Habitat & Conservation  |  01/22/2021

Turning Red Acres Green: A win-win-win-win solution


By Josh Divan, Precision Ag & Conservation Specialist with Pheasants Forever for Iowa

Everyone has heard of win-win situations or used idioms like two birds with one stone.  These are reserved for moments where two issues are resolved by a single action or strategy.  

Precision conservation is a strategy that starts with coupling crop yield data with a crop budget to create an in-field profitability map.  So instead of just knowing how many bushels were produced across a field, cost and revenue are calculated which then show exactly what parts of the field are profitable and unprofitable.  That information is then used to identify opportunities for increased profits under different management scenarios such as voluntary and targeted conservation practices.  A lot of neat things start to happen when farm management decisions factor in profitability.  We affectionately refer to this process as turning red acres green.

An increase in that strategy across the Corn Belt wouldn’t be just a win-win or two birds with one stone; it would be a win-win-win-win scenario!  Just to be clear, there are a lot more than four ‘wins’ that come as a result of reimagining and repurposing revenue negative crop acres.  However, attempting to cover all of those would result in a blog post longer than most would read so I’m going to primarily focus on some of the benefits that don’t get the attention they deserve: the direct benefits farmers can expect from putting their precision data to work.

Win #1 – Increase profit/acre, decrease wasted inputs

Understanding exactly what areas within a field produce below the break-even yield speeds up the process of investigating alternatives better suited to deliver a profit on those acres.  Those alternatives range from enrollment into popular conservation programs like the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), to using one-time payment programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to establish perennial cover for grazing, and even to growing your own cover crop seed.

Many of the conservation programs that we work with are intentionally designed for areas with poor crop productivity such as light/erodible soils, wet areas prone to ponding, or edges of fields that suffer from shading/compaction.  Many of these types of areas come with a higher inherent risk of loss because they are more susceptible to crop failure.  By repurposing these areas of higher risk, you’re minimizing the likelihood that crop inputs will be wasted.

Win #2 – Improvement of actual production history (APH)

One of the metaphors that I like to use when describing the benefits of removing unprofitable acres from crop production is that of trimming gristle from a steak.  No one likes to take a bite of their perfectly cooked, medium-rare steak and chomp into a big, tough piece of cartilage.  Taking the time upfront to trim out any gristle improves the entire eating experience.

In the same fashion, eliminating those persistently problematic parts of a crop field improves almost every aspect of farming that field.  Farming fewer marginal acres should result in higher and more consistent yields.  As that continues to happen, the potential exists to gradually improve actual production history (APH) which means a higher number of bushels can be protected through crop insurance.

Win #3 - Less waiting, more farming

Rain makes corn, corn makes whiskey makes for a great song lyric but for a normal year in much of the upper Corn Belt… rain mostly just makes mud.  And mud most certainly doesn’t make corn.  

Getting rained out is inevitable.  It’s an unavoidable circumstance that you can’t do anything about.  However, what you can do is reduce the amount of those low, wet spots that you’re farming because they take the longest to dry back out.  In much of the Midwest, those soggy areas that can delay planting, spraying, and harvest also have a track record of being unprofitable.  

Fortunately, those same problem areas are frequently eligible for a lot of different types of water-quality based conservation programs that can deliver higher profits and less headaches.  By reducing those areas in a field, farmers can reduce the amount of down time after a moisture event and get back into the field sooner which can result in more bushels/acre at the end of the year.

Win #4 – Soil, water, and wildlife

One of my favorite aspects of working with farmers to improve their profitability is that almost without exception, we end up investigating alternatives that not only deliver significant financial benefits but also increase soil health, improve water quantity/quality, and create critical wildlife habitat both for game and nongame species.  

It almost seems too good to be true, but precision conservation can demonstrate that utilizing an alternative management solution on the very worst cropland acres can also have a positive impact on environmental concerns involving nitrates/phosphorus, greenhouse gases, soil organic matter, floodwater, pollinator habitat, and wildlife populations.

By combining real-world precision ag data with laser focused conservation solutions, it seems that we have a special opportunity to deliver a win-win-win-win solution!