Gail Fuller has taken no-till to the next level. “I truly believe that I can grow a higher nutritional value grain with little or no inputs, protecting the environment and selling a higher-quality product in the end,” he says.
That’s a tall order, but Fuller is well on his way on his 100% no-till farm near Emporia, Kan. With more than a dozen cash crops in his rotation this year, along with corn and soybeans, Fuller believes he’s found the missing link in no-till.
“Cover and companion crops protect the soil from erosion and are fabulous at nutrient cycling, feeding microbes and improving water infiltration. (Cover crops are planted after the cash crop is harvested, to help improve the water and mineral cycle. Companion plants are planted with your cash crop.)”
After more than a decade of experiments, Fuller takes full economic advantage of cover crops to reduce pesticide and herbicide use and provide livestock forage, says Jill Clapperton, principal scientist for Rhizoterra in Lolo, Mont. She has collaborated with Fuller for four years on farm-scale research projects.
“He understands plants grow together differently than they did by themselves,” she says.
“He’s asking, ‘How can I make my system work better?’”
How much better? “We’re not only stopping the loss of the soil, but we’re replacing it rapidly,” Fuller says. “The belief used to be that it takes somewhere around 1,000 years to build an inch of topsoil. We think we can do that in a few decades.”
Water infiltration has greatly improved, so much that Fuller no longer needs terraces. And, he’s seen significant enhancements in nutrient cycling.
“The more intense our rotations and our cover crops, the faster this cycle runs,” Fuller says. “We’re seeing instances now where you can go from conventional-till to almost no inputs in less than two years.”
While he hasn’t been able to get such swift results, he cut fertility costs 25% last year and plans to cut costs as much as 40% in some fields this year. He points to one cornfield planted with 50 lbs./acre N. Just two years ago, that would have required 150-175 lbs./acre, he says.
He’s also noticed how well the soil cycles P and lime. Instead of applying lime every three to four years, tests still haven’t called for it in almost 15 years.
Reduced labor and equipment needs have enabled Fuller to farm 2,000 acres alone with minimal seasonal help. Fuel and chemical savings have followed suit.
“We’re making one less pass per acre than we were two years ago and in some instances, two fewer passes,” he says. “Within the next three to four years, my goal is to cut our total inputs – fertilizer, insecticides and herbicides – by 75-95%.” Such a cut is well within reach due to cover and companion crops, he says.
While the results might speak for themselves, coffee shop talk tells a different story.
“Most farmers think I’m an idiot,” he says. “I think they’re scared of the unknown. They have the mindset of ‘It won’t work.’
“We’ve lost 40% of our topsoil in just over 100 years; almost all due to poor farming practices and bad management,” Fuller says. “If you’re not willing to change now, then your grandchildren are going to have to find a way to farm a rock.”
Ray Archuleta, NRCS conservation agronomist in Greensboro, S.C., says Fuller represents an alarmingly small percentage of farmers who’ve undertaken the challenge keep soil undisturbed. “Gail realizes the soil is an ecosystem, and disturbing it is the most destructive thing we can do in modern agriculture,” Archuleta says.
Fuller recognizes that narrow margins have tempted farmers to focus solely on today’s survival. Even for him, it was a big shift.
Unfortunately, there are no experts yet, he says. “While some seed suppliers are starting to carry cover and companion crop mixes, everyone is still learning, including NRCS.” Fuller is helping train employees on the practice as part of the organization’s national soil health campaign, which kicked off in June.
“Soil health is a journey of understanding,” Archuleta says. “Gail shows us how to farm in nature’s image, how to collaborate with it, how to give more than you take.”
As the idea catches on, Fuller expects to see a significant change in agriculture. “I really think that when the dust settles, you’ll find that cover crops are so important that you will plan your cover crops and then you’ll plan your cash crops around those,” Fuller says.
Fuller’s farm is full of production-scale experiments. He’s fine-tuning carbon-to-nitrogen ratios to match the next crop. While biological testing helps him build better mixes, he still plays with diversity to mimic Mother Nature.
But there isn’t much research to help guide farmers. Clapperton and Fuller collaborate on cover and companion crop experiments to address the void left unfilled by traditional research institutions.
Fuller shares his failures, which he admits have far outnumbered his successes. “These are learning opportunities. I look forward every morning to seeing what’s come up today. What’s failed today? It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “I’m going into places where there’s not a book.”
Embracing new practices can be daunting without guarantee of economic gain. While the results haven’t occurred overnight, Gail Fuller, Emporia, Kan., is beginning to see the potential for more profit by significantly cutting inputs.
“The payoff is lower inputs and protecting the most valuable resource we have – soil,” he says. That attention to soil health has helped him maintain steady yields and experience some increases. His profit per acre is also steady to slightly up.
Fuller says hard data is difficult to come by, but he gets calls from farmers across the central plains reporting similar yield increases.
“One producer near Sedgwick, Kan., has yield maps that show a significant yield increase from cover crops he planted two years ago,” he says.
Many farmers have told Fuller there is a visible yield difference in parts of fields where they didn’t plant cover crops.
Even with boosts in yields and profit per acre, Fuller hesitates to declare an overall profit increase, particularly because he experiments so much.
The savings are what really add up. Fuller points to his lowered fertility costs – 25% last year and an additional 40% anticipated in some fields this year. He not only needs to apply far less nitrogen, but his needs for phosphorus and lime are significantly reduced, as well.
“Cover and companions crops essentially grow our own fertilizer,” he says. “We’re starting to be fairly successful.”
In particular, Fuller’s soil tests have shown gains in nutrient value per acre. He points to fields with one or no cover crops banking $50-70/acre of nutrients. In comparison, fields with two or more cover crops show $85-300/acre in stored nutrients. Adding cattle grazing to the cover crops boosts the nutrient values even higher, he says.
Combined with reductions in labor, equipment, chemicals and fuel, these savings give Fuller more financial freedom.
He also has lowered his financial risk by including more crops in his rotation and integrating livestock grazing into his cover- and companion-cropping plan.
“That lowers the risk further because you now have the option of grazing if the crop fails,” he says. “You can still realize some income from it.”