Precision Ag & Conservation: A Natural Alliance

Conservationists and the ag industry are not often seen as likely partners, but as precision agriculture technologies become more robust, so do the relationships between the two sectors.

Food production will have to double by 2050, and conservationists are taking note. Agriculture makes significant impacts on our ecosystems, and with a limited amount of water and land sustainable intensification must be the answer. While higher yields might result in less land being converted for cropping, it is important that water and soil issues are taken into account as well. By utilizing the science and technology inherent in precision ag technologies, producers can get higher yields while minimizing their impact on the earth.

Conservationists are interested in taking a holistic approach to agriculture that results in improved soil health and water quality, lower water consumption, strategic land use and healthy biodiversity. Conservationists are largely supportive of precision ag technologies because they result in less environmental pollution, improved water quality and reduced nutrient runoff. Precision agriculture working in tandem with conservation practices can result in a more sustainable agriculture system and improved yields for the producer.

Across the nation, farmers are employing practices that result in higher yields while lessening environmental impacts. Surveys show that up to three-quarters of American farmers are using some kind of precision technology, while seeing gains in productivity and environmental benefits. By utilizing tools such as the Field to Market Calculator, the 4R nutrient stewardship concept and precision conservation, producers are ensuring that nutrients remain on their land and out of our waterways.

Field To Market Calculator

The Field to Market Calculator estimates field level performance on land use, conservation, water quality, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon and irrigation water use. This free tool uses complex datasets and methodologies to help the producer make educated decisions about the sustainability and overall performance of his farm. “It’s (the Field to Market Calculator) allowing farmers to benchmark their own performance in a way that doesn’t dictate any specific practices or tell a farmer they’re good or bad. Rather, it takes a holistic approach and looks at a suite of practices, and recognizes that there’s not a one size fits all approach to conservation,” said Rod Snyder, president of Field to Market.

In April, the Field to Market Calculator incorporated the Water Quality Index, thanks to the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Producers are asked questions about their current management practices. In order to receive a better score respondents are encouraged to implement conservation practices, nutrient management, tillage management, pest management, irrigation and field physical sensitivity. Snyder says the next thing Field to Market will roll out is a biodiversity calculator, but the timeline has not been finalized.

Field to Market member-organizations and growers has supported projects totaling 400 growers in eight states, which represents almost 130,000 acres. Conservation organizations and corporations are partnering with Field to Market to help producers utilize the calculator and get practices on the ground. Projects have included working with cotton growers in Louisiana and Texas, wheat growers in Oklahoma and corn and soybean growers in Iowa and Michigan.

4R Nutrient Stewardship

Rather than a tool like the Field to Market Calculator, 4R nutrient stewardship provides a framework for producers to reach improved sustainability and enhanced environmental protection alongside increased profitability and increased production.

The 4R’s of nutrient stewardship are:

  • Right fertilizer source.
  • Right rate of application.
  • Right time of application.
  • Right place of application.

These are concepts that growers have been familiar with for years, but the 4R approach takes it beyond a simple question of how much fertilizer to apply. “Too often we tend to think of nutrient management as only an issue of rate, how much manure or fertilizer to apply to optimize crop production and still protect water quality,” said Eric Hurly, nutrient management specialist for the Iowa NRCS. “The 4Rs is a framework to help us think about the other management decisions which influence both crop production and water quality.”

In order to utilize the 4R approach, producers implement best management practices in areas that are best suited to their soil, crop and climate conditions. Some best management practices include windbreaks, buffer strips, cover crops and strip or conservation tillage.

“Precision ag technologies bring a new level of management to the rate piece,” said Hurley. “Producers can look at needs over an entire field and apply a variable rate for specific needs. It used to be that we applied a rate based on a soil test for an entire field.”

Precision Conservation

A new approach to nutrient management is precision conservation. This approach focuses on which specific farms should be implementing practices for the greatest impact on ecosystems rather than trying to implement specific practices on several farms. As opposed to placing the responsibility on the farmer to adopt conservation practices, precision conservation puts the responsibility on agricultural experts to find the farms that are losing the most nutrients. In these cases, funding also comes from government agencies and NGOs in order to get practices on the ground in key areas.

Local conservation organizations have the ability to use LIDAR systems to map the topography and soil type of an area. They utilize this data to find slight dips in landscapes, which is where most nutrient runoff occurs. Once they know the area that needs targeted practices, they approach the producer and help him figure out what suite of practices will work best in that hotspot.

Precision conservation can increase nutrient use efficiencies, reduce gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration and reduce soil erosion. It is one of the most effective methods of maintaining or increasing yields while protecting ecosystems and improving water quality.

Reducing and managing nutrients is an important step towards improving the sustainability of an operation, but heavy rains and extreme weather events are making nutrient runoff occur more than ever. Precision conservation focuses on no-till farming, cover crops and buffers that will slow water flow in key areas.

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