By Doug Rich
Gail Fuller pulled the poly tank to the next paddock, plugged in the water line, opened the gate on the electric fence and turned the cows in on fresh grass. This scene is repeated thousands of times every day on farms across the country. On this warm spring day when the grass is growing fast, Fuller will repeat it again at 3 p.m. and one hour before dark.
What makes this scene different is the fact that Fuller is a no-till farmer and the cowherd is just another crop he rotates over his acreage. The grass these cows are grazing will go back to a cash crop, and another field will be planted to warm- or cool-season grass for grazing.
“Livestock is an absolute no-brainer,” Fuller said. “If you can find a way to use it the system works more efficiently.”
Fuller is well known as a dedicated no-till farmer. He has been 100 percent no-till on his eastern Kansas farm since 1995. In February he was a speaker at the No-Till Oklahoma Conference, and in March he received the National Conservation Legacy Award from the American Soybean Association for his dedication to improving soil health on his farm.
Usually, 100 percent no-till equals zero percent livestock, and Fuller used that equation until 2004 when he started experimenting with cover crops and cattle. Fuller traded a rancher two loads of corn for nine cull cows, and he was back in the cattle business.
“We are going into a perennial-based rotation and we’ll use more and more perennials,” Fuller said.
The rotation will be four to five years of cool-season perennials that will be grazed, followed by seven to eight years in a cash grain crop, then back to a warm-season perennial for five to six years, and follow this with another cash grain crop. Fuller is just coming out of the cool-season perennial part of this rotation on one 14-acre field this year. He used rye grass, orchard grass, timothy, alfalfa, red clover, and birdsfoot trefoil for his cool-season perennials on this field.
Last spring and summer he sowed another field to cool-season perennials using meadow brome, perennial ryes, chicory, sainfoin, and milk vetch.
“We need to find ways to get more perennials into our operations,” Fuller said. “We need that deep root system doing things that we just can’t do with annuals.”
Fuller mob grazes his cattle as much as possible. Because of drought the last two years he said he mob grazed more than he wanted, mob grazing right through calving the last two years.
“With mob grazing we get so much better placement and spread of the manure and urine and better utilization of the forages,” Fuller said.
There is 100 percent trample of the paddock and very few cow trails. Compaction is not really a concern. Fuller said compaction is caused by time not pounds.
“When we do get some damage it is in a small area,” Fuller said. “Where the cows were during the last two storms is a mess. But the next paddock we moved to showed 50 percent improvement within two hours of the rain stopping. It is incredible how fast the soil recovers.”
There are 40 acres north of his house where they have wintered cattle for 30 to 40 years. Before he switched to no-till he would pull the cattle off in the spring, work the ground as much as needed to prepare for planting, and then plant soybeans. It had been treated as poorly as it could be treated and there were huge erosion problems.
In 1995 when he went no-till he started pulling the cattle off the field sooner but there were still big issues. In 2004 he began experimenting with cover crops and cattle on this 40 acres.
“Today we have filled in nearly every ditch,” Fuller said. “We fixed it with cows, roots, and no tillage. It healed itself.”
This spring that area looks as bad as it ever has because of the winter storms and rain this spring. Fuller said they have received 12 inches of rain this spring already. He did not see that much rain last year until September. Instead of a spring-planted crop on this area he will come in with a summer-planted crop and the cows back to fix it. A key to any rotation system is being flexible.
Fuller is very interested in what goes underneath the grass and crops in the root zone. Worm and microbe activity is vital for a health soil profile and livestock have a role to play here. There is something about the trampling of the ground by the cattle that activates the microbes. Fuller said even the cow biting and pulling on the plants stimulates microbe activity. Plus there are microbes in the cow’s saliva and manure that are added to the soil. Any contact with the ground affects what is going on underneath the ground, whether that is tillage or trampling by cattle.
“We would like to graze everything but we don’t have water on every field yet,” Fuller said. “We would like to get to place were we can have livestock on every field every one to two years.”
Cows have worked out so well that Fuller is expanding his livestock operation with the addition of lambs, pigs, and chickens. His girlfriend, Lynnette, bought their first lambs last fall. Since then she added the chickens and pigs. The lambs and the layer chickens will be integrated into the system this spring and summer.
The 10 Katahdin hair sheep they bought last fall were just about done lambing by the first week in May. Fuller said the sheep need less water, less forage, don’t need to be sheared or wormed and produce a 150 percent lamb crop.
His plan is to graze them with the beef animals eventually.
“I understand the introduction can be a bit rough and we saw that last fall when they were across the fence from each other,” Fuller said. “You don’t have to expand your acres because the sheep eat what the cows don’t and the cows give protection to the sheep.”
When Fuller is out making presentations about his no-till farm and his use of livestock there is some push back from older, more established no-till farmers. Feedback is positive from younger producers with fewer acres. Fuller said they see it as an opportunity to diversify without adding acres and provide some benefit to their soil.
Fuller said no-till is not the whole answer, just the next step.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.