WHEELER — For six generations, Jeff Lake’s family has been taking care of the land comprising their Dunn County farm. But following a 2016 meeting with Scott Stipetich, a farm bill biologist with Pheasants Forever, Lake decided there was more that could be done to benefit the farm’s soil while improving their bottom line.

During a Hay River farmer-led watershed council meeting, Stipetich had discussed using software to help identify net negative farms in the Hay River watershed. From there, it was recommended that Stipetich connect with Lake, who was interested in giving precision agriculture a try in order to make better use of his land, for both the farm and for wildlife.

Lake, who has a portion of the south fork of the Hay River running through his property, said he considers himself a nuts-and-bolts kind of guy who had been interested in giving precision agriculture a try for some time. So, with the help of his son, Jake — who, Lake said, has the computer skills to master the software pretty quickly — and Stipetich, Lake set about identifying parts of fields where he could improve his return on investment by making better use of his land.

“We’re in a sandy area, and it’s really hard to build organic matter,” Lake said Aug. 6 during a field day on his farm. “What we’re trying to do is build that and make our soils better so we use less water and have less water runoff.”

In 2018, Lake was named as the first Precision Agriculture Farmer of the Year award winner by Pheasants Forever and he was a finalist for the Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award.

Lake farms with his son, Jake. Lake’s wife, Kelly, and daughter, April, also help on the farm. They farms 1,500 acres of corn, soybeans, snap beans, kidney beans and alfalfa with no-till cultivation practices. He also has a small cow-calf beef herd and sells meat locally.

Lake said soil and water health have long been important to the family and that parts of their farm have been in a quality deer management program for more than 30 years.

In 2016, Pheasants Forever partnered with a software company to do profitability mapping. After meeting with Stipetich and running the farm through the mapping software, the decision was made to convert some marginal cropland into grass and full season cover crops in order to provide wildlife habitat and gain efficiencies.

“It may sound funny to group wildlife and precision ag together, but it comes back to the roots that these working landscapes work really well for wildlife,” Stipetich said. “When we can show where there’s room on the farm to improve, we get conservation benefits, we get more wildlife habitat.

“It’s a conversation we can have with producers to meet mutual goals.”

Stipetich and the Lake family started looking at yields and budgets to generate maps of fields showing their return on investment.

“It allows us to look at things based on profitability — for every dollar that we pump into that acre, how many are we getting out,” Stipetich said. “Why would we put money into a (field) that isn’t giving us money back? Maybe we can do something different. And that’s where we’ve taken it.”

After identifying areas of fields that weren’t producing as well as the rest of the fields, often due to shading, Lake added grass buffers in an area where the fields border woods near the river.

“When you look at this grass buffer, no inputs are going in there; we’re filtering any sediments and nutrients that are coming off the fields before they make it into the Hay River; we’re getting grass and clover, which is a benefit to wildlife populations; and deer damage is limited, because they’re going to stop and eat that clover,” Stipetich said. “It’s a trickle-down effect.”

Stipetich said the software can be used to determine how productive certain areas of fields are, which can allow farmers to change seed populations as they plant.

“In an area that isn’t as productive, maybe just drop seed populations down,” he said. “Less inputs means a better return on investment.”

Lake said the variable-rate planting allowed him to cut down seed populations in some of the dry corners of fields. In 2017, after their first year of using the software, Lake said he saved more than $12,000 in seed costs in 2017’s planting season compared to the year before.

“You can really put a number on it fast,” he said.

And Lake said he started seeing results right away too.

In one field, Lake went from a yield of 174 bushels per acre with a profit of $137.75 per acre for a return on investment of 29.4 percent when it was all corn to an average yield of 187 bushels per acre with a profit of $151.19 per acre for a return on investment of 40 percent after adding borders to the under-performing areas of the field.

“As farmers, we think we have to farm everything,” Lake said. “All the sudden, we’ve shifted to thinking we don’t need to farm all these acres, but let’s farm the good ones better.”