The Role Of Precision Ag In Sustainable Crop Production

Sustainable crop production refers to the implementation of management practices that minimizes the use of resources while maximizing social, environmental and economic well-being. It promotes management choices that contribute to long-term farming productivity in lieu of short-term benefits. Precision agriculture is ideally suited to play a role in sustainable crop production.

Before discussing this role, it is important to identify and quantify sustainable crop production practices. The identification and quantification of sustainable practices was formerly addressed by industry a few years ago with the creation of the Field to Market, Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.

As published on its Website (fieldtomarket.org), the Field to Market, Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture joins producers, agribusinesses, food companies and conservation organizations in seeking to create sustainable outcomes for agriculture. The group provides collaborative leadership that is engaged in industrywide dialogue, grounded in science, open to the full range of technology choices and committed to creating opportunities across the agricultural supply chain for continuous improvements in productivity, environmental quality and human well-being. Field to Market is organized and facilitated by the Keystone Center, a non-profit dedicated to developing collaborative solutions to societal issues. The capstone of the Field to Market is the Fieldprint Calculator.

Calculating A Difference

The Field to Market Fieldprint Calculator is an innovative, online application that uses the concept of a fieldprint to assess the resource efficiency of crop production practices. A fieldprint is the ratio of an input to an output. The less input required to realize the same output, the smaller the ratio or fieldprint. A fieldprint is easier to understand with an example. Corn yield is the ratio of grain production to land area; it can have units of bushels per acre. The inverse of yield is the fieldprint of land area per grain production or acres per bushel. The less acreage required to produce the same bushels of corn means a smaller fieldprint and a greater efficiency of the land resource. Greater resource efficiencies are synonymous with improved sustainability.

The first version of the Fieldprint Calculator had a limited number of crops and resource metrics and could only assess a representative field. The most recent Version, 2.0 was expanded to five crops (corn, soybean, wheat, cotton and rice) and six resource metrics (land use, soil conservation, soil carbon, irrigation water use, energy use and greenhouse gas emissions). It provides a full set of GIS tools, including a geospatial map and the ability to draw a boundary around a specific field. The geographic coordinates of each bounded field are used to identify the local climate zone, soil properties and commodity-specific management practices. An application programming interface maintained by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service accepts Calculator field-specific entries as input into government models and returns estimates of soil water and wind erosions, soil carbon, and other resource metrics. The Calculator is complete with a graphical spidergram depicting resource fieldprints, slider bars which show a grower’s resource efficiency relative to community, county, state and national averages and an economic analysis tool. Within each metric, a grower can conduct what if; sustainability scenarios by replacing original entries with new choices and comparing the changes to the resource metrics.

The Opportunity For Precision

Precision ag offers a grower a wide array of information technology programs. Nearly all these programs were developed for field-level decisionmaking. Version 2.0’s field-specific design for the Field to Market Fieldprint Calculator makes for a natural fit with precision agriculture recordkeeping programs; that is, management practices and resource allocations collected with a recordkeeping program can be reformatted as input into the Fieldprint Calculator. Since the set-up page in the Calculator is itself a form of recordkeeping, grower entries in the Calculator and their subsequent resource metrics can, through the appropriate interface, be passed back to precision ag programs. This give-and-take between precision ag programs and the Fieldprint Calculator could give growers multiple avenues for evaluating the impact of their practices on sustainability. Furthermore, this educational experience would be based on their own fields and management decisions.

Besides the recordkeeping aspect of the Field to Market Fieldprint Calculator, there are also the underlying algorithms for assessing the resource efficiencies. These algorithms are based on scientifically-recognized principles and peer-reviewed research. This stringent adherence to objectivity ensures that the resource assessments provided to growers are grounded on the best available knowledge of how management practices impact the sustainability of a farming operation. It is important to note that these algorithms are dynamic. As new knowledge is generated about the relation between a management choice and sustainability, the algorithms will be updated accordingly.

The Field to Market, Keystone Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, with its Fieldprint Calculator, addresses the important issue of future sustainability of crop production. As global resources become more limited and degraded in the upcoming years, sustainability will become a necessity. Precision ag has the unique opportunity to provide collaborative tools to support what will likely be a global sustainability initiative in the future.

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