Kansas farmer Gail Fuller, who farms near Emporia, experimented with no-till farming on and off during the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, frustrated by erosion and not getting the results he wanted, he attended a no-till conference where he learned about cover crops. When drought hit in 2000, he abandoned the cover cropping and saw even worse erosion. With his back against the wall, Gail began his journey into polyseeded cover crops and livestock harvesting of that forage to solve a multitude of problems. From that point he hasn’t looked back on his journey to improve land health and get a profit from his farm.
A Rocky Start
Fuller’s early experiments with no-till farming did not yield the results he wanted for more than a decade. “Because of ignorance and foolish pride on my part – too proud to ask for advice – we failed most of the time. In the mid-1990s I was very frustrated and tired of erosion issues. I then went completely no-till cold turnkey, and the erosion didn’t get better, and in some places actually got worse. I wanted to blame the no-till methods, but it was actually due to mismanagement,” Fuller said.
“I realized we did not change our crop rotations enough. I had tried to make our traditional rotation practices fit our no-till, which at the time was corn and soybeans so there was no residue, no carbon added to the soil. The erosion just got worse,” he said.
Then he attended a conference called No-Till on the Plains, in the late 1990s. “They were talking about cover crops. I tried those for a couple of years, but probably didn’t have my heart in it all the way. There was no one that I knew of doing it, at the time. Then we had a severe drought in 2000 and no income. The first thing that got cut was the cover crops,” he said.
“We not only went back to what we were doing earlier, but also had to bale up most of our soybeans that year, to keep the bank happy. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me. We stayed dry for the next two or three years, and our yields slowly declined and the erosion got worse again. That’s when it dawned on me that we’d actually been headed the right direction with the cover crops. Instead of taking things out of rotation, we needed to be adding things into it,” Fuller said.
Cover Crops And Livestock
In 2003-2004 he went back into cover cropping. “Only this time, instead of using a monoculture we used mixes — trying to imitate what Mother Nature does,” he said. “It didn’t take very long, and fortunately when I started over the second time I started much smaller, with a few plots around the farm that were right next to our feedlot. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to quickly realize there was a lot of good, cheap forage here. We traded some corn for some cows and started grazing those cover crop.
“I was scared to death, because most of these things we were using as cover crops I’d never heard of before, let alone feeding them to cattle, not knowing what it would do to the cow. But that’s how we got started. From there, it just exploded,” Fuller said.
“We started grazing those cover crops, and went to more conferences and listened to people like Dave Morell, Gabe Brown, Neil Dennis, Ken Miller, Doug Peterson, Jim Gerrish and Greg Judy. They were using mob grazing and talking holistically and this really intrigued me. I thought I was doing intensive rotational grazing because we were moving the cows every 2 to 4 weeks, but I soon realized I needed to speed it up. I was just in kindergarten. Gabe has become my mentor and one of my best friends. We push each other a lot and I’m now moving my cattle up to 6 to 8 times a day. They are almost always moved at least daily,” Fuller explained.
“I’ve done an Intro to Holistic Management through Certified Educator Josh Duckart with his 3-day beginner course, and we will bring him here this winter for a follow up. Everything we do now, we think it through holistically, whether it’s the farming side, the cattle side, etc. I want this interaction and I want the cattle on all the acres I can get them on — at least every 2-3 years I want cattle to go across a field at least once,” he said. He followed the cover crops with two- and three-way mixes and quickly figured out that wasn’t nearly enough. “Now most of our mixes are at least 15- to 20-way. We are trying to imitate the native system, and for us it’s the tall grass prairie. We want as many plants as we have on the prairie — forbs, legumes and grasses.”
Teaching A Natural System Approach
According to Fuller, agriculture in recent years has moved too far away from a natural system, and people now have to re-learn the things that work. “We’ve forgotten a lot of earlier wisdom and the sad part is how fast we’ve forgotten. We are not inventing the wheel; it’s all been done before. With the exception of mob grazing, most of what we are trying to learn today is what grandpa or great-grandpa did. They used cover crops to grow their legumes and to feed cattle,” Fuller said. Livestock were used extensively to keep the soil fertile and productive, before the days of chemical fertilizers, and before farmers were taught about the benefits of monocultures at the agricultural schools.
Fuller also has noticed that the kids coming out of the university system today don’t understand many basic truths about the best ways to manage land and livestock. “I can’t blame them, because they come home from university and look at me out there moving fence by hand and doing all these things that look like a lot of work. Their dad just bought a new combine and two new semis and rented another section of land, and which system looks like more fun — to a 20-year-old kid?” Fuller asked. The sad thing about “modern” agriculture is that the farmer or rancher has to keep expanding or try to produce more, just to break even or pay the bank.
