Technology is bringing a new vibe to conservation efforts being offered to farmers. Instead of sweeping acquisitions and mandated legislation, a new data-driven methodology is being used to design efficient and cost-effective programs. This precision conservation approach is allowing projects to be targeted to the right place,  and at the right scale to achieve maximum environmental benefit while minimizing economic impact.   

Every Acre Counts is just such a program being rolled out this year to farmers in 15 South Dakota counties. Partners in the project are the USDA-NRCS South Dakota, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension Service and the state’s Second Century Habitat Fund.

“The primary goal of the project is to improve the profitability, diversity and ecosystem benefits of agriculture by using precision technologies to help producers make informed management decisions for every acre of their operations,” says Anthony Bly, soils field specialist with SDSU Extension. “We want to increase farmers’ return on investment while also making the land, water, and other natural resources more sustainable.”

The project achieves that goal by using software analysis of precision crop records—including yield maps and variable-rate application maps—to identify areas of the field with marginal profitability. A list of alternative conservation practices for those areas is provided, along with an assessment of their impact on the field’s profitability and assistance to enroll in programs that provide financial support.

South Dakota farmer Brandon Hope (left) works with South Dakota Pheasants Forever biologist Eric Magedanz for advice on conservation programs and practices.

That all sounded good to Volga, SD, farmer Brandon Hope, who was one of the first producers to sign up for the program. Thanks to a grant from Pheasants Forever, a team of natural resources and precision agriculture students at SDSU analyzed one of Hope’s fields to determine the impact of the Every Acre Counts program. “This field has a large slough through the middle, with some marginal areas bordering it, that we’ve known had breakeven potential at best as cropland,” says Hope.

“The students used my own production records to show profitability would be improved if we enrolled those acres in one or more conservation programs. We were simply spending more for inputs on those marginal acres than was being returned in yield, so why not implement conservation practices that do provide a positive return while helping the environment and improving the soil,” adds Hope.

Benefits to all. The profitability map and profit analysis for the 2016 corn crop, on the field  Hope entered into the Every Acre Counts program, is shown below. Roughly 10% of the 106.8 acres lost $100 per acre or more. Removing those acres from production (indicated by the black lines around the slough) would have reduced input costs for the field by $10,600 and turned a 179.9 bushel per acre average yield into a field average of 187.3 bushels. This would have resulted in a net profit for the field of $3,638 compared to the loss of $1,315 that actually occurred.

“This doesn’t count what we could have received in conservation program payments, which typically run about $200 per acre in our area,” says Hope. “This analysis has opened my eyes to the fact that conservation programs and establishing habitat aren’t the end all to farming—the two can coexist.”

Bly says the initial goal of Every Acre Counts is to enroll 40 producers whose farms will demonstrate new ways to manage low producing acres while increasing farm profitability. “We hope their experience will spread to the millions of acres of cropland in South Dakota that are marginalized by wet conditions, saline or sodic soils or excessive erosion.”

Jeremy Wilson has quantified the return on investment for every acre of his farm.

Farmers joining the program will receive a one-time incentive payment of $150 per acre as well as assistance in obtaining additional funding from other sources. There are no easements, but a five-year commitment is expected. The producer decides how much land to enroll, controls hunting access, and are free to graze and harvest forage.

“The program is focused on making farmers more sustainable with a side benefit to wildlife, which is so important to South Dakota,” says Matt Morlock, South Dakota State Coordinator for Pheasants Forever. “It’s a win/win situation for everyone that’s involved.”

Sub-acre economics. The South Dakota program uses AgSolver’s Profit Zone Manager software, from EFC Systems, to analyze a field’s financial performance at a high resolution. At least four years of precision ag data are preferred to make an accurate profit analysis.

“That much historical data is best, but we can get started with much less,”  says Jeremy Wilson, senior vice president for field data solutions with EFC Systems. “Aerial imagery from past crop years can be used for yield data if yield maps are unavailable.

Wilson, who works with growers through service providers across the country, says most already know where their marginal acres are, but typically don’t realize the financial drain they’re causing. He uses his own farm near Olney, Ill., as an example.

“On one field, we analyzed 14 years of data to determine the return on investment of every acre. There were three small areas that cost us nearly $100 per acre on average each year. I would need $7 corn or 40 bushels more yield to make those areas profitable, and neither of those things is likely, so we got one area in the CRP filter strip program at $144 per acre and are trying to get the others enrolled as well,” he says.

Other efforts. The Chesapeake Conservancy has pioneered using precision technology to achieve a wide range of  conservation-oriented goals in the Chesapeake Bay’s massive 64,000-square-mile watershed. “Rather than just creating vast parklands—as has been done in the past—our approach uses high-resolution data sets to pinpoint exactly where a cover crop, grass filter strip, retention pond or buffer strip will do the most good in the landscape,” says Jeffrey Allenby, the conservancy’s director of  conservation technology.

Allenby adds that the Chesapeake Conservancy is even trying to take the pinpoint approach one step further. “We want funding programs to reward farmers not for the acres they enroll but for the pounds of nitrogen or tons of soil erosion that they prevent. The technology to do this wasn’t available just three to five years ago.”

That technology features a high-resolution data set that generates a land cover map which breaks the watershed into 260 billion pixels, each about the size of a sidewalk square. “Combined with radar-generated elevation data, this allows us to focus conservation projects on individual sources of pollution,” adds Allenby.

Precision conservation is also a topic in the Cornbelt. A farmer-led effort is leveraging technology to address natural resource concerns on a field-by-field basis by identifying practices that treat environmental issues in a financially viable way. The Precision Conservation Management program (PCM) is currently offered to growers in selected Illinois and Kentucky counties.

“PCM is a farm management service that helps farmers identify the most feasible conservation practices for their farm on a field-by-field basis,” says Laura Gentry, director of Water Quality Research for the Illinois Corn Growers Association, which is one of the lead sponsors of the effort.

PCM specialists work closely with farmers to gather and manage agronomic records and connect them with technical support and local incentive opportunities. “We work with growers to identify conservation needs and gather agronomic data that allows them to compare their practices to other participants anonymously,” says lead specialist Clay Bess.

“PCM is helping farmers here adopt more conservation-minded production practices,” says Philo, Ill., farmer Dirk Rice. “There’s always a risk in trying something new, but when you can see the aggregated results from a large group of farmers, you feel better about making changes. It gives me some confidence that what I’m doing isn’t hurting my profitability.” 

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