Now Reading: Alternative Management in Practice: How Digital Ag Enables Conservation Decisions

Now Reading: Alternative Management in Practice: How Digital Ag Enables Conservation Decisions

SUSTAINABILITY // May 22, 2020

Alternative Management in Practice: How Digital Ag Enables Conservation Decisions

Driving environmental conservation on farmland isn’t the first thing you might think of when you think of Climate Fieldview™, but our mission at Climate has always embodied sustainability. I’m extremely lucky in my role that I have the opportunity to work at the intersection of digital agriculture and conservation, and am fortunate that many great scientists have preceded me.

Many of the models and tools we’ve developed to optimize agronomic inputs can be pivoted to reduce the negative environmental consequences of modern agriculture. Our FieldView seed scripts project is one great example of a digital tool that can be used to drive more sustainable management decisions. 

Not All Acres are Created Equal

The science behind FieldView seed scripts includes the creation of subfield management zones using historical yield data. If a zone consistently underperforms over time, it may be prudent to consider alternatives to traditional row crop production, or Alternative Management Practices (AMPs), instead. AMP examples can include alternatives like leasing land for wind or solar energy production, or planting seed mixes that support biodiversity, capture carbon from the atmosphere, and protect water quality. 

To create management zones, we first need to standardize yield values across an operation so that the relative performance on a given acre is comparable between different crops and seasons. Standardized yield maps are then stacked to produce a single map that represents productivity over time, and a machine learning algorithm segments the map into zones with similar values. The zones that rank lowest become AMP zone candidates. 

Candidate AMP zones can be hard to identify without careful data analysis over multiple years of operation. One of the distinct advantages of FieldView is that, as our platform grows, we are increasingly able to gather multiple years of data for the same plot of land, which allows us the unique opportunity to see how that land performs over time.

Partnering to AMP Up Biodiversity

In 2019, Climate embarked on a partnership with Pheasants Forever, a national nonprofit conservation organization that is dedicated to restoring and enhancing wildlife habitat. Habitat created to support pheasants has many purposes: it creates a recreation opportunity for hunters and also supports a variety of other species such as pollinators, and other insects that feed on harmful pests, that can benefit farmers and play important roles in our environment.

Together, we designed a pilot program to better enable conservation decisions on farmland that drive biodiversity. We enrolled seven farmers in the Prairie Pothole Region covering North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota. The shallow wetlands or “potholes” characteristic of this region are prime real estate for wildlife, but they also contribute to high subfield variability in yield performance. 


At Commodity Classic in San Antonio this year, I (right) participated in a panel about Climate’s partnership with Pheasants Forever alongside from left to right, Climate Digital Ag and Sustainability Lead, Pam Bachman, farmer Lucas Rode, and Ryan Heninger, from Pheasants Forever.

The analysis reports illustrate AMP zone candidates on each field. We also include a profit analysis based on local average input costs. Assuming an average land rental rate per acre, we find that the cost to farm AMP zones often exceeds the gross profit by a considerable margin. Considering USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) payout rates typically exceed $150/acre throughout the Midwest, some farmers can expect to gain thousands of dollars against their bottom line by managing AMP zones as habitat instead. 


After reviewing the AMP report, growers have the opportunity to provide feedback or corrections and, if they are interested in taking the next step, the option to share contact information with our conservation partners at Pheasants Forever. To further support this effort, we generate habitat suitability maps surrounding each operation based on species-specific land cover criteria. This helps to balance optimal habitat placement and connectivity with the practical limitations of farm management and operations.

Results

A half million acres currently being farmed by FieldView users in the Prairie Pothole Region could potentially benefit from AMP and conversion to multi-species habitat. By partnering with organizations like Pheasants Forever, we are creating novel tailored solutions that balance farming with conservation.This highlights a key innovation in how we look at data, not just from the perspective of maximizing yield, but ensuring that our customers are able to make the most productive use of their land; whether that means crop production, habitat restoration, or other alternative management strategies.

Dr. Patricia Carroll, PhD is a Senior Data Scientist at the Climate Corporation. Patti fell in love with Data Science while studying Astrophysics at the University of Washington. She joined Climate in 2016, where she developed Climate’s first crop disease risk models to enable seed placement and crop protection recommendations. Patti is passionate about data science for social good and was thrilled to join the Digital Ag & Sustainability team in 2019. She now leads new data-driven initiatives, leveraging our digital farming platform to reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint while continuing to feed a growing population.