Why a wildlife biologist is helping farmers make field profitability maps

Not every acre in a field is the same when it comes to profitability. Some areas have high earning potential, while other areas are riskier, and possibly even costing money.

As a wildlife biologist, those risky or unprofitable areas are what Mark McConnell is interested in.

The Mississippi State University researcher made the trek to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, for the Canola Week 2022 conference, where he shared how he’s researching the use of precision agriculture tools — mainly yield and profit maps — to help increase natural habitat area while also helping farmers boost profitability.

“Almost every field I’ve looked at, there’s almost always a region where the farmer is actually losing money by farming that ground due to a myriad of issues,” he notes, in the interview below.

The U.S., unlike Canada, pays farmers for setting aside land through the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

McConnell is currently finishing up a research paper on a study that found five to eight per cent of an average farm would be more profitable under a conservation scenario.

“If five per cent of every farm could be in some semi-natural natural vegetation type, that benefits a myriad of ecosystem services. Apply that across the entire landscape, that fundamentally restructures the agricultural landscape in a way that hopefully makes more money for the farmer, and creates more ecosystem services that we all enjoy,” he says.

Acres that are moved into conservation must still be managed, he notes, or else their reduced profitability may spread to adjacent acres.

“If you put it into trees, and your issue was low yield due to competition from the adjacent plant community, you’re pushing that out…” he says. “You don’t just walk away from those acres, you’re managing them. So we do prescribed fire, some people mow them or do other things to them, to keep them in that kind of vegetative state, to keep them essentially from succeeding into trees. You’re still spraying the edge. If you have some weed creep, you obviously don’t want that and the farmer is gonna spray that as he should to keep that out. So it’s very easy to manage those those conservation acres to not simply create a new, a new economic problem.”

There’s also a social science aspect to McConnell’s research, as a factors such as visual aesthetics — such as weed-free field edges and straight lines — are difficult to place a value on.

Ultimately, using modern yield mapping technology, he says there’s an opportunity to improve economic outcomes for farmers while preserving or creating habitat for wildlife.

“Farmers have to be able to make good economic decisions. And so if conservation is one option, I want the farmer to not have any guesswork in that I want them to be able to understand what the economic outcome of that decision is. And then if we all as society and the public get air quality, carbon sequestration, water quality and wildlife populations out of it, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Listen to more with Mark McConnell of Mississippi State in the interview below, recorded at Canola Week in Saskatoon:

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