Seldom has agriculture been a model of “cutting back” or “making more by doing less.” Yet when it comes to sustainability, soil health and even profitability, it may be time to explore both of these notions.
There are some who insist agriculture in North America is heading in the right direction with recognition of soil health, environmental awareness of fertilizer use and water quality, and the use of cover crops. But there are other, low-hanging fruit that could do more to boost productivity and profitability while adding diversity and greater accountability.
Dr. Clarence Swanton, a professor and weed scientist in the department of agriculture at the University of Guelph, believes the key to unlocking greater profitability — while coaxing greater diversity — is through precision agriculture.
Precision agriculture, Swanton says, has given a clear indication of field variability. In his estimation, that is its biggest contribution by far, through yield mapping and the ability to manage the variability identified in those maps.
Unfortunately, precision ag has also created an overload factor for growers. Many are overwhelmed with the volume and specificity associated with the technology.
It all sets the stage for an industry that is moving ahead with programs and tools, and Swanton believes it’s getting ahead of itself in terms of what can be used versus what can be used effectively.
Growers, he says, are familiar with yield maps and they’re well aware of the lower- and higher-yielding areas of their fields. Yet they’re reluctant to take unproductive land out of production: there is still the notion that if they have 100 acres, they must farm all of those 100 acres.
“The interesting thing is when you have the opportunity to look at your yield maps over a three- to five-year period of time, and then convert that to profitability,” says Swanton, who also farms outside of Guelph. “A profitability map takes into account the yield and the market value for those particular years. So all of a sudden, it resonates in a much deeper sense because you discover it’s not only lower yielding, it’s that every time I go there, I lose money and I’ve lost money pretty consistently over time.”
Profitability mapping could help determine the parts of the field where a grower is consistently making money, the parts of the field whey are they doing reasonably well, and where they are consistently losing money. Once that’s determined, it begs a couple of questions: “Why am I farming that parcel where I’m losing money?” and “What can I do to enhance environmental stability and yield stability over time?”
Profitability versus productivity
“We know that as we move forward, we’re going to get into weather extremes,” says Swanton, referring to the extreme dry spells that Eastern Canada has seen in the past 10 years, punctuated by infrequent extreme rain events. “These weather extremes have increased our risk to management in terms of food production in Canada. The question then becomes, ‘Are there opportunities for us to help diversify the landscape?’”
This doesn’t mean growers must choose between being productive and being profitable. The two are not separate issues. Yet the profitability-with-diversity approach is the principle behind the Precision Agriculture and Land Conservation, a concept presented by Food From Thought, an effort by several University of Guelph researchers who are trying to link precision agriculture with profitability and heightened environmental awareness.
The results of the group’s study have now been released, determining the value of precision agriculture for solving some of the environmental concerns that are visible in the agri-food industry today.
“The idea is that a diverse landscape will be more stable in terms of ecosystems services over time than a landscape that has been denuded of all trees, fencerows, woodlots and natural aspects,” says Swanton. “Is it better to have a diverse landscape when it comes to instability caused by weather extremes? Or is it desirable to continue on the way that we’re going?”
Other things growers can consider include some of the soil basics: increasing organic matter, tiling and adding waterways.
In that light, a profitability map begins to link environmental protection and profitability at the same time. In fact, it’s the first time agriculture has been able to do that. By identifying those parts of a field that are consistently losing money, a grower might ask themselves what they could do with that. That’s where “ecosystems services” come into play, like planting trees or a cover crop on that area, or placing a bee habitat there. It all begins to add diversity to that landscape.
“At the same time, I’m able to focus my energies on that part of the land that makes the most sense,” continues Swanton. “The last part of that is that now all of a sudden, I have justification to understand what kind of equipment I actually need and how sophisticated I need to get in terms of that equipment. It allows me to make an informed decision about the next steps that I need to move forward into precision agriculture.”
Again, it’s not a common concept that’s shared or put into action by many growers. Volatility in the marketplace, higher costs and the perceived notion that growers have to farm every available part of a field tends to cloud judgment and decision-making on what, where and how to plant a crop.
Not completely new
Several agronomists and advisors have advocated for reducing costs by taking portions of a field — the headlands, for example — out of intensive production. Since yields on the headlands can run 20, 30, even 40 bushels of corn below the main crop, why bother planting and fertilizing that part of the field? It might be more cost-effective and profitable to seed the headlands with an inexpensive yet functional cereal rye or oat. This would keep the soil growing and cycling nutrients without incurring the heavy expenses of seed, fertilizer and pesticide use.
Others have suggested using yield maps to identify knolls or sandy patches with low yield potential. Cutting populations and fertility rates on those portions of a field is a start, but Swanton says it may not go far enough.
The Guelph study results were outlined in a presentation that began with the basic question: How stable are our farming systems? International trade demands are affecting markets — whether growers like it or not. There are also abiotic and biotic stresses on farming systems affecting the ecosystem.
“How can you protect what we have out there on the international market?” asks Swanton. “People are asking, ‘What’s the carbon footprint of your production system? How green is your product compared to someone else’s?’ If you can start to think about talking to farmers about protecting ecosystems services, enhancing biodiversity in the field, and focus on those portions of the field that are most profitable, there may be land that we can take out of production.”
Some growers have taken this advice to heart. Swanton knows of one who was making more off an 80-acre parcel of land after dropping 20 acres out of production. The technology that’s available within the precision agriculture sphere can do that, but it starts with turning a yield map into a profitability map using yield data from at least three to five years.
“The profitability map resonates — because a yield map is just a little part of a field,” Swanton notes. “But when you see those numbers over time and you know that every time you put a planter down there, you lose $500, that allows you to focus your energies on the right part of the field. So before you start investing in the complex equipment, you have to know these things first. That’s the platform that you need to have to move precision ag forward, and you can do so in the context of profitability and the environment.”
One of the more significant impediments to “moving forward” is the tendency in agriculture to want to “fix things.” If a grower sees a low-producing area in a field, the reaction is often, “Can we fix it?” If it can’t be fixed, Swanton advises growers to opt for the simple solution: take it out of production. It’s likely that those parcels of land have been unprofitable for more than just the past three to five years. There’s also a general perception that ecological and environmental conservation efforts equate to a loss in profit. The focus instead needs to centre on making the soil healthy — first.
“The next step is at the landscape level,” says Swanton. “Most times when you’re introducing an environmental program on-farm, the general thought is, ‘This is going to cost me money, unless there are subsidies to help do that.’ This is the first time that you don’t need government help: you actually have the management tool to help you make informed decisions about how much land you really should be farming, and that can influence a lot of things.”
By creating that landscape diversity — planting trees or creating habitats for other wildlife, adds Swanton, growers aren’t just enhancing the environment on their farms, they’re also stabilizing yields over time, particularly during periods of higher stress. And those stresses are on the rise.
“It’s not ‘business as usual’,” he says. “We have to think about strategies for the future.”