For any farmers who have gazed at a soil map of Missouri — whether it was in school, at crop conferences and field days, or while waiting at the FSA office — the state’s diversity is apparent.
Similar crops and livestock are raised throughout the state, but the agricultural experience can vary from the big river bottoms to the hill ground, from the rolling terrain of northern Missouri to the rugged and rocky terrain of the Ozarks to the flat and fertile fields of southeast Missouri.
Many Missouri farmers have both crops and cattle, especially in northwest Missouri, where University of Missouri Extension agronomist Andy Luke works.
“There’s a pretty good mix of both,” says Luke, who is based in Harrison County.
He says having diversified operations helps provide some protections against the ups and downs of either row crop or livestock markets. Luke says the topography of the area supports this as well, with most bottom ground and quality land dedicated to corn and soybeans, with cattle on the hill ground.
“The more marginal acres are the ones that are in pastures,” he says.
Some ground was converted from pastures and hayfields to row crop production when corn and soybean prices were very high five years ago, but there is not a lot of variation from year to year, he says.
“We really do have some pretty competitive yields,” he says. “We’re not Iowa or Illinois, but we do OK.”
Over in north central and parts of northeast Missouri, the rolling Green Hills region is known for its cattle production. Oscar Mensa, who raises cattle in Sullivan County, says the ground is best suited for livestock.
“This is the best place in the world to raise a pound of beef,” he says. “… We need to keep the Green Hills green.”
The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers cut swaths of rich bottom ground through the middle and west-east borders of the state, although they can bring devastating flood and high water risks.
Southwest Missouri features prairie ground before meeting the Ozarks. Hickory County cattle producer Greg Sundwall says his farm is “right on the break” between the two regions, and he knows the region can be susceptible to droughts.
“We’re never more than three weeks from a drought,” he says.
The southwest part of the state has a lot of agricultural variety, and it is also the hub of dairy production in Missouri, with generally good ground for growing alfalfa, access to corn and available pasture.
The terrain of the Ozarks, with its streams and springs and forested hills, is more associated with livestock production than row crops, with logging also forming part of its agricultural picture.
Southeast Missouri is a slice of the South in the Bootheel and surrounding counties. The mostly flat, low-lying Mississippi Embayment was once an overgrown area local farmers called a “jungle,” but a massive draining and land-clearing effort turned it into one of the most fertile regions in the world. Irrigation helps the region produce high yields of corn, soybeans and wheat, but also cotton and rice, putting Missouri in the top 10 nationally for production of those crops.
Sam Atwell, a University of Missouri Extension agronomist based in New Madrid County, says farmers make planting and crop rotation decisions in the area based in part on soil type.
“We have some specific soils here that are very good for rice production,” he says. “Those soils generally are not good for corn and cotton. Our rice land is primarily the heavy clay soils that are wet and low.”
Atwell says there is some rice grown in the sandier, loamy soils, but it doesn’t fare as well.
According to the Missouri Climate Center, Missouri also experiences regional differences in climates, but there are not obvious geographic boundaries.
MU state climatologist Pat Guinan points to a report by the late Wayne Decker, a former atmospheric sciences professor at MU. Decker wrote Missouri’s climate is “marked by strong seasonality. In winter, dry-cold air masses, unchallenged by any topographic barriers, periodically swing south from the northern plains and Canada. …
“In summer, moist, warm air masses, equally unchallenged by topographic barriers, swing north from the Gulf of Mexico and can produce copious amounts of rain. … In some summers, high pressure stagnates over Missouri, creating extended droughty periods. Spring and fall are transitional seasons when abrupt changes in temperature and precipitation may occur.”