“My daughter went to K-State and graduated a few years ago with a degree in Animal Science,” he said. “One of her professors lives nearby, and he became involved in a CIG grant to graze cover crops here on my farm. When I was visiting with him I asked what he knew about it and he said he was very familiar with it and had worked with both Greg Judy and Jim Gerrish. I thought this was really great because here was someone at the university who would understand what I’m doing. My daughter had him for a class on winter nutrition for cattle that semester. I was pleased that she’d get to hear about some options. But this topic wasn’t even mentioned. Students don’t need to hear that this is the only way to do it, but we at least need to tell them about every option out there, and let them make their own choice.
“In my early years farming, not knowing about some of these options really set me back. In the late 1990s it would have been really easy for me to just quit because I had no encouragement. If there had been some research looking at some of these methods or saying these were good things, it might have helped. I would have been a lot quicker to buy into this way of farming if I’d had some help.”
Fuller has noticed that holistic management ideas have become more recognized in the past few years. “I don’t know exactly what’s driving this, but it’s probably a little bit of many factors. Consumers are becoming more aware of their food, for one,” Fuller said. Also, the economics of farming/ranching has gotten to the point where many people in agriculture are searching for ways to stay in business.
“Brian Lindley (former executive director of No-Till on the Plains), Gabe Brown and I racked our brains during the middle part of this last decade, wondering why we weren’t able to get more producers on board,” Fuller said. “We really missed the boat because we geared everything to the producer, and he’s not the sole decision-maker. We didn’t have the spouse involved, and she’s the one who knows the answers. She knows the true financial situation. She’s the one who writes the checks and keeps the books. She also tells her husband when he comes home late at night covered with chemicals and grease that he missed junior’s baseball game or Suzi’s softball game. She’s the influencer, yet we didn’t include her, or the banker, or the land owner. They are the important decision-makers in the operation.”
Now that these parties are becoming more aware, it makes a difference. “Any time there’s a spouse in the groups I speak to, we make progress,” Fuller said. “I’ve never yet not sold her on these concepts. She’s tuned in to the finances of the farm/ranch. She also represents the feminine side — the mothers, the nurturers. When I was running our feedlot, I preferred to have an all-female processing crew. They treated the animals better, they understood it better, they caught the sick ones faster, etc. With them it wasn’t a race to see how fast we could get done; they just wanted to do the job right.” Getting the spouse on board has helped the holistic management movement and it is growing.
“On the flip side, there’s a bubble in industrial agriculture today that is getting ready to burst,” Fuller said. “There’s a race to see who can be the biggest farmer in the U.S. and this is pushing a lot of young people and smaller producers out. The only way they can compete and continue to live on the land is to stack enterprises. They have to find a way to get more dollars out of every acre, with less input. Holistic management is the only way to do that,” he said. “It’s the only way many people will be able to stay on the land.”
“I’ve seen a lot of younger producers who have come home to run the farm or ranch as dad or grandpa gets older, and they don’t want to lose the farm. They are down to 80 acres or a section (or a handful of cows) and trying to find ways to make it work,” he explained.
Holistic management must become more mainstream, and we are still learning how to do this. “In my operation our next step is to try to get to organic no-till. When I get it figured out, I want to change the name because I can’t stand the term organic or the term no-till. We have to find something else to call this, because I don’t want to be labeled as an organic no-tiller. This is too many negatives!” Fuller said.
Fuller hasn’t tilled any ground on his place since 1995. “We are not ever going to till again. We want to find a way to get our pesticide use down to zero. We want to use cover crops and livestock because these are the only ways to make it work. The cows will become the insurance, the harvesters for a failed crop, while fertilizing the ground for the next crop.” It’s the best way to keep the cycle going.
Maximizing Profit With Livestock
“We started out with 9 cows. After a few years of on-farm research we realized this was a way to increase profitability and nutrient cycling, and capture solar energy. Looking at the benefits financially as well as for the land, we decided to build up the herd. We took on a huge expansion project 4 years ago, and then went right into the current drought. We went from 20 cows to 100 in about 18 months, and then went to 40 in about 6 months because of the drought. We weren’t ready; we didn’t have enough fencing and water development accomplished yet, and made some poor management decisions.”
