By Nick Simonson
With spring planting just around the corner, farm and ranch operators throughout the upper Midwest are preparing to implement their plans coming off a very wet 2019. Where lower areas spent much of late summer and early fall flooded with excessive water, many are considering better options for those acres with habitat restoration in the mix to help increase profitability and their hunting this autumn. Pheasants Forever (PF) Precision Agriculture and Conservation Specialists Melissa Shockman and Emily Spolyar are working with producers to not only help with that private land habitat work, but ultimately increase the productivity of each operation with the mainstreaming of precision ag processes.
“It encompasses all the different technologies that are involved in agriculture, anywhere from auto-steer to GPS to all of the yield-mapping software programs that are out there,” Shockman says of the wide-ranging technology making planting and field planning better for producers, “all these things are created and designed to make things more efficient on the operation and help maximize return on investment for the operator.”
Around the calendar and throughout the winter, Shockman and Spolyar have been consulting with farmers looking to find the best ways to manage their acres for the highest return on what they put into the ground and for the areas to avoid. Through field analysis and discussion with either specialist, farmers are able to select areas to be retired into programs such as CRP, and those places – such as low-lying areas around pocket sloughs, along creeks and rivers, and other less productive areas – that less-intensive planting and spraying should be utilized to save on input costs in their crop-growing process. Trimming areas off of the best-producing farmland coded green on a computer-rendered map, the specialists find options for those other acres that are less productive or better suited for retirement in yellow and red shades.
“With PF in particular, we utilize these technologies and the data that’s collected in the cab of the combine or tractor and we’re able to assist and analyze the operation from that profitability or ROI perspective,” states Shockman, “the last thing I want to do is take acreage out of production that is the most profitable acreage for that farmer, because I don’t need the best piece of land to make great habitat; we can make habitat with marginal acres, as we’ve shown with this program,” adds Spolyar.
For converting those less-productive acres to habitat, Shockman lays out a suite of options for landowners. While most people think of CRP as the primary method of retiring marginal lands into more profitable habitat options, Shockman suggests cost-share programs such as the North Dakota Game & Fish Department’s PLOTS program which incorporates payments for allowing hunter access or those through the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are worth considering. In addition, non-government organizations such as PF and Ducks Unlimited have cost-sharing programs for habitat initiatives on lands retired through the use of precision ag.
In their time on the job for PF, Shockman and Spolyar have reviewed over 96,000 acres and have seen profitability increase across many of the clients’ operations that they’ve worked with. In the southeast, during her two-and-a-half years in the position, Shockman’s work has recently eclipsed 50,000 analyzed acres and has resulted in an average increase in return on investment of 7.4 percent per operation that has implemented some sort of precision ag procedure as part of its field management. Whether that’s not planting low-lying areas or enrolling acres in CRP, the difference is notable and provides for greater operator success in a time of tighter margins, more expensive inputs and lower market prices. In addition to actual dollars, Spolyar finds that many in the southwest find the added benefit of increased wildlife and hunting opportunities on their land.
“Quite a few of the growers that we’ve worked with are also hunting families, so they’re able to go out into their new habitat acres with their families and kids,” Spolyar related, “[they] go out pheasant hunting, go out deer hunting; I think there’s a lot to be said for making those memories and having those experiences,” she added, stressing that not all benefits of a precision ag program are monetary.
That private land habitat benefits all, providing more carrying capacity on the countryside for wildlife which move from location to location, from private land to public land, and likely other acres that people hunt. Additionally, as more and more producers turn to precision agriculture practices for their land, the trend grows with neighboring operators, continuing its growth to the benefit of all in terms of wildlife availability, clean water and secure soils.
For more information on PF’s precision agriculture program and to find a nearby specialist, visit pheasantsforever.org or contact Shockman at (701)709-0963 email@example.com, or Spolyar at (517)250-2440, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Featured Photo: On the Edge. A rooster pheasant works the edge of a sunflower field along a fallow stretch of unplanted land. Precision ag helps target areas of poor profitability and good profitability, and finds habitat and other programs for the former to increase a field’s ROI. Simonson Photo