Kansas farmer Gail Fuller began experimenting with no-till farming on and off during the 1980s. Early on, Gail’s early experiments with no-till farming did not yield the results he wanted as soil erosion on his farm continued over the next decade.
“I wanted to blame the no-till methods, but it was actually due to mismanagement,” says Gail. He attended the No-Till on the Plains conference in the
late 1990s where he learned about using cover crops, but found he wasn’t fully committed to the idea. After a severe drought in 2000, the first things he eliminated were the cover crops. The drought continued for the next few years while yields slowly declined and erosion worsened. “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.” He learned that by changing the crop rotations more frequently, the soil would become more enriched with carbon and the erosion would improve.
“That’s when it dawned on me that we’d actually been headed the right direction with the cover crops.”
So in 2003-2004, Gail went back into cover cropping. “Only this time, instead of using a monoculture we used mixes,” he says. He started with a few plots and quickly realized the opportunity to start grazing which led to him to the decision to trade some corn for cows. “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,” Gail says.
“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, ” Gail says. Starting out with 9 cows up to 20, then to 100 within 18 months, the herd quickly dropped to 40 due to drought. ” We weren’t ready; we didn’t have enough fencing and water development accomplished yet and made some poor management decisions.”
He started attending more conferences, listening to people like Dave Morell, Gabe Brown, Neil Dennis, Ken Miller, Doug Peterson, Jim Gerrish and Greg Judy discuss mob grazing and talk about holistic practices. He also took an Introduction to Holistic Management 3-day beginning course through Holistic Management Certified Educator Joshua Dukart. He realized that moving his cows every 2 to 4 weeks wasn’t enough so he began moving them at least daily.
“Everything we do now, we think it through holistically, whether it’s the farming side, the cattle side, etc.,”
Eventually chickens, sheep, pigs and turkeys were added to the operation, resulting in healthier soil and more productive plants. “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,” he explains. Gail is now building up his cattle herd at a deliberately slower pace this time. The farm converted to a grass finishing operation and its products have captured the interest of restaurants and consumers. He notes that selling to grocery stores may also be in the future.
“As long as you think and manage holistically it will work—whatever fits your own operation.”
According to Gail, agriculture in recent years has moved too far away from a natural system and people now have to re-learn the things that work. He notes that many students coming out of the university system today don’t understand the best ways to manage land and livestock. Speaking of farming practices of older generations, he adds that “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.”
However, Gail 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,” Gail says. Also, the economics of farming/ranching have gotten to the point where many people in agriculture are searching for ways to stay in business. “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 says.
“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.” He adds, “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.”
“As much as we’ve degraded the planet, what good is being merely sustainable? We need to regenerate.”
“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.
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