Jeff Lake took marginal areas of his farm out of production to cut costs and improve profitability while also helping improve water quality by creating a buffer between fields and the Hay River.

Jeff Lake knew he had some spots in certain fields on his Dunn County farm that just didn’t produce well.

Rather than continuing to apply more inputs in an effort to increase yields, Lake, Wisconsin’s 2019 Leopold Conservation Award winner, decided to look for other ways to increase his farm’s profitability.

Lake, who said his family has long been interested in conservation practices to improve soil quality and wildlife habitat on the farm, turned to precision agriculture to make better use of his farmland.

“We weren’t making any money on certain parts of the farm,” Lake said June 9 during the “Planting New Ideas, Growing Conservation” producer-led webinar series put on by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection and UW-Madison Extension Discovery Farms. “We looked at the technology to see the dollars and cents of it.”

Lake started experimenting with precision agriculture about when he got the technology on his planter allowing him to do prescription planting, enabling him to cut back on seed inputs on sandy areas on the farm.

In 2016, he met Scott Stipetich of Pheasants Forever at a Hay River Farmer-Led Watershed Council meeting and began working with him on profitability mapping to examine the farm’s fields, deciding to convert some marginal cropland into grass and full season cover crops in order to provide wildlife habitat and gain efficiencies. After identifying areas of fields that weren’t producing as well as the rest of the fields, Lake added grass buffers in areas where the fields border woods and the river.

“We could actually take our yield maps and actually put a dollar sign on a certain size grid of a particular field,” Lake said. “We could identify some place where corn had to be up to $12 an acre before we started to see a profit there.

“It really started hitting home when we could see the numbers rather than just the yields.”

Lake is the fifth generation on his family farm. He farms with his son, Jake. Lake’s wife, Kelly, and daughter, April, also help on the farm. The family farms 1,200 to 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, snap beans, kidney beans and alfalfa with no-till farming practices and uses cover crops. He also rotationally grazes a small cow-calf Angus beef herd and sells freezer meat.

Lake has been using no-till practices for about 10 years, going full-scale about seven years ago, he said. He has been using cover crops for the past seven years as well.

Since implementing the profitability mapping, Lake has converted marginal cropland into grass and full season cover crops in order to provide wildlife habitat and gain efficiencies. The move created buffers that prevent runoff from the fields making it to the river while allowing Lake to cut down on seed populations in a part of a field that didn’t tend to produce as well as other areas, saving him money in the process.

“By putting it into certain cover crops, we find it actually feeds the wildlife and they leave the regular crops alone,” Lake said. “And by setting it aside, sometimes it starts making the soil a lot healthier.

“It’s neat instead of watching 3-foot corn grow to watch 6-foot pearl millet with Sudan grass grow and all the sudden to start seeing a bunch of pheasants out there on the edge of the road. It’s satisfying to watch that stuff happen. It’s a neat way of farming and a whole different way of looking at it.”

Lake also uses nutrient- and irrigation-management planning and variable-rate technology for fertilizer and seed application and pest scouting for integrated pest management. He has improved wildlife habitat through buffer strips, full-season cover crop plots and, along with his brother, Rick, forest management to sustain wildlife.

The concept of sub-field precision agriculture planning demonstrates to producers what parts of a field make them the most profit and which areas are costing them money to farm. Following evaluation of farm-specific data, options for management changes or conservation practices are identified as ways to address these under-performing acres to improve productivity while also building soil health, and providing water quality and wildlife habitat benefits.

“What we were able to do is take the yield maps and turn them into return-on-investment maps,” said John Sippl, district conservationist with the U.S. Department of Agricultures Natural Resources Conservation Service in Menomonie. “Green acres are more profitable versus the red, which indicate loss of profit. Jeff talks about turning red acres green.”

Lake estimated saving 7 to 10% on input costs like seed and crop protections since pairing precision farming with conservation practices.

“I think every farmer’s got some part of a field that isn’t growing well. We try to identify why the underperforming areas are underperforming, is it shade, wildlife, fertility?” Lake said. “When you see those red spots in the field, sometimes you just don’t plant it. Then when you come through with the sprayer, you don’t spray it. Then you come through with the fertilizer buggy, you don’t spread fertilizer either. It really starts adding up quite a bit.”

Sippl said sharing Lake’s efforts with other farmers has built interest in precision agriculture, cover crops and no-till practices in the area. Lake has also had on-farm field days and conferences to share his experiences.

“Especially in challenging times, if farmers can make a dollar an acre more, it starts making sense,” Lake said.