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.
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.
Over the ten-plus years of cover cropping and diverse rotations, the improved soil health has resulted in increased organic matter which means better infiltration in the soil, stronger holding capacity, and more efficient use of available water. Gail recalls,
"When I got to 100% no-till in ‘95, our next soil tests were in ‘97. In 1997, our organic matter was 1.7-2.5%. Today we’re at 3.5-6.4%. Let’s just say we’ve gone from 2% organic matter to 4.5% which reflects a 2.5% increase on average. That’s about 46,000 to 47,000 gallons of water per acre that we’re infiltrating now that we weren’t fifteen years ago. I am now holding more water in my soil. That’s 2.5 more inches of rain that I can take on every acre than I could before."
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."
Additionally, cover crops increase nitrogen in the soil and reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.
"We’re keeping our nutrients in place. The organic nitrogen we’re building with our covers is much more stable in our soil so it stays fixed in the soil and doesn’t move as readily as the commercial fertilizers do."
Cover crops are an important tool for water conservation. Keeping the soil covered means less evaporation and more moisture in the soil. Still, a common concern about cover crops is that they will compete with the cash crop for water and nutrients. While researchers are still learning about the ways cover crops interact when ‘interplanted’ with cash crops, the consensus seems to be that whatever moisture is lost to the cover crop is less than what is saved from run-off and evaporation.
"Soil temperature is the key. When you have between 70-80 degrees soil temperature, 90% of the moisture is left in the soil with about 10% evaporation. At 95 degrees, that flip flops, and you save 10% and lose 90%. Last year, we found soils at 150 degrees on the surface. We even found no-till was running 130-140 degrees on top of the residue. If you dug down below, we were in the 90 degree range. If you dug an inch or two below that, we were in the upper 70’s. Obviously, any time you can keep that ground cooler…it’s better.
The worst case I’ve seen [of cover crops competing with cash crops for water] was a two-tenths of an inch of soil moisture lost to a cover crop. Many times it’s equal; a few times there’s been increases in soil moisture at the end of a cover crops life. Cover crops use water but soil moisture is still going up."
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.
According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) switching from conventional tillage to no-till can save at least 3.5 gallons of fuel per acre. http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detailfull/national/energy/?cid=nrcs143_023637 According to the US Energy Information Administration, http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=307&t=11 roughly 22.38 pounds of CO2 are produced by burning a gallon of diesel fuel. Using NRCS statistics, switching to no-till saves a minimum of 3.5 gallons of diesel per acre, which amounts to 78.33 pounds of CO2, nearly 80,000 pounds of CO2 for a 1000 acre operation.
Using a modest average of $3.50/gallon, switching to no-till can save over $12/acre. On a 1000 acre farm, this amounts to a savings of 3,500 gallons of diesel fuel valued at over $12,000 a year.
"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.
Save fuel, save fertilizer, save energy, save money.
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.
You have to mob graze because you have to limit their corn intake. We will figure out how many pounds per row per acre so we’ll know. We can match gain, or pretty close. The health of the cattle will be much higher, the drugs will be much less. (Check out Brass Tacks: Gail Fuller talks Mob Grazing and cover crops for more info)
You look at the money savings, the health of the livestock, the expense of the combine… A combine today is $300,000. I can buy a lot of cows today to harvest my corn for $300,000.
Cows won’t be as efficient as a combine. There’s a learning curve there, but cows don’t
run on diesel fuel so there’s huge savings to be had! Plus, mob grazing further reduces the need
for chemical inputs by spreading manure more consistently and utilizing the
available forage more effectively. Gail explains,
"When you graze cattle, you turn them out on 80-acre field and they poop under shade trees and by water tanks. If you put ‘em in a mob and move them daily or 3 times a day, the manure is spread more consistently and you find a manure pile every foot or two foot. For every manure pile, there are 4-5 urine dumps,9 phosphorous and potash, and microbes are flushed out in urine. You see higher utilization of the grass, weeds and grasses.
I think we save in many ways.
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. The solar pump is, in itself, a case study on innovation as it has been a challenge for Gail to make it meet his needs. While it does great in sunny seasons, they are working to make it a functional source year-round.
We were really impressed with the solar powered pump. It pumps about 11 gallons a minute. But, it has to be within 300 feet of the water source. Due to a miscommunication, there is no way to water on cloudy days or the winter. It’s a good summer watering system.
Not one to let a good idea go, Gail is looking into redesigning the system to work with a generator and sensor system which would turn the generator on or off as needed. Linking up with other innovators on Farm Hack (www.farmhack.com), Gail found a similar system in operation at a greenhouse, which offers a possible solution.
Growing Fuel. What’s next? Well, after hearing about small-scale presses that convert plant materials into a usable biodiesel, Gail and several other producers are looking into forming a co-op to buy a press.
