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Quantifying Environmental Impact from Your Operation

As we close in on the end of the year, this time can be pretty chaotic. You’re closing out harvest, thinking about next season’s pre-orders, making equipment repairs before next year, and — oh yeah — the holidays are on the way. 

But let’s not forget about the (important!) flurry of spreadsheets this time of year. Now is the time to be thinking about metrics and measuring what’s gone right (or wrong) in your operation. Growers typically look at things like:

  • How did our crop yield? 

  • What does profitability look like? 

  • What ROI did you get on your input spend? 

  • Did any new practices have a positive or negative impact? 

There’s no shortage of metrics in today’s agriculture world. But if you’re a grower who wants to be on the leading edge — and figure out ways to optimize your operation — you might want to think about adding some sustainability metrics to the pile.  

“Don’t I already track enough numbers as it is?” you’re probably asking. 

Sure — and some of these might already be sustainability insights. 

Common metrics that farmers track under the “sustainability” umbrella include: 

  • Water / irrigation use and efficiency

  • Energy use 

  • Fertilizer or other chemical use and efficiency

  • Emissions

But keeping track of these metrics isn’t just a boost to the environment. 

Why should you integrate sustainability measures at your operation? 

1. Track the success or failure of regenerative practices — and improve your Profitability

As agriculture evolves, so do best practices. But you don’t want to integrate new practices just for the sake of checking a box. You want new practices to actually benefit your land, crops, and operation as a whole.

That’s why, as regenerative farming practices become more and more common, it’s important to track whether they’re having a positive impact on your land (and yields). If you invest into sustainability tools or precision ag systems, you want to ensure you get enough bang for your buck. 

Fertigation may be adopted to improve efficiency and sustainability on your farm. But integrating nutrient management software can help you measure more than just fertilizer treatments.

For example, some of our customers have reported using N-Time data to monitor how their regenerative practices impact crop performance. They use our technology to see — in real time — how those practices influence crop nitrogen status throughout its growth.

2. Be ahead of the curve 

We don’t have to break the news to you that more and more organizations are leaning into sustainability. Everyone from Pepsi to Delta Airlines to federal governments have set sustainability goals over the last several years.

For bigger, complex systems (like travel or food), it’s helpful for organizations to understand how each individual piece of their supply chain contributes to the total environmental impact. As more organizations start to track their progress towards sustainability goals, this landscape could lead to more reporting requirements, especially within the food and ag system

Within ag specifically, input suppliers could have good reason to want sustainability metrics from growers too, according to Will Ruffalo, Strategic Planning and Market Development Manager at Valmont. For example, after a nitrogen supplier sells X amount of their fertilizer, how is that fertilizer used? How much is wasted? Where is it applied? All that data can be helpful to track environmental goals.

“In this era of increasing scrutiny of where products go, (manufacturers) are kind of scrambling for data points and ways to identify how much nitrogen is being used,” Will said. “They can at least start to measure that, because the first part of sustainability is setting the baseline. So if you don’t know what the baseline is, how the heck are you going to improve?”

Another example in this space could be grain purchasers who might want to keep track of growers’ sustainability measures. In the future, farmers may even be able to get a premium on grain purchases if they have sustainability data on hand. 

Other programs have popped up that reward farmers for regenerative practices: the carbon credit market, access to government grants, etc. Eventually, similar programs could extend to other niches of the ag industry, like water or fertilizer use.

This kind of scenario may be in the future — but you don’t want to scramble for data if and when incentives are on the line. The earlier you start tracking your metrics (sustainability and otherwise), the more leverage your data will give you in the market down the road.

3. Be a better steward of your land

It can be easy to get swept up in how big of an idea “sustainability” is. How is using a few hundred gallons less water each year on 100 acres, or fewer pounds of nitrogen per acre, really going to save the entire environment? 

Well, it’s a small piece of the puzzle. But it’s helpful to zoom in at the micro level. How are those sustainability measures helping your yields and profits? How is your soil improving? How much nitrogen runoff have you been able to avoid in your waterways? 

Sustainability measures can of course help the environment at the collective level. But at the individual level, they can also help improve land stewardship — so that you (and future generations) can continue farming from that soil. 

And how do you figure out which practices are bringing those benefits to your land? Keeping track of your metrics.

First steps for measuring sustainability: understand your baseline 

You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. 

For on-farm metrics, understanding your baseline (whether that’s baseline water use, amount of nitrogen fertilizer used, etc) is key to understanding the impact of sustainability practices.

If you don’t know what you’re starting from, how will you know if a regenerative practice (or any practice) is benefiting your operation? 

So, the bottom line: you need numbers. 

Implementing fertigation software is just one method for tracking those metrics. Not only is fertigation a sustainability practice itself. But integrating precision ag practices like fertigation can also help you gain insights on things like water usage, amount spent on fertilizer, pounds of nitrogen used per acre, and more. 

A system like N-Time can support some of this tracking. This could look like measuring your nitrogen fertilizer use, of course. But when you integrate other practices (whether that’s a cover crop strategy, less water, or a different regen practice), you can easily measure that practice’s impact on your operation, yields, labor hours, and/or costs.

Be ready for the future

We’re already knee-deep in an era of increased attention to and measurement of sustainability practices. The trend isn’t going away any time soon. 

Farmers have a chance to be on the front end of any potential regulatory environment that comes out of this. But for growers, keeping track of sustainability metrics can also have a positive impact at the operation level: better land stewardship, more profitability, and higher ROIs.

Fertigation can play a vital role in that landscape. If you’re interested in how N-Time can help you boost your sustainability practices and track important metrics on your farm, contact the Sentinel team.

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