Mindset, patience and thirst for knowledge drive soil health experts | Cultures
Experience is a great teacher, and Gail Fuller and Nicole Masters say soil health involves ongoing training and evaluation.
Fuller is a diverse cattle rancher who raises several crops in Severy, Kansas, and he also takes advantage of the winter to learn from others.
Fuller has always had an eye on soil health. His early work began with the fight against erosion. He had not yet learned the microbiology of soil health, the carbon cycle or the water cycle. “It was literally about holding the ground in place.”
In the mid-1990s, he became involved in no-till agriculture. There was trial and error and he recognized that it didn’t completely stop soil erosion.
“In the late 1990s, I realized that no-till was just a tool, but not the answer as I thought,” Fuller said. “My management has always played a huge role in the well-being of my farm.”
He remembers being told that no-till was the ultimate tool to use and that earthworms would return in abundance within three years.
“I had a picture of the rain gently falling on my farm forever. It just didn’t happen,” Fuller said. “My management at the time was a rotation of corn and soybeans. We had removed the other four or five crops from the rotation.
The corn he grew was chopped for silage, so there was little left over for the next soybean crop. It was removing all the carbon from the system and with no residue on the ground it was still facing erosion issues.
“That’s when I realized that I couldn’t just impose my will on my system. I had to make some changes and bring in other crops to get the carbon up in the system.
Nicole Masters has over 20 years of experience and methods across Australasia, which includes Australia, New Zealand and several islands in the region. As an agro-ecologist, she focuses on agricultural production and shares her knowledge with growers in the United States.
Using elements of chemistry, physics and microbiology, she examines how systems interact and how they function with the water cycle. It also examines growth and yield potential while building soil resilience.
Farmers and ranchers have different goals and concerns when it comes to managing their operations, she said. The first step is to dig a hole and become familiar with the soil as it is the most valuable resource on a farm and ranch.
The masters said that the farmer can then appreciate and value the soil because that is the difference between profitability and failure.
” We have the choice. We can continue to be on the treadmill with more and more inputs whose costs are increasing more and more or we can start cycling with nature and restoring all the cycles,” she said.
Fuller realized he couldn’t conquer nature. When he first introduced cover crops in the late 1990s, he struggled. He first planted radishes or turnips and although they helped attract earthworms and reduced compaction, he knew more work was needed as he was still facing erosion issues.
In 2002, he reintroduced wheat into his rotation, which on an eastern Kansas farm can be problematic because conditions, including high humidity, make the crop susceptible to disease.
“The first year of growing wheat again in the rotation with corn and soybeans, everything clicked,” Fuller said. “Maize and bean yields have increased and erosion has decreased.”
It also came at a time when he began to realize that in addition to earthworms, there were other living organisms in the soil. The carbon cycle, water and minerals and the interaction began to be highlighted.
Growers should consider whether they have issues with compaction, surface crusting and other issues, Masters said. Structure is built through microbiology, but microbiology doesn’t come in a bag. Instead, structure comes from supporting the microbiology and having a system that works.
Rainwater must seep into the ground and support root growth and, in some areas, continue to filter underground aquifers, she said.
Producers in many agricultural regions face both drought and flash floods and sometimes in the same year. The masters said that is why it is important that the water is absorbed by the ground.
In the early 2000s, Fuller began to see the results he wanted. He went ahead to learn more about soil microbiology and the carbon cycle.
Fuller realized that he could reduce the use of inputs and chemicals not only to improve his bottom line, but also to improve the environment on his farm, his neighbors and the community as a whole. Water quality has also improved with fewer toxins, he said.
Like humans who are sick, soil microbiology can get sick, Masters said.
Much of plant health, performance and yield depends on everything working properly, she said, and if that’s the case, the grower doesn’t necessarily need to go out and get a insecticide or fungicide.
“We can restore health, resilience and profitability. It’s incredibly exciting and that’s why we’re seeing so much more interest,” she said.
There’s an initial fit curve, and Fuller knows educating homeowners on the importance of cover crops is a challenge, he said. He remembers the risk of losing ground because the research was not as widely known or accepted as it is today.
“It was difficult to educate them because I didn’t have a lot of good resources and I didn’t have the ability myself to be a good communicator with my landowners, my banker or my team,” Fuller said.
There needs to be more emphasis on the “why” and the mental side to give farmers more time to digest the information and communicate it to their whole team, he said, so that they are convinced that this will succeed.
What growers can do is look down from the top when discussing topics like regenerative agriculture, Masters said. “Practices are guided by your philosophy and beliefs.”
About half of his teaching to producers focuses on human behavior, organizational learning and systems thinking.
“It’s not so much about the practices as it’s about how we implement the practices,” Masters said.
Cover crops could end up working against a grower if they don’t have the philosophy of working with nature. Working with nature can improve the environment for pollinating insects. This is why it emphasizes the resilience and long-term health of soils.
Feeding microbiology pays off, she said. Before setting up a practice, the producer must answer questions about the why and how of what he wants to accomplish.
Information for this story came from the Soil Solutions Podcast with Jessica Gnad, Executive Director of Great Plains Generation and Soil Health Content Consultant for High Plains Journal. Visit soilhealthu.net/podcasts to listen to the podcasts. Sign up to receive the monthly Soil Health HPJ Direct newsletter and Soil Solutions podcast notifications by visiting hpj.com/signup and checking out Soil Health.