Yield-mapping tech can show whether it makes financial sense to continue working underproducing parts of a farm.
Researchers at the University of Guelph – one of Canada’s premier agricultural research institutions – say taking unprofitable parts of a field out of production and turning them into conservation projects can actually improve farm profitability.
However, the key to determining whether a given area is indeed financially draining – and whether or not removing it from production is a smart choice – starts with better utilizing yield-mapping technology. The economic, social, and environmental benefits of small conservation initiatives can be weighed from there.
The authors of a recently published study “Precision conservation meets precision agriculture: a case study for southern Ontario” gathered yield data from 3 farms in Southern Ontario over a 10-year period. The data was converted into profit maps showing which regions of each field had management costs that, as the study says, “exceed the market value of the commodities produced.” This was compared over time to identify areas with consistently low or negative profits.
Overall, the researchers found examples of relatively small areas within each farm that could be taken out of production without impacting the economic revenues for the producer.
Clarence Swanton, a grain farmer, professor in the department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph, and one of the study’s authors, says the results illustrate how precision technology can be very useful in linking environmental improvements to farm profitability.
Knowing what part or parts of a given field do not perform well, he says, is something farmers are aware of. What’s less known is just how much money is being lost when those areas continue to be worked. With yield mapping, a now widely-employed precision technology, producers can directly analyze performance for specific areas over time – and get a much better idea on the returns (or lack thereof) being generated from those underperforming soils.
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Once the losses associated with underperforming parts of a field are known, the logical next step is to investigate ways to improve productivity – as in what it would cost to fix the problem, and whether that cost is reasonable.
All of a sudden now precision ag starts making you money
If rectifying the situation doesn’t make good economic sense, Swanton says producers should determine the feasibility of working around the area. If it can be done practically, it’s then possible to investigate what he refers to as “ecosystem-service” approaches. These could include planting trees, converting the area to pollinator habitat or grassland, or whatever approach will work for both the farm and conservation. Often, he says, this could be done with minimal investment.
“All of a sudden now precision ag starts making you money,” he says. “It works on a field-by-field basis. Some situations may not be worth changing, but other will […] we have the data to back this up.”
The study also acknowledges barriers associated with rented land, where renting farmers are less likely to invest in conservation practices – and more likely to plant crops on unproductive land in an effort to make some profit, however small.
For Swanton, opportunities still exist if there is data indicating potential savings for the renter, and if conservation ideas resonate with the landlord’s personal values. With more urban dwellers purchasing or inheriting farmland and the continued proliferation of precision farming technologies, this scenario could become more common.
“We can overcome barriers with good communication, data, and management decisions,” Swanton says. “The whole thing has to make business sense and appeal to values.”
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Aside from increasing production efficiency, Swanton says that greater diversity in the landscape can have more indirect economic impacts for farmers. More specifically, he says diversity can help growers better handle “fluctuating conditions,” including the more acute and increasingly frequent weather extremes indicative of a changing global climate.
The study also argues these small, farm-level conservation projects could have benefits in the world of trade. “Management practices that are environmentally friendly are now valued in the market,” the study says. “Enhancing conservation and sustainable production through precision agriculture could thus help producers to better brand their products, and secure and enter new markets.”
Clarence adds the overall public perception of agriculture, as a whole, might be better if more landscape diversity was visible on individual farms.