Today Gail’s back in rebuilding mode with the cattle, going more slowly this time. “We now have 50 cows and 20 bred heifers for next year. We also converted to a grass finishing operation and we’re in the early stages of that. We butchered our first one last year, and have 3 more we are going to butcher and sell this year.
“My girlfriend is into the food side of all this. She has chickens—layers and broilers—and sheep. We brought sheep into the operation last year, and some pigs and turkeys. So the grass-finished cattle make a perfect fit in what we are trying to do. We sold 3 grass-finished beeves a month ago and sold them in one week. We have 2 more right now and have restaurants interested in our products, and consumers, and possibly some grocery stores,” he says.
“Our cow herd has gotten bigger in numbers and smaller in frame size with better foraging genetics. We have a good genetic base but there is room for improvement. With the heat and the drought, I don’t understand the popularity of black cattle. If you live in Kansas and don’t own Angus you are a minority, but I’m trying to get away from blacks. We have some Red Angus and some Gelbvieh crosses, and also bought some British Whites. We are really trying to expand that breed because so far they have been an absolute slam-dunk.”
Gail is also clear that we need diversity in our livestock just like we need plant diversity in our fields. “I was talking with producers about diversity; you can’t just plant monocultures. When we talk about grazing cattle, people need to take a dose of their own medicine!” A good cross or composite can perform better than straightbred cattle; you get the best traits of several breeds.
“This also holds true for multi-species grazing and not having just cattle. You can graze sheep on those same acres, and the chickens several days behind in the rotation,” says Gail. A person can get more production per acre with multi-species grazing because the animals don’t all eat the same things, and they make the plants more productive for one another.
“We didn’t have to add any more acres or plant anything different, to bring in the lambs or the chickens. They just eat what the cattle don’t. A few years ago we should have sold a lot more cows than we did, and bought more lambs because they are more drought-proof. These are the things we learn along the way. We’ll be more ready for the next drought,” says Gail.
Pasture Cropping Experiments
Gail notes that it would be nice to have a way to pass along the lessons learned, to the next generation. “I’m 50 years old and I don’t know if I’ll see it through to accomplish all my plans, but hopefully my kids have learned from my mistakes. At the same time, I tell them that I hope they fail, because they will learn more from their own mistakes. You have to fail, to know success, and you can’t be afraid of failure. You need to be out there pushing the envelope. This is how we learn,” he says.
“With the organic no-till I know we can get to where we can take at least 90% of our commercial inputs out of our operation and still grow grain. We are also experimenting with pasture cropping, and experimenting with perennial rotation. We need to have perennials in this operation to make it truly functional,” says Gail.
“The pasture cropping comes from the ideas of Colin Seis from Australia who invented it, trying to farm in native rangeland. In the perennial system that we have, we are just now trying to introduce cool season perennials or re-establish warm season perennials. I don’t want to interfere with land that’s never been broken, or introduce anything that’s never been there,” he says.
“We’ll be planting a cash crop as the perennial is going dormant after grazing. What Colin does in his system is keep grazing every year and then one year out of four he grows a cash grain crop—an off season crop to whatever the grass is. The perennial rotation was something I was looking at before I met Colin. I thought it was going to be the answer. I’d never even heard of pasture cropping. I’d spent years looking at what the Argentina farmers had done, using 4 to 6 years in a perennial setting with mob grazing rotationally, then putting that land into cash crops for 5 to 10 years and then putting it back into perennials,” he explains.
“Then I met Colin, and all my research went out the window. I think the pasture cropping will work better. We have to find what best fits our own situation that works. This is the path I’m on right now. We’ve started the perennial rotation; our first perennials are coming back next year into cropping. We will divide some of that up and put some pasture cropping in, too, to see what’s best,” says Gail.
“The more I get into this the more I realize that we need livestock and perennials and somewhere in there is the answer. As long as you think and manage holistically it will work—whatever fits your own operation.” There may be several routes that can lead to the goal.
“It’s exciting, it’s a lot of fun, and we have a long ways to go. The word ‘sustainable’ seems to be the buzzword right now, and a hot topic. This is another word I absolutely do not like. As much as we’ve degraded the planet, what good is being merely sustainable? We need to regenerate. We have a lot of rebuilding to do. I am hoping my grandkids can talk about sustainable, but I think we are 100 years away from that right now. We have to stop the degradation before we can even start talking about regeneration or being sustainable.”
Editor’s Note: This article written by Heather Smith Thomas appears here with permission by the editor of In Practice magazine where it originally appeared in Vol. 155.