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Farm the best and conserve the rest

Habitat strip on a farm
Article contributed by Marty Moses, Wisconsin State Coordinator for Pheasants Forever

Precision ag and conservation

Technology is bringing a new vibe to conservation efforts offered to farmers. Instead of sweeping mandates, rules, and regulations, a new data-driven method is being used to design efficient and cost-effective agricultural sustainability solutions. This precision ag and conservation approach is allowing projects to be targeted to the right place and at the right scale. In turn, farmers can achieve maximum economic and environmental impact.

Using precision ag and conservation technology in the field
Conservation technician bringing data to the farm field. Often, this can be live-streamed as it is collected from the farm machinery.

A partnership for sustainability

In Wisconsin, Pheasants Forever is leading this charge and has recently partnered with Clean Lakes Alliance to advance this approach locally. Pheasants Forever is a national nonprofit conservation organization focused on enhancing wildlife habitat, environmental quality, and working lands sustainability. While our members are pheasant hunting enthusiasts, our more than 150 employees are biologists and conservation specialists. Our team provides customized assistance to farmers and landowners to find solutions to environmental issues.

Beans and a habitat strip
Pollinator habitat planted on marginally productive field corner.

Wisconsin farmers want to do right for their community, their local environment, and themselves. But water quality, as it relates to agricultural runoff such as nitrate and phosphorus, is a serious issue in Wisconsin. Not only do these nutrients affect drinking water and public health, but they impact many natural resources in Wisconsin and farther downstream to the Gulf of Mexico. These nutrients can cause algal blooms leading to reduced oxygen, harming plant and animal life. They can also ruin the beauty and enjoyment of our lakes and streams. Many farmers are looking for ways to avoid or correct these negative impacts.

Tractor after harvest
After corn harvest, native grass remains at the field edge to serve as erosion control, a nutrient trap, and a wildlife habitat along a tree-lined stream.

Balancing the environment and economics

Not only is public health and environmental quality a concern, but many Wisconsin farmers face a dire economic reality. Climatic extremes can influence field conditions, and political turbulence can create unstable market conditions – both of which drive economic threats. While farms struggle to stay economically viable, there could be a motivation to focus solely on crop yield. This can equate to planting and maintaining less fruitful areas of the field, even though areas like wet depressions, floodplains, or shaded tree lines tend to be less productive. Farmers find themselves between a rock and hard place when balancing environmental health and economics.

Buffer edge on a farm - using precision ag and conservation to utilize unproductive field areas.
A native grass filter strip planted on the unproductive area at edge of field.

Putting precision ag and conservation to work

Advanced ag technologies and precision ag data, all collected by equipment on board farm machinery, can offer a solution to this conundrum. But the specialized technical skills needed to manage and interpret the data can be overwhelming. That is where Pheasants Forever steps in with their Precision Ag and Conservation Specialists. These specialists will use a farmer’s own harvest records along with their input expenses. The data will help specialists review budgets, create crop yield and return on investment (ROI) maps, and conduct a whole farm analysis.

Precision ag and conservation technology inside farm equipment
Technology on board farm equipment

Pheasants Forever’s specialists can then help farmers identify areas within their fields that are environmentally sensitive and that lose money in spite of returning a harvest. The specialists can recommend different management options (such as seeding rates, varieties, or nutrient management). They can also suggest conservation practices (such as no-till, cover crops, or conservation rental programs). The suggested adjustments can increase the farmers’ ROI and at the same time address environmental quality concerns. From here the farmer can choose which options work best for them and their unique situation.

Pheasants Forever, Clean Lakes Alliance, the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, the American Society of Agronomy, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service will partner together in support of a Precision Ag and Conservation Specialist. The specialist will serve the Madison area and the greater southern region of Wisconsin for five years beginning in fall of 2020.

Habitat strip on a farm
Pollinator and pheasant habitat planted in field depression. This area will maximize the value of a grassed waterway intended to reduce erosion and clean water runoff from the field.

Working together through changing times

Pheasants Forever has a 35-year history of working side by side with farmers and partners to deliver soil, water, and wildlife habitat conservation solutions. It should come as no surprise, that over this time the tools and strategies to accomplish this work have changed. Our commitment to getting shovels and boots dirty in the field is unwavering. However, the power of 21st century precision ag data technology offers unprecedented opportunities to truly demonstrate how to, “Farm the best and conserve the rest.”

For more information contact Marty Moses, Wisconsin State Coordinator for Pheasants Forever at 608-712-8625 or mmoses@pheasantsforever.org. Also visit Pheasant’s Forever website for a deeper dive into Precision Ag and Conservation.

Read about some other ways in which Clean Lakes Alliance is working with farmers and continuing to innovate with agriculture.

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