It is 6:30 a.m. on Saturday with the sun peeking up over the mountains and the cattle peacefully grazing in the green pastures. It is mornings like these, when Donnie Willis can take time to enjoy the scenery and thank God for what he has, and why Donnie, of Deer, Ark., chose to live and raise a family in his native Newton County.
“When I graduated from school I didn’t want to leave Newton County. I had my mind made up that I wanted to stay here. I’m gonna stay here,” said Donnie.
Donnie’s farming roots run deep. “When I was two or three years old, Dad gave me my first cow and hogs. We used to raise a lot of hogs. I have had cattle ever since, said Donnie. He and his wife of almost 30 years, Marsha, have passed their love of farming on to their two children: Adam, a vocational agriculture teacher at the Deer School; Sarah, an agriculture major at the University of Arkansas.
As well as working full-time for Windstream, Donnie owns and rents some 1,000 acres in and around the Deer area. He is currently running 224 crossbred mama cows, as well as putting up as much hay as he can. “The best cross that I like is Charolais/Limousin. Those cream babies, to me, are about as good as you can sell,” said Donnie.
Donnie is running seven Charolais bulls, four Limousin bulls and one Hereford bull with his cows. He strongly feels it is important to choose a good quality bull. “Most people think a bull counts for 50 percent of calf quality. I say a bull is more like 70 or 80 percent. You can’t pay too much for a good bull,” said Donnie. He just recently was able to add a Wyoming Wind Charolais bull to his herd.
Donnie calves twice a year: February to April and September to November. His goal is to sell 200 calves per year. Fall calves are creep fed and spring calves are raised on grass. He likes to retain 20 or 25 replacements heifers per year. When choosing replacements, he looks at the genetics of a calf. He also looks for ones that grow good and straight and even considers the disposition of its mother.
Donnie likes his heifers to calve as close to 30 months a possible. He keeps them grouped together away from the bigger herds so that he can take a little extra time and care with them. They remain together until their calves are sold and they have been rebred before mixing them in with the older cows. Donnie also likes to keep approximately 35 cows in a pasture to feed. He believes it is easier to monitor each animal, and they are not as likely to push or knock around on each other.
Like most farmers, Willis has had to adjust some of his practices to make his operation work. In the past, he always put out Triple 19 fertilizer. This year he used Urea-Nitrogen at 150 lbs. to the acre. “My fertilizer cost about the same as last year, and I got over all my ground,” said Donnie. He is still hoping to bale 1,200 round bales and 4,500 square bales this year.
Donnie puts in wheat and rye for winter pasture. “I try to make it until January before I feed hay. I try not to feed (hay) over 90 days. When you go over 90 days, it hurts. I think the name of the game is grass,” said Donnie.
The Willis’ built a hay barn last year that will hold 700 round bales. In the future, Donnie would like to build another good hay barn with sheds that will give him a place for a cow and its calf to get under cover. “I’d like a place to put a cow and her calf in the barn so the calf can get settled before being turned out on this mountain. I wouldn’t want to lay down in the snow, and I don’t think they want to either,” said Donnie.
When asked what his favorite or most helpful tool or piece of equipment was, he quickly replied. “I don’t know how I made it so long without a 4 x 4 tractor. It feels so good to go up and down these hills and not slide. I have gone down a few times and not been sure if I was going to slow down or hit the fence row,” said Donnie.
Donnie Willis’ humble spirit is evident when he talks about his family and his farm. He credits his wife and children for all the help they give to him on the farm, and he credits God for his health and all the rich blessings he has been given.