JAMESTOWN, N.D. - When people think of precision agriculture, they often think of autosteer, variable-rate seeding, satellites or drones.

But when Ryan Heiniger heard about AgSolver's Profit Zone Manager, he thought of conservation.

It was 2015 when Heiniger read in the Iowa Soybean Association newsletter about the data platform, which looks at profitability at a sub-field level.

"And that lightbulb just went on," he said.

Heiniger, director of agriculture and conservation innovations for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever, and Melissa Shockman, precision ag and conservation specialist with Pheasants Forever, spoke Jan. 15 at the Precision Ag Summit in Jamestown, N.D., about Pheasants Forever's work with producers to help improve profitability on their fields using Profit Zone Manager.

In the presentation, entitled "Precision Ag for Buck$ & Birds," they talked about the successes farmers have found identifying low-producing acres that may have better uses for row crops.

Being profitable to be sustainable

Heiniger is the fourth generation on his Iowa farm, and he's raising the fifth generation. As he grew up on the farm, he also developed a love for hunting. He became a wildlife biologist and worked for a time in North Dakota, where he met his wife.

"Hunting and farming: To me, there's no better day in the fall than when both of those things come together," he said.

Shockman grew up in southern Minnesota, among farm acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program but surrounded by dairy and row crop farms. On CRP land, she told the small crowd at the Quality Inn in Jamestown, she shot her first pheasant and missed her first opportunity at a nice buck.

While her love for hunting and conservation goes back to her childhood, she also has farm roots; she married a southeastern North Dakota farmer and heard a lot of comments about how strange it must be for a conservationist and a farmer to co-exist.

"Why can't they both just get along? Why does it have to be this or that? Why can't it be both?" she said.

That, Heiniger said, is the point - the two should coexist and work together. Both are misunderstood by the public, and both are made up of a small, and shrinking, percentage of the general population.

Plus, pheasants, Heiniger explained, are a farm bird. The well-being of pheasants depends on the well-being of farmers.

"Farmers, of course to be sustainable, have to be profitable," Heiniger said.

And sometimes, to be profitable, they have to look at where they aren't making money and think of ways they can make money or improve their return on investment.

What Pheasants Forever's precision ag specialists, like Shockman, are doing is helping farmers use the data they collect on their farm and look at alternative plans for their acres.

From in the hole to profitable

Shockman gave a variety of examples of ways farmers across the region have improved return on investment on their fields by changing the way they use their least profitable acres.

She showed a profitability map of a 60-acre field. Green on the map denotes that things were going well. Yellow shows areas that are "getting by," while red shows areas that are losing money. The whole west side of the field on that particular map were red.

"It's just light, sandy soils," Shockman said. "With a corn-soybean rotation, he knew this wasn't going to be profitable" after looking at the map.

With Profit Zone Manager, they looked at other options for the acres. Since the producer also has cattle and the land surrounding the field was a pasture, he decided to turn those 12 red acres into more pasture. That allowed him to increase his profitability by reducing the inputs on those non-productive acres while using the land in a different, more productive way.

"He went from in the hole to now profitable," Shockman said.

Other examples included planting acres around potholes that dealt with salt issues into alfalfa, using federal and state conservation programs to put non-productive land into perennial cover and planting cover crops for seed production. Each example, Shockman said, showed ways producers had moved non-productive acres into different uses, thereby either becoming profitable or increasing their profits.

The goal of Pheasants Forever's program is to improve farmers' business, Shockman said.

"In doing so ... we can achieve our mission by also improving soil health, water quality, wildlife habitat and even North Dakota's hunting heritage," she said.

Pheasants Forever has projects working with producers in North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa and has pilot programs in South Dakota and Wisconsin, Heiniger said.

Shockman works with producers in Lamoure, Dickey, Ransom and Sargent counties in North Dakota. Anyone interested in the program can contact her at 701-709-0963 or mshockman@pheasantsforever.org.

Pheasants Forever also will be putting on a precision agriculture workshop at the Pheasants Fest/Quail Classic in Sioux Falls, S.D., on Feb. 16. For more information, visit pheasantsforever.org/precision.

Heiniger said Pheasants Forever has been