From a financial standpoint right now, the press isn’t feasible. We need fuel at $6 a gallon, if you’re only looking at finances, to make it work to grow our own fuel. If you want to throw the carbon footprint in, too, then sure. But we have to get paid and I don’t get paid for my carbon footprint, sadly. Also, we can sell the oil as cooking oil. That’s the cool thing about this press. I can take my flax and my canola and my safflower and my sunflowers, run it through the top side of this press and what comes out the bottom, pour half into the tractor and take the rest home and cook with it. I’m going to do it as soon as I’ve got $10,000. A small press can operate two or three farms if you run it full time, so we’re looking at a co-op. The byproduct that comes out is a phenomenal livestock feed. This is a cold press, so the nutrient value in this oil is much higher. We are growing some of the crops – sunflower, canola and oilseed crops, to learn if we can grow these to see if when that day comes, we’re ready.
"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.
"You either get them on board or you fire them. And that is really hard for a farmer to do. We have to become best friends with our banker and with our agronomist and our seed salesman and our neighbor and with whoever it is that you go to for advice. For some reason, we have to be best friends with all of them. And when they don’t understand, you can’t fire them, and they can lead you down the wrong road either intentionally or unintentionally. And I stayed in that for way too long.
That’s the other part of your team. Not only do they have to be on your page, or your goals or ideas, you don’t need the downers. Anybody that’s got that negative attitude, they’ve got to go. It’s too easy to quit."
One of the goals of Water + Energy Progress is to share the stories of successful innovators in Kansas so that others might learn from both their successes and their failures. We hope that sharing this information will encourage others to adopt, adapt, and continue finding better and better ways to save water and energy in agriculture. Gail often comments that you have to talk to different people, read different books, and try to look at the big picture.
"Let’s just start at where we are today, we’ve taken the system that mother nature gave us - a very complex, very diverse system - and we’ve simplified it into a monoculture system with tillage and destruction with chemical fertilizers and herbicides. What has our thought process done in the simplification of nature?
Our thought process has gotten very complex. You’ve got to think about how and when to plant and spray and till and scout and sell and do all this stuff. We’ve gotten extremely complex in our thinking to simplify our systems. But our systems are collapsing around us because of our practices."
Listening to him talk about the connections between soil health, water conservation, erosion control, and history can be both exciting and overwhelming. But he is always willing to slow down, step back, and provide both encouragement and elaboration on his ideas.
So when I talk to people about planting five or six things in your rotation and then planting eight or ten or fifteen things in a cover crop mix…and then let’s get even crazier and plant clovers with our corn. Their eyeballs pop out of their head, "I can’t think about planting corn today, how am I going to do this?” We have to simplify our thought process to see a complex system and let Mother Nature drive the bus again. Just let it happen and have faith that it’s going to work out.
Check your pride at the door.
It’s easy to listen to his ideas and point out ways that it "can’t” or "won’t” work. "That won’t work on my farm because…” is part of the background conversation at most conferences. But Gail insists that we have to take the "can’t” out of our vocabulary and start changing the way we look at things.
How many times did Edison invent the light bulb? Was it 200 and some that he failed before he invented it? All my heroes are failures. If I haven’t failed at something, I’m not trying hard enough. That’s the one thing that I hope…if I die today, that’s one thing I hope my kids both say I’ve given them: never be afraid to fail. You’ve got to fail. You’re going to be pretty bored in your life if you don’t fail."
At Gail Fuller’s Field School (video coming soon!) in July of 2013, he explained, "Today, I stand before you as a failure. There is nothing I can do to turn around the damage I’ve done.” He proceeded to lay out the negative effects of his previous practices. Under conventional till, Kansas farmers lose 5 to 5.5 tons of topsoil per acre per year whether it’s to erosion or wind erosion.
In the 1980’s with 700 acres of conventional till, he lost about 45,000 tons of topsoil. From 1995 -2002, even though they were using no-till, the rotation was only corn silage and soybeans. 100,000 tons of topsoil were lost during those years. At $20 a ton for topsoil, that equals roughly 2.9 million dollars just for topsoil. While this may be a hard pill to swallow, it is a reality that encourages Gail to improve his practices.
There is nothing I can do to bring that back for 25 years. This is something that I have to take to my grave and pass on to my kids. Fortunately, for them, I’ve realized it and am trying to stop the bleeding. . . We’ve lost over 40% of our topsoil. How are our kids going to farm? We have to quit tilling."
Motivated by righting the wrongs of his past practices, Gail focuses on tending the soil to leave a better place for his kids.
"In three years, I want to cut all inputs by 75-90% because it’s the right thing to do. Sure I want to make money, we have to make money, but this is the right thing to do. I do it to grow the healthiest food possible for the customer, the community, and my family - without hindering the next generation’s ability to do so. That’s why I get out of bed every morning. "