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.
Directly analyze performance for specific areas over time
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.
Determining the business sense of conservation
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 land rental factor
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.
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