Gail Fuller is an interesting guy. He joked with me that his hippy friends call him a redneck, but these friends must be way, way off the scale. Gail has to be the most hippy redneck in the continental United States!
He farms 1500 acres spread over a distance of 25 miles. Having started off wanting to “farm the whole world”, he has cut back now, and does not use GMOs or glyphosate (ask him about Don Huber). He has been no-tilling for a couple of decades, and in the late ’90s he started with cover crops. After a few years he gave up on that idea, but very quickly saw soil erosion increase massively.
After a harrowing experience with crop insurance a few years back (Google it if you want), he’s trying to wean himself off state aid, and hence grows a very wide rotation including the usual maize & soybeans, but also wheat, barley (winter and spring), triticale and sorghum. In addition to this, most fields will have a cover crop every year, some of which Gail describes as “extreme’. These blends contain up to 50 (fifty) species. The system has increased organic matter levels from ~2% to ~5% in 15 years.
When I was looking around, I thought we were either in a field of sweetcorn, or one that had been re-drilled. Every other maize plant I had seen in Kansas was about 2-3 feet tall, yet these were ankle height. But it was no mistake, Gail starts maize planting on June 1st, at least a month after his neighbours (and neighbouring states from what I have seen). He is convinced his yields are better, both in volume and $s. He would not rise to the bait and tell me that the rest of the country’s farmers were doing it wrong; very disappointing.Artificial nitrogen use is very low, with some crops not being given any at all, or a token amount such as 30kg/ha. Insecticide is a dirty word, whether for crops or animals.
Speaking of which, the farm has cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens – both for eggs and meat. The cattle are a mix of Angus & Simmental genetics primarily, but he is now a fan of British White, and the herd will be converted to that in time. All of the animals are marketed direct to the public, as well as going into Gail’s freezer; “we don’t buy very much food”.
The cattle are mob grazed, normally with daily moves. One of the reasons Gail is moving away from Angus genetics is that in the fiercely hot Kansas summers black animals can have real (and lethal) problems staying cool. This can also be a bit of a problem for the meat chickens, who are moved onto a new patch of grass every day in a Chicken Tractor.
The laying hens roam freely with the mob grazed cattle, and eat maggots from the dung, helping to keep fly numbers down. It turns out chickens are like bees, where the rule of thumb when moving hives is “move it 2 meters or 2 miles”. Gail recently moved the chicken house about 150m, but all the hens went back to try and roost in the old location, half of whom were promptly eaten by a coyote that night. Oops. Are chickens stupider than sheep?
After a lunch spent discussing selling Holstein bulls as certified Angus (perfectly possible 20 years ago), fraudulent crop insurance claims (not his), and why he is called Gail (you’ll have to ask him yourself), I drove a short way to see another farmer, Keith Thompson.
He farms around 3000 acres, 400 of which is un-cropped, but can mostly be used for grazing or making forage. Keith’s son started with 4 cows 10 years ago, and now has 110 breeding animals, mostly Brahman crosses of some description. Here too they are mob grazing, and have just put a couple of fields into a rotation of 3 years grazing followed by 3 years cropping, having seen similar on a trip to Argentina.
Not too many years ago the farm was growing a wide variety of crops, normally about 6 per year, but now because of crop insurance peculiarities (a common theme is emerging), they mainly grow only maize and soybeans. This is a very low productivity area, and the county average for maize is less than 5t/ha, although Keith’s is 10% higher. I didn’t realise there were areas of the US like this – we can grow bigger crops of grain maize in the UK even with our too-cool climate. The problem here is extreme heat, particularly when it does not go below 30C at night.
One thing that came up again was the use of pre-emergence herbicides before drilling the crop; standard practice here. I think this really could be a boon for us, especially when planting OSR at harvest, when it can be tricky to get the timing right. The pre-em could be sprayed when convenient, even in the dry, and then the crop drilled when conditions are suitable. It does of course require a very low disturbance drill, and probably needs the UK addiction to rolling to be broken as well.
In the last three days I have visited three farms with three different policies when it comes to cover crops and spring planting:
- Dave Brandt does not want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will dry out
- Paul Jasa does not want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will not dry out
- Keith Thompson does want living covers in the spring, so that the soil will dry out
Just goes to show that local conditions are paramount, both with soil and climate. For what it’s worth, I think the UK fits into the first category.