It is abundantly clear that we need to utilize all aspects of Precision Conservation. However, the following are my top five conservation priorities we need to do to make a significant change in how we deliver soil and water conservation.
5. Reduce the time, cost, and hassle for farmers implementing structural conservation practices
Machine control technology will fundamentally change how conservation structures are designed, staked, and constructed. The software is already available to utilize LiDAR data and develop a grassed waterway design and machine control file in 30 minutes. The machine control developers (companies like Trimble, Topcon, and Leica) are poised and waiting to expand the use of machine control to soil and water conservation. Studies show that machine control also significantly reduces the time of construction and check-out. Eliminating guesswork is resulting in increased accuracy and less re-works. This means less time required by conservation agencies and less time required by the contractors building the practices.
Bruce Barnhart, an Iowa contractor, reported that using machine control “saved him days” in building a waterway.
4. Develop software that is accurate, simple, and fast
The software being used today by most conservation planners is antiquated. The design principals included in the software are sound but the software is out of date. To get conservation on the ground, we have to work faster and smarter. Continuing to use the same basic methods with small tweaks to the process is a losing proposition. Conservation planners need a paradigm shift in software, not a tweak to the process. The software needs to utilize available topographic data and automate many of the steps necessary to design ordinary conservation practices.
3. Acquire low cost/high quality elevation data
One of the most important data layers in Precision Conservation is the elevation layer, or topographic layer. The world of elevation data is changing so quickly it is hard to keep up. But even with all of the options the two most common types of elevation data, for conservation planning, are airborne LiDAR and RTK. Regardless of collection method, accurate and reliable elevation data will transform Precision Conservation. And let’s not forget, the drones are coming. Imagine when we can use a drone to gather high quality elevation data, either using LiDAR or photogrammetry.
2. Motivate and train the private sector to provide technical assistance
At the current rate, it will take 50 years to design and install all the grassed waterways needed in Iowa. And this timetable is being generous. The 50 years doesn’t even account for maintenance, repair, and replacement of these grassed waterways after their normal 10-15 year lifespan. This is not acceptable, especially when you consider all conservation practices like ponds, wetlands, water & sediment control basins, terraces, no-till, and cover crops are on this same timetable. Conservation planning by the ag retailers could capitalize on the trust and long-standing relationships farmers already have with them, both as suppliers and as consultants. In many cases, retail agronomists know nearly as much about the landscape, soils, and productivity of a customer’s individual fields as the farmer himself knows.
1. Provide better technical assistance to farmers
In 2005, Craig Cox defined precision conservation as “applying conservation practices in the right place, at the right time, and at the right scale”. Regardless of the technology or level of technical assistance we need to do a better job in targeting our conservation work so we can maximize the conservation outcomes. But let’s not stop with just “applying conservation practices in the right place, at the right time, and at the right scale”. Let’s use precision conservation to get conservation on the land faster, and let’s not forget that precision conservation should allow us to get cheaper conservation. Technology can significantly change the rate we are implementing conservation, but we have to harness the technology and put it to work.