in St. Joseph, Missouri – speaking directly to their peers on what worked well on their farm when implementing cover crops and no-till.