Field Day Recap: Multi-Species Cover Cropping at LH Willms Inc. in Rose Prairie

Posted on Thursday, 22 February 2024 under Webinars and Field Days

Cover cropping is a sustainable agricultural practice that involves planting crops specifically to improve soil health, increase climate adaptability and promote climate mitigation. Cover crops are grown primarily for the benefits they provide to the soil and the ecosystem and, when carefully chosen and managed, can be hugely beneficial to farmers.

In August 2023, we hosted a Multi-Species Cover Cropping Field Day at LH Willms Inc. in Rose Prairie. We invited farmers from across the Peace region to learn from our host farmers, agrologists, and farmer support organizations.

Les and Hannah Willms run LH Willms Inc. and have deep farming roots. The farm has been in his family since 1968 and Les took over the operation entirely in 2002. They grow canola, wheat, and barley on 3,000 acres in Rose Prairie. They grow several different cover crop varieties like Daikon Radish, Crimson Clover, Red Clover, Turnip, Annual Ryegrass, Millet, Phacelia, and Sunflower. Les says, “We got into cover cropping because we know we need to enhance our soils. It is a tool we need to grow better crops.” They are determined to trial what they can to find the best fit for growing cover crops in the North.

In addition to our host farmers we were joined by Jennifer Critcher, Vice President of the BC Grain Producers Association and a Peace farmer growing 4,000 acres of canola, peas, and cereals; and, Nadia Mori, the Peace Region Living Labs Extension Program Coordinator and coordinator with the Peace River Forage Association of BC.

At the field day, Les and Hanna Willms walked 14 farmers through their several years of trials including documented data from each year and area of their farm. Participants had the opportunity to see different cover crop seeds, examine various cover crops at maturity, and take shovels out to the field themselves to explore soils. Les explains, “We grow radishes and clover in one particular field and our goal with radishes, for example, is to break up compaction. The radish is a large tuber and will break up compaction. The clover is more of a nitrogen-fixing plant.”

We visited two sites, one currently in cover crops and the second having been cover-cropped in previous years. This allowed participants to see the changing soil conditions over several years of cover cropping. As well, farmers examined the barley crop currently growing in a previously cover cropped area and were able to make observations about the quality of the crop during that particular stage of growth.

Les explains the cover cropping process they used for that field:

“Where we grew the mix last year, the ground was a lot more mellow. We terminated that cover crop and then in the spring we seeded barley and the ground was more mellow and there is more water infiltration. Those radishes were left in the ground, in place, and they are still there and allowing a passageway for water to infiltrate and hold water.”

Farmers at the field day expressed concerns and challenges, sharing similar sentiments as Peace region producers. Les summed this up perfectly by saying, “The struggle is that it takes a year out of production. For us in the North in the Peace River region, there isn’t time after our cash crops to grow a cover crop. We have winter for 6 months. But, I am establishing the value of these crops as a full season with a goal of increasing production in future years. Even if we can increase 10% production in future years, it’s definitely a win.” Throughout the field day, breaks were taken to allow producers to network with other farmers and local industry folks. Making these connections is a meaningful part of these field days and crucial for learning and knowledge transfer.

This event was supported by the BC Climate Agri-Solutions Fund (BCCAF). Funding for BCCAF has been provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada through the Agricultural Climate Solutions – On-Farm Climate Action Fund. BCCAF is delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation. To learn more about BCCAF, visit www.bccaf.ca