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Quail Forever brings value to underperforming acres

Conservation initiative increases biodiversity, enhances cotton’s sustainability reputation.

Whitney Haigwood

December 6, 2023

6 Min Read
Yellow wrapped round module cotton bale sitting in a picked cotton field with sunset in the background.
More Quail Per Bale: The Quail Forever conservation program increases biodiversity on acres across the Cotton Belt. This not only improves farm revenue, but also enhances the sustainability of the U.S. cotton industry.Whitney Haigwood

At a Glance

  • The Quail Forever precision conservation program helps farmers pinpoint underperforming acres on working acres.
  • Precision ag and conservation specialists analyze data to find solutions for "red acres" that benefit the farmer and habitat.

A good friend once said that “farming is an individual sport.” There is hefty truth to that statement, considering each operation comes with its own set of unique challenges. 

It is also true that every acre of every field does not meet the same level of production. These underperforming areas are known as “red acres” across the farm, where chronic underperformance may be caused by flooding, soil type, soil compaction, or shaded field borders.  

Pinpointing these areas can help farmers address costly concerns. Through a collaborative conservation program, Quail Forever helps landowners implement management plans to improve their operation’s efficiency and alleviate the sunken cost of these “red acres.” 

Brent Rudolph, director of sustainability partnerships at Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, said the organization has helped to improve approximately 22 million acres of habitat over the last four years. A good chunk of that, he noted, are working acres of farms and ranches.  

“These habitat improvements have benefitted pheasants, quail and other wildlife while also benefiting water quality, soil health, and farmer income,” Rudolph said. “It is a case where environmentally responsible reduction is also economically beneficial.” 

Steven Pires, associate director of sustainability at Cotton Incorporated joined the conversation to discuss how the program increases biodiversity across the Cotton Belt, improves profitability, and enhances the sustainability reputation of the U.S. cotton industry. 

Related:Pheasants Forever names 2020 Precision Farmer of the Year

Precision conservation boosts sustainability 

Collaborators in the Quail Forever precision conservation program include Cotton Incorporated, the Sorghum Checkoff program, BASF, John Deere, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, USDA-NRCS, Working Lands for Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Rudolph said these grant and agency partners have supported the conservation program in many ways to deliver sustainable habitat projects that provide broad-based benefits for working lands. 

One such effort was the production of a video titled More Quail Per Bale – Precision Conservation for a More Sustainable Future. Rudolph said the production comprehensively illustrates the vision of the conservation program and the work that can be accomplished through collaboration. 

In the video, chief sustainability officer at Cotton Incorporated, Jesse Daystar describes the objective of the conservation program. He says, “Whenever you find a part of your land or part of a field that maybe isn’t producing as profitable, you can identify those areas, take them out of production, and actually capture carbon in the ground.  

Related:Conservation good for water quality and can improve bottom line

“You create habitat for birds, bees, pollinators, etc.; and meanwhile focus on making the other parts of your land more profitable. That all helps the grower and sustainability.” 

This effort is also important to consumers. Pires noted that loss of biodiversity is ranked globally as the second highest consumer concern, with climate change being the top concern of those surveyed in the 2022 UEBT Biodiversity Barometer. Of the U.S. survey participants, over 40% feel that brands have a moral obligation to assuring a positive impact on environmental biodiversity. 

This has potential to influence consumer buying trends, and companies are taking note. Across the globe, brands are making commitments toward biodiversity as part of their public-facing sustainability efforts. 

Pires said, “Some brands have reforestation projects or natural resource management projects. Some have cotton projects with biodiversity in mind. The point is these auxiliary concerns surrounding landscapes are becoming more and more important and we are only going to see this increase into the future.” 

Naturally, the U.S. cotton sustainability goals have auxiliary benefits to improving biodiversity, and projects like the Quail Forever precision conservation program contribute to the cause. 

5 steps toward precision conservation 

Caleb Blake serves as the Quail Forever precision ag and conservation specialist in Alabama. He gave a brief overview of the program and said the main objective of his role is to utilize technology to find scenarios that benefit both the farmer and wildlife. 

“Ideally, effective conservation should never come at the cost of the producer. Every field has acres where you are in the red and losing money year in and year out. Our goal is to work toward those win-win scenarios to help the farmer improve the efficiency of their operation.  

“In using precision ag technology to implement precision conservation, we hope to increase profitability, ROI, and soil health while decreasing the overall risk of the operation.” 

Blake detailed the 5-step process used to develop the best conservation management plan for an operation. 

1. Understanding the goals of the operation

Blake said Quail Forever builds a foundation of trust with participating farmers. A strong relationship between the specialist and farmer helps them understand the farmer’s goals for the property. Those goals serve as the driving force in project planning. 

 2. Connecting to the data

An important piece of the puzzle is farm data. This step determines the direction and feasibility of the conservation project. Ideally, specialists prefer to utilize integrated machine data.  

Blake said, “Connecting to crop yield data through existing yield monitors is the bread and butter of what we do as precision ag specialists. For those without yield monitors, we can work with NDVI data, soil maps, and general satellite imagery.” 

3. Analyzing the operation

Specialists then analyze the data points to locate any “red acres” across the farm that are chronically underperforming year after year. This analysis is demonstrated with a profit map, indicating areas of the farm where farmers are losing money. 

Blake said, “We like to look at multiple crop years so we are not making recommendations off data from what might have been one bad year.” 

4. Identifying alternative solutions

From there, specialists work with the farmer to identify scenarios and options for any underperforming acres. Alternative solutions might include converting areas to wildlife habitat, implementing filter strips and field borders, or conversion to no-till, strip-till and cover crops. 

Blake said, “When offering solutions, we do so with the farmer’s return on investment in mind. Every recommendation we offer to the farmer is completely voluntary with the aim of meeting their goals for the property.” 

5. Implementing the plan

Once all solutions have been explored, specialists present a management plan with detailed recommendations for the property. Specialists also serve as a trusted resource to help farmers navigate cost-share programs to fund and facilitate the project. 

The economics of conservation 

Josh Michna is a Quail Forever precision ag and conservation specialist in Texas. He discussed the economic considerations of developing a conservation management plan.  

The cost of production agriculture is steep, and Michna said many people do not understand the price it takes to put an acre into production. He estimated the cost of running a tractor at anywhere from $60-70 per hour. While this includes maintenance and depreciation, it does not include expenses like fuel and diesel exhaust fluid.  

Michna shared a breakdown of expenses and cited a Texas A&M study that suggests on average across the state, it takes 300 pounds of dryland cotton per production acre to break even. 

“You have to figure all of that into your operation. There are a lot of things you can do with those underperforming acres to customize a conservation plan that will fit your needs best,” Michna said. 

For instance, the Texas South Plains is in the central flyaway and hunting in the area is a profitable endeavor.  

Michna said, “We want nothing more for you to make a lot of cotton on the acres where you can make a lot of cotton. We love it. However, we want to focus on those underperforming acres and the benefits you can gain from conservation. We will help in any way we can.” 

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