Four students in the South Dakota State University departments of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Natural Resource Management participated in a precision agriculture and conservation undergraduate training program this fall as part of a joint pilot capstone course.
The goal of the project was to demonstrate to students and farmers that precision agriculture technology can be used to pinpoint areas in farm fields that historically result in low yields and low or negative returns on investment, and how alternative uses for these areas can increase profit while improving soil and water quality, increasing biodiversity and providing critical wildlife habitat needs.
The training program is supported by a $50,000 gift from Mark and Kathy Walker of Olathe, Kansas, through Pheasants Forever. The gift will span the course of five years and covers the cost for participating students to take part in the program.
Pheasants Forever is an organization dedicated to the conservation of pheasants, quail and other wildlife through habitat improvements, public awareness, education and land management policies and programs.
“This gift will provide more partnership opportunities between Pheasants Forever and SDSU involving conservation and technology,” said Ryan Heiniger, director of agriculture and conservation innovations for Pheasants Forever.
Precision agriculture students Evan Schnitzler of Dassel, Minnesota, and Cole Berkley of Hot Springs, and natural resource management students Katelin Frerichs of Buffalo Center, Iowa, and Becky Watkins of LaMoure, North Dakota, joined together as a team for the inaugural training program. They conducted a profitability analysis of a local farmer’s land and identified marginal acres that had a negative return on investment for crop production. The team then assessed the potential financial impacts of utilizing these specific acres for alternative practices, such as cover crops, pollinator plots or native grass/forb production. The group was advised by Nicholas Uilk, instructor in the agricultural and biosystems engineering department, and Jonathan Jenks, distinguished professor in the natural resource management department.
“It was really good to have multiple majors working on this project in order to get different viewpoints and so they can learn from each other,” Uilk said.
Brandon Hope, a farmer near Sinai, South Dakota, provided data from one of his farm fields for the students to analyze. The piece of land has a large slough in the middle with some unproductive areas around the slough. The students evaluated several types of conservation programs that could increase profit and return on investment for the unproductive areas.
“This group brought light to a way to return money on the land and opened my eyes to the fact that conservation programs are a better way to improve production rather than just tilling it all under,” Hope said. “This training program is a good tool for people to see that habitat isn’t the end all of farming, but that they can coexist.”
Using aerial imagery of the 2016 corn crop, the group identified problematic areas in the field. They then assessed the effects of individually applying six conservation programs to these specific areas, including cover crops, crop rotations, duck nesting habitat, filter strip buffers, pollinator habitat, and a monarch butterfly conservation seeding. Each conservation program provides a different mix of annual and one-time incentive payments, along with cost share assistance to establish the practice.
Using Hope’s actual 2016 production and financial data as a base, the students created revised production and financial budgets showing the impacts of implementing each conservation program. They also projected the conservation benefits the alternative land use practices would provide on these economically marginal acres, including greater soil health, less soil erosion, improved water quality, increased plant diversity and greater wildlife, bird and pollinator populations.
“Through this program we learned that we are able to identify non-profitable acres and alter them to improve the bottom line with the use of precision agriculture technology,” Frerichs said. “We also learned that improving biodiversity creates a healthier ecosystem, which increases crop yield and land quality as well as provides habitat for wildlife species.”
From an agricultural background, Berkley said he always looked at land from more of a farming aspect, but because of this program he now sees that conservation benefits wildlife and bird habitats and crop production at the same time.
Bill Gibbons, interim director of the South Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station, believes that agriculture is moving in this direction and said he sees more producers using precision agriculture practices to improve the return on investment on agricultural lands while providing broader benefits to society and the ecosystem.
“We are all in this together and this technology helps us find common ground,” Heiniger said. “I am really excited about this pilot project and where it will go.”
The group presented the results of their project Dec. 4, 2018, to Hope, members of Pheasants Forever and the SDSU faculty.
South Dakota landowners interested in participating in this program can contact Matt Morlock, state coordinator for South Dakota Pheasants Forever, at email@example.com or (605) 881-8258.