Conservation Cash

Where environmental and economic benefits meet

By: Vanessa Beeson

Conservation Cash

Ryan Mann (left), research associate in the MSU Forest and Wildlife Research Center, demonstrates the software to John Mark Curtis, Quail Forever farm bill biologist, on a farm in north Mississippi. (Photo by David Ammon)

Abbott Myers, Jr., third-generation MSU bulldog and row-crop farmer, once said, "You have to be an optimist to farm." Year in and year out, in good and bad weather, when crop prices surge or sink, that statement illustrates the tenacity, spirit, and positive outlook every farmer needs to excel in their profession. Inherently, as optimists, farmers are compelled to nurture each inch of their fields to maximize yield across every acre. So, it's no surprise, that when Dr. Mark McConnell tells a farmer that he or she can make more money by not farming a piece of land, it goes against the grain. Luckily for McConnell, numbers don't lie.

"In a recent study, we found that economically-targeted conservation increased revenue across 52 fields by about 24 percent," said McConnell who is an assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Aquaculture in the College of Forest Resources and scientist with MAFES and the Forest and Wildlife Research Center.

He along with Dr. Wes Burger, dean of the College of Forest Resources and director of the Forest and Wildlife Research Center, have launched the MSU Precision Conservation Tool, a decision-making software that identifies precise locations where conservation practices are most economically beneficial to farmers on specific tracts of land.

McConnell noted that the conservation title in the Farm Bill—with more than 30 different conservation practices with varied objectives and spatial requirements—is complex, which is why the team built all that information into the software.

"One of the biggest challenges for producers is visualizing where specific conservation practices are eligible on their farms. This software solves that problem by identifying field-specific eligibility for nearly 40 different conservation practices," he said.

The study of the 52 fields in Lowndes County, Mississippi, was recently published in the international journal Precision Agriculture. The researchers evaluated three scenarios across all the fields: regular production, maximum conservation, and economically-targeted conservation.

"We demonstrated that the benefit of economically-targeted conservation ranged from one percent to 250 percent. As a farmer, I wouldn't take land out of production for a one percent increase in revenue, but I'd begin with fields that show a 250 percent increase and work my way down for as long as it made economic sense to my operation," he said.

McConnell equates the process with a common investment strategy.

"Think of your field as an investment portfolio. There are some assets or areas of the field that are extremely productive. Other assets or areas of the field are much riskier. Economically-targeted conservation allows you to diversify your portfolio by taking that less profitable, risky ground and putting it in a safe bet where you'll get a consistent return year after year. You've reduced the economic risk on that field because your vulnerable farming areas now generate a consistent payment," he said.

At times, McConnell caught flack among wildlife colleagues because he recommended against maximum conservation.

"I encourage farmers not to engage in maximum conservation because it isn't profitable. Engage in economically-targeted conservation. Farming prices are volatile, and farmers want a predictable return. Take your worst ground and get—at minimum—a ten-year payment," he said.

McConnell said working on a 3,000-acre row-crop farm in Alto, Louisiana in high school introduced him to conservation in working landscapes.

"We grew corn, soybean, and grain sorghum and large areas were managed for and leased to duck hunters. This experience not only gave me my first exposure to production agriculture but also to integrating conservation into working agricultural landscapes," he said.

Ryan Mann, research associate in the Forest and Wildlife Research Center, like McConnell, also worked on a farm out of high school, when the Starkville native got a job at the MAFES R.R. Foil Plant Science Research Center, working for MSU entomologists

"Row-crop production is a vital part of our lives today as well as the wildlife that call these fields home. It has become just as much a part of their lives as it has ours. Anything I can do to help the production side of agriculture as well as the wildlife that's using it is where I want to find myself," he said.

Mann is doing exactly that through a grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), bringing MSU's Precision Conservation Tool to farmers across Mississippi. Through field days and one-on-one visits, he collaborates with farmers to find a conservation approach that's economically beneficial to them.

"I usually ride around with them looking at any natural resource concerns in the fields they may have. The software allows me to evaluate where conservation programs are eligible on an individual field, if we have the yield data, we can run it right then and there on my tablet. Once we've identified our economically targeted areas, we can tweak things within the contract parameters to meet the producer's objectives and ultimately head down to their local USDA office and get the paperwork going," he said.

Mann said the process takes the guesswork out of conservation in working landscapes.

"The biggest hindrance to adopting conservation practices is the unknown potential of removing productive ground. This software removes these unknowns and lets the farmer know where money can be made," he said. "If you have 10 acres that are dragging your yield down, you can implement a conservation practice there which will provide a payment, when economically targeted, as well as improve field averages and address environmental concerns."

McConnell said he is seeing economically-targeted conservation gain traction among farmers and wildlife professionals alike.

"The model we created is being used by Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever all over the country. They aren't using our software, per se, but this model is being implemented across the country," he said.

He also noted that the data can help inform future policy.

"We used our software to compare the last two Farm Bills and evaluate the economic impact of the same conservation action between two different policy structures. The difference is significant. As crop prices surge and policy shrinks applicable conservation areas, our tool finds eligible land to put into conservation in a manner that's profitable to farmers," he said.

McConnell said he sees plenty of opportunity on the horizon.

"The U.S. has enough land to continually enroll acres in economically-targeted conservation for my entire career. That's something people don't realize. Nearly every field has some sort of opportunity when it comes to this," he said.

In addition to NRCS, Pheasants Forever; Cotton, Inc.; and Sorghum Checkoff have collaborated on this research. To learn more about the software, contact McConnell via email at or call 662-325-2144. To learn more about licensing, contact Jim Mitchell, licensing associate in the MSU Office of Technology Management, via email at or call 662-325-8223.

In a recent study, we found that economically-targeted conservation increased revenue across 52 fields by about 24 percent.

Mark McConnell

The software, MSU Precision Conservation Tool, identifies precise locations where conservation practices are most economically beneficial to farmers on specific tracts of land. (Photo by David Ammon)

The software, MSU Precision Conservation Tool, identifies precise locations where conservation practices are most economically beneficial to farmers on specific tracts of land. (Photo by David Ammon)