Take soil and farm beyond conservation
Kansas farmer believes seeding cash crops and cover crops into perennial pastures is the future.
Lynn Betts 1 | Dec 18, 2017
Half a ton per acre per year soil loss, considered good soil conservation by many, is far too much soil loss for Gail Fuller. A national conservation award winner, Fuller is focused on regenerating soil. He tries to farm in nature’s image, he says, because Mother Nature always wins. No tillage, 11 to 13 different cash crops in rotation, and 60 to 70 species of cover crops give this eastern Kansas farmer a shot at mimicking nature, but he doesn’t stop there. He sees cash crops planted into dormant perennial pastures as the way forward in a water-short future. And he’s still experimenting on small plots, but also looking to scale up to plant cash crops into those pastures.
Every decision Gail Fuller makes on his Kansas farmland is made with the soil in mind—and that shows in his soil. The 2013 American Soybean Association Conservation Legacy Award national winner has upped his game in the past few years to regenerate soil at a faster pace, and is now looking forward to marketing more nutrient-dense beef and lamb, grown on healthy soils, directly to consumers. He and his wife Lynnette have established G & L Whole Food to market beef directly. They are also looking to direct-market wheat flour and corn meal soon. The philosophy at Fuller Farms is “healthy soil, healthy food, healthy living.”
He’s focused more than ever on “growing” healthy soils so he can produce nutrient-rich food. “I used to think the minerals had been mined out of our soil through decades of removal,” Fuller says. “Now, I know the minerals are there, but the nutrients aren’t getting to the plant with conventional farming systems because tillage destroys the life in the soil that allows that to happen.”
Increased soil OM and water infiltration
Fuller “grew” his healthy soils by quickly moving from a dozen or more species of cover crops to 60 and 70 species in a cover crop mix. “The more species the better,” Fuller says, “that’s nature’s way.” As he continues to farm in nature’s image, his soil quality reflects the ongoing changes. The organic matter level for soils on his worst farm is 4%, his best land averages 7%, and at one plot he measured soil organic matter at 10.8%.
“I don’t have a historical base for water infiltration rates on my cropland, but I would guess it was a half-inch of water infiltration per hour back in the 1990’s before I no-tilled everything,” he says. When the NRCS ran a series of water infiltration rate tests two years ago, there was a dramatic change. “On my worst soil, the tests showed infiltration at 6.5 inches per hour,” Fuller says. “That says to me we don’t have a runoff problem on much of the land being farmed conventionally, we have an infiltration problem.”
Plant row crops into perennial pasture
Fuller says you can grow soil by using no-till, crop rotations and diverse cover crops, but you can grow it much faster if you integrate livestock. Despite the success he’s had with diverse annual cover crops and no-till, Fuller says they’re only tools that pave the way towards farming even more closely in nature’s image. “Annuals are great to jump start your system, and they probably grow soil faster than perennials, but if you want to talk about fixing the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the mineral cycle, and energy flow, you can’t do it with annuals in my opinion,” Fuller says.
He’s now in the process of seeding cropland to bromegrass, orchardgrass and four or five other cool season grasses, along with legumes; and seeding other pastures with warm season prairie mixes. “We have to have those perennials in the system somewhere,” Fuller says. “We’ve got a lot more to learn, but I’m convinced seeding annual cash crops and annual cover crops into dormant perennial pastures is the way of the future, especially in states facing water shortages.”
Plants 11 months out of the year
Fuller has grown his soil by growing 11 to 13 cash crops—corn, grain sorghum, triticale, winter barley, soybeans, winter wheat, sunflowers, field peas, winter oats and more—planting 11 months out of the year on about 900 acres of land near Emporia in Eastern Kansas. He’s been 100 percent no-till since 1995, and was full bore into cover crops in 2004.
The cash crop diversity is a planned thing. “We’ve got to get away from monocultures, into a polyculture with diversity above and below the ground,” Fuller says. That thought is central in the cover crop and companion crop mixtures Fuller uses on his land. While many farmers would think they’re diverse with a 3, 5, or 10-way mix, Fuller uses as many as 60 to 70 different species in his mixes. “We use plants from the brassica’s, like radishes and turnips; warm season grass like sudan and millet; and cool season or legumes that include the clovers, alfalfa, and others,” Fuller says.
Instead of trying to figure out the best way to terminate a cover crop or pasture, Fuller is looking for ways to knock it back for a few days to allow the cash crop to compete as a companion crop. The experimenting he did with companion crops on small test plots with every cash crop he grows will help guide him in pasture seeding and crop combinations.
Farming is all about carbon
Fuller grew up thinking he was a good steward of the land, but says he’s come to realize his past methods for soil conservation weren’t as good as he thought they were. He needed a mindset change.
“In 2002, I’d been no-tilling all my cropland for more than five years, but I realized at that point that no-till wasn’t enough,” Fuller says. “You could still get half a ton of soil loss per acre per year and that’s too much. We don’t lose soil now, we regenerate it. I say we don’t build soil, we grow soil.”
Such growth is accomplished much more quickly than he thought it could be done with diverse rotations and cover crop mixtures that number in the 60s and 70s. He used to think it would take 5 to 6 years to see a difference, but he’s finding he can make a noticeable difference in as little as two years using cocktail mixes and by growing plants year-round.
“Everything we do now is about carbon. We know you can put carbon back into the soil and pad your pocketbook at the same time,” he says. All that diversity has enabled Fuller to eliminate insecticides and fungicides in recent years, and cut both herbicide and fertilizer use by 75 percent.
Visiting with Gail Fuller, it’s clear that he’s still growing his conservation legacy.
Monoculture cropping with corn and soybeans doesn’t fit nature’s image, Gail Fuller says, so he’s been moving away from that for years, using cover crops and crop rotations. As he’s made more use of both cover crops and rotations, he’s learned which combinations resulted in highest cash crop yields. “For seven consecutive years, I found corn planted in late May after an oat and pea crop was the best corn I could produce. It would average from 140 to 199 bushels an acre, well above county averages,” he says. “That was despite cutting fertilizers by 30 to 50%. The same was true for soybeans.” Yet, he won’t recommend that to other farmers. “It has worked for me, but that’s on my soils in my weather conditions. I wouldn’t prescribe it for other farmers,” he says.
As he moves to incorporating cash crops into perennial pastures, he’s still experimenting. “I haven’t planted any cash crops to scale yet. I’m trying smaller plots of soybeans, sunflowers, milo, mung beans and cereal rye,” he says. “The milo looked pretty good this year so I may plant a larger field to milo, and I might try barley for grain on a larger pasture,” he says.
He will probably try corn as well, but says it’s an expensive crop to play with. “Really, with low grain prices my bottom line is better grazing cover crops and pastures than growing corn,” he says. “I can even do some custom grazing for a profit that’s just as good as growing corn, wheat, or soybeans. Right now, I make more money grazing.”