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Eric Johannsen, left, speaks to attendees of the annual Pheasants Forever state meeting while Jeff VanderWilt, right, listens on Jan. 23 at the Ramada Inn in Mitchell, S.D. (Caitlynn Peetz/Forum News Service)

Precision agriculture highlights Pheasants Forever panel

Precision farming is good for habitat conservation.

That's what a panel of four experts said Saturday during the annual Pheasants Forever State Meeting held in Mitchell. During the meeting, the panelists discussed improvements that have been made in precision farming since the Governor's Pheasant Habitat Summit in December 2013.

Eric Johannsen, of a pheasant-hunting resort Johannsen farms, near Tolstoy, provided insight to precision farming and the effects its implementation has had on the family-owned business.

Johannsen said the public has responded well to being able to see the results of a "produce more with less" mentality.

"I would say in the last couple of years it has been very contagious, mainly because of economics. When things get tight, people try to figure out how not to be wasteful," Johannsen said.

The Habitat Pays campaign is an online initiative to give landowners and ranchers knowledge of available habitat resources, to earn financial incentives to put their land into conservation. It is a result of Gov. Dennis Daugaard's summit and its Pheasant Habitat Work Group. The group made eight recommendations to help boost the amount of habitat in the state, and two of those recommendations combined to create the Habitat Pays campaign.

Other panelists were Jeff VanderWilt, assistant state conservationist for National Resource Conservationist Services, Paul Coughlin, South Dakota habitat program administrator for Game, Fish and Parks and Ben Lardy, a Pheasants Forever farm bill biologist.

Johannsen said farmers had an easier time years ago than they do today.

"There were some years we didn't have to manage risk—we didn't have any. All we had to do was put seed in the ground and we were guaranteed a profit," Johannsen said. "The precision side of it, with being really conservative-minded, we're just now getting into it."

The amount of resources available for landowners, farmers and ranchers because of the Habitat Pays program is "incredible," Johannsen said.

"The precision side of farming itself the last five years, it's grown incredibly," Johannsen said. "But the next five years I think is going to blow it out of the water. I don't think we've even broken the crust of it."

Known as a strong proponent of the Conservation Reserve Program, VanderWilt said a shift in mentality might be in order, as working land may hold more benefits.

"At least for me personally, is that it's more about working lands than setting land aside and letting it sit idle. I know CRP now you can graze it some, but it's too much idle land for my liking," VanderWilt said. "You see the results of good farming practices producing wildlife. It's not that CRP doesn't do it, but I think everybody would be really impressed at how much wildlife you can produce on working land."

VanderWilt emphasized that CRP isn't a bad thing and still has a niche to fill in conservation. But, he said, to "get the most bang for your buck," it should be utilized in conjunction with other programs.

He also said access to information about farming programs has paved the way for advancements.

"It's how everything works together," VanderWilt said. "Talk about a wealth of information that has never been available to a landowner before that's now there to make sense of all of these programs. It's phenomenal."

Ultimately, the future looks bright for South Dakota Pheasants Forever, the panel said. The panel all agreed the current success of the organization will breed more success.

But Lardy said to not shy away from making more advancements until the workload slows down. As long as there's a person to manage programs, he said, individuals will seek that person out to utilize the services they provide.

"If you ask any of those folks that work with producers and landowners, they'll tell you one of the greatest means of success is when you can work as a producer and show success and have accomplishments," Coughlin said. "Then, neighbors get wind and look over the fence to see what's going on."

Other events

An awards ceremony was held to conclude the two-day meeting on Saturday night, where members of the Mitchell Pheasants Forever chapter received recognition in two areas.

Brad Zimmerman, Pheasant Country banquet chair, was awarded the 2015 Dedication award. The chapter received the Youth Dedication award.

Keynote speaker at the awards ceremony was Tom Kirschenmann, deputy director of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Wildlife Division.

On Friday, the state meeting opened with various social gatherings throughout the evening.

Saturday had several speakers address the approximately 125 people at the meeting, including Pheasants Forever President and CEO Howard Vincent and S.D. Senator Mike Rounds.

South Dakota's branch of Pheasants Forever is made up of 35 chapters across the state, and the location of the annual state meeting changes each year.