5 ways technology is improving land stewardship

Brent Haglund literally gets his hands dirty when he describes how technology and science-driven practices are helping farmers and other landowners.

Haglund, an ecologist who heads the Madison-based Sand County Foundation, showed up to a recent meeting of the Wisconsin Cleantech Network with buckets of soil to demonstrate how no-till agriculture can help farmers and ranchers conserve their valuable land — and make more money.

The no-till buckets showed deeper root systems and held together firmly when removed, while soil from tilled lands was more easily fragmented and lacked root density.

“These are advantages to no-till you can see,” Haglund told the crowd, “but there are many that don’t immediately meet the eye.”

No-till farming is a way to grow crops or pasture from year to year without disturbing the soil through tillage. It increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil and boosts organic matter retention and cycling of nutrients in the soil. In places prone to flooding or wind damage, no-till greatly reduces soil erosion and loss of nutrients. No-till also increases the amount and variety of life in the soil, including organisms that suppress disease. Farmers save time through reduced tilling and there’s less wear and tear on equipment, which also use less fuel.

The main benefit of no-till is improved soil biological fertility, which makes the land more resilient over time while making farms and ranches more efficient.

“More farmers today are focused on net profit per acre than yield per acre, which is why no-till can be attractive,” Haglund said. “They are committing to conserving their own land, showing a better bottom line and saving time for themselves.”

There’s nothing new about no-till but its advantages have been made increasingly clear through science. As Haglund noted, many of the same farmers and ranchers who have switched to no-till are early adopters of other tools — some as common as portable electronic devices — to track and better control use of fertilizer, water, and pesticides.

“Farm technology is more than just the do-dads and the drones,” he said. “It’s a mix of things that are providing better analytics, cutting energy use, saving water, preserving the land while adding to the bottom line.”

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Of course, technology is nothing new in farming in Wisconsin or elsewhere. The harvesting machine, the twine binder, malted milk, the milk butterfat test, the round silo, safe canning methods for peas, and tuberculin tests for cattle were all Wisconsin inventions in the 1800s alone. The pace of innovation hasn’t slowed in the last century-plus.

At the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center on the UW–Madison campus, researchers are engaged in a variety of projects to help farmers. Some examples:

  • “Smartscape” is a user-friendly planning software that allows farmers, conservation agencies, and other land managers to model and map changes in specific parts of the landscape, piece-by-piece.

    After selecting a potential change — for example, moving from a row crop such as corn on highly erodible land to a perennial grass bioenergy crop — users can measure potential differences in how the ecosystem is working. These include protecting pollinator habitat, soil runoff reductions, and carbon sequestration, which can be compared to changes in net income.
     

  • Another technique is better use of marginal lands, which are previously unused patches on the edges of farms, to maintain and enhance pollinator habitat, “beneficial bugs,” and soil runoff, all while potentially providing an economic benefit to farmers in the form of bioenergy crops.
     
  • The Great Lakes center, housed at the Wisconsin Energy Institute, has also discovered a chemical compound that can someday be used as a fungicide in sustainable and conventional farming.

    Poacic acid may have the potential to replace copper sulfate, which is used as a fungicide in organic agriculture but accumulates to toxic levels in soil. It could also be used in combination with synthetic fungicides to lower dosage or reduce the chances of developing resistance.

    Poacic acid could give farmers a natural fungicide choice at a time when traditional fungicide resistance is on the rise, and warming temperatures are causing fungal pathogens to spread northward.
     

  • The Sand County Foundation’s work with farmers and ranchers outside Wisconsin has produced other benefits, including preservation of the Louisiana Black Bear, the Greater Sage Grouse, and the Milkweed Monarch Butterfly, all by making use of private landowners and the profit motive versus government regulation.

“Technology is helping farmers and ranchers become more efficient while aiding their efforts to be better stewards of land, water, and wildlife,” Haglund said.

That’s a double bottom-line: Good for the environment, and better for the farmers and ranchers who help to sustain it.

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