Farming in Nature's Image

Gail’s "all of the above” approach is truly impressive. Just when you think you’ve heard it all, he starts talking about another innovative practice he’s working on or thinking about doing in the future. Gail’s commitment to no-till conservation methods with diverse, rotational cover crops save him water, energy, and improve profit, while also having a positive impact on the environment. Add intensive rotational grazing - or mob grazing - to the mix, along with a focus on beneficial insects, use of solar water pumps and fencing, and you’ve got a great example of innovation in Kansas.

No-till conservation methods are commonly held up as a means to reduce erosion, improve water infiltration, decrease run-off, and preserve soil structure. But no-till also saves energy. No-till reduces two to three tillage passes per year, saving farmers fuel and reducing expenses. But that’s not all Gail does to save water and energy.

Continuous cover cropping and diverse, intense rotations fix erosion, generate soil, cut back on pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and commercial fertilizers. Gail explains, "The use of cover crops has reduced our chemicals, we make at least one less chemical pass per field per year, sometimes two less passes. We use less chemicals, less fuel to make the chemicals and less fuel to apply the chemicals. We have cut commercial fertilizer between 20-50%. We intend to cut by 75-95% on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides.”

Read the whole story!

Description of Fuller Family Farm

Background. Gail Fuller started farming in 1979 as a junior in high school on rented land for a 4-H project. He skipped K-State and went straight to work with his dad. Through the 80’s, he worked around 700-750 acres, experimenting with no-till with mixed results. His big break came in the 90’s with rented land from a feedlot, which expanded his operations to about 2,200 acres. After making a full commitment to no-till conservation methods in 1995, Gail found that that no-till alone did not fix all of the erosion problems so he added cover crops to the mix. Continuous cover cropping and diverse, intense rotation have been standard practices since 2003-2004.

No-till and cover cropping. When the farm transitioned to no-till, they were growing corn and soybeans. Over the years, other crops have been added incrementally. The farm normally raises 12 or 13 crops in rotation. For instance, in 2012, they had winter canola, winter barley, winter triticale, winter wheat, spring wheat, corn, grain, sorghum, soybeans, sunflowers, red clover, safflower, oats, and peas.

Livestock management. Holding to a goal of year-round grazing, Gail practices "mob grazing” where the cows are moved at least once a week. When grazing forages, the cows are moved up to six or seven times a day. Single wire electric fencing systems provide great flexibility, although Gail’s team still spends much of their free time building hotwire around fields. Even with the intense drought in recent years, the cows did not need hay until February in 2012. Almost 100 chickens follow the rotation in a mobile coop fashioned out of an old livestock trailer. Gail and his partner, Lynnette Miller, started to integrate sheep into the grazing rotation in 2012.

Progress. Drawing on the latest technology and research, Gail is at the leading edge of agricultural production in Kansas. Despite many successes, Gail is comfortable admitting that he’s also had many failures. However, like any good innovator, he uses these failures as motivation to constantly improve upon his practices.

Water

 No-till and cover crops for increased water infiltration, retention, and erosion control.
"Our whole philosophy is feed the soil, let the soil feed the plants. We’ve got to build the soil, keep it covered.” A focus on soil health yields many benefits for water and energy use. No-till preserves soil structure which leads to increased infiltration, retention, and erosion control. Gail explains,

We started using no-till for erosion control, but that didn’t fix the problem, so we started doing cover crops. Cover crops fix erosion, generate soil, cut back on pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and commercial fertilizers.

Cover Crops – or biological primers – also reduce run-off and improve water quality .

Covers help improve infiltration and fix the water cycle so it goes in instead of running off. They also help with water quality. In the past when we started with buffers, that was the best practice to filter the water before it went into the streams. You know, a field of covers - or biological primers - instead of doing that on a limited acreage or along the border of fields, we’re doing it across the entire field. So we’re basically filtering all of the water that might happen to be leaving our farm, so it’s much cleaner. With cover crops, having something growing all the time, a raindrop never hits the ground at 20 miles hour per hour anywhere, the ground doesn’t seal up. It saves run off. That is the biggest thing we’re doing to save water.

Energy

No-till. There are many benefits of no-till or conservation tillage. It is commonly held up as a method that reduces erosion, improves water infiltration, decreases run-off, and preserves soil structure. But switching from conventional tillage to no-till or conservation tillage can save a lot of energy.
 

Just going to no-till alone, we instantly took 3 field passes out. Typically, in the fall, we would chisel or rip, do a deep tillage in the fall, and then we’d come back in the spring and do two leveling passes. Ten years before that when the chemicals still had to be mixed with the soil, we had to do at least two leveling passes to mix the chemicals in. So, you know, there’s a lot of fuel savings there.

Biological Primers. While covers provide great benefits for water conservation and water quality, they also have a solid impact on energy savings. Cover crops increase nitrogen in soil which decreases the need for chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides . This saves energy in a number of ways, including reduced tractor passes to apply the chemicals, less energy expended to produce the chemicals and transport the chemicals.

"The use of cover crops has reduced our chemicals, we make at least one less chemical pass per field per year, sometimes two less passes. We use less chemicals, less fuel to make the chemicals and less fuel to apply the chemicals. We have cut commercial fertilizer between 20-50%. And intend to cut by 75-95% on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides."

Mob Grazing.  Mob Grazing and using livestock to harvest crops are also great ways to save energy and reduce inputs. Mob – or intensive grazing - reduces the amount of space available for livestock to graze on. While it may seem a little odd at first, many farmers are moving to using cattle to harvest crops to save energy, money, and improve the health of both the soil and the livestock. Gail explains:

"If I can harvest 85% of the corn with the livestock, I can match the combine. You’re cutting out all sorts of fuel costs. You bring the combine in, harvest the corn, dump it in the truck, haul it to an elevator or to the feedlot, grind it, haul it back to the cattle, and then haul the waste back to the field. What we can do is bring in the cattle."

Renewable Energy

In addition to utilizing practices that save energy, Gail Fuller also incorporates renewable energy sources that provide the flexibility needed for such an operation. He uses solar powered hot-wire fencing to expand mob grazing capabilities and a mobile solar water pump to get the water where it needs to go.
 

Progress

"We have to take the "can’t” out of our Vocabulary.” Gail Fuller is a resilient, adaptable innovator. Never "done,” he constantly pushes the limits to expand his understanding and strengthen his practices. Step by step, you can make progress towards better practices. To do this, you need to expand your horizons a bit, meet new people, learn new ideas, and build a good team of folks ready to encourage you as you reach toward your goals. (Check out the Resources section to see listing of some of the great videos and books that Gail recommends)

You find like-minded people and you have a team. Who’s on your team? Do they understand your goals, your objectives, and where you’re going? I would go to No-Till on the Plains and be all excited and then I’d let myself get talked out of half of the stuff I had going through in my brain because I didn’t bring my team with me.

Gail warns that, although it can be difficult, it is important to have positive influences on your team.

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PHOTO GALLERY
Click to open gallery.
2013 FULLER FIELD SCHOOL FARMING IN NATURE'S IMAGE

GAIL FULLER TALKS ABOUT WATER + ENERGY

PAUL BROWN TALKS ABOUT BENEFITS OF NO-TILL AND COVER CROPS

RESOURCES
Getting the Lowdown on Worms
USDA Rural Energy for America Program
Iowa's NRCS: No-Till Will Preserve Soil Moisture For Next Year
USDA NRCS, Soil Health Key Points
NRCS Energy Estimator: Tillage
Conservation Practices that Save: Crop Residue Management: Save ENERGY, Save MONEY
No-till can save water, pumping crops
2012-2013 Cover Crop Survey
Cocktail Blends provide fall grazing, soil health
ARS Cover Crop Chart
Save Soil, Nutrients, Money with Cover Crops
Soil Organic Matter
Soil Quality and No-Till
Plenty of Positives with No-Till System
Managing Cover Crops in Conservation Tillage Systems
Cover Crops for Clean Water
USDA Cover Crop Fact sheet
RMA Cover Crop Fact sheet
Book List from Fuller Field School
RELATED VOICES
Cover Crops Q & A with Rob Myers
Rob Myers, SARE Regional Coordinator, explains how the use of cover crops impacts water and energy in Kansas agriculture and discusses the benefits of no-till with cover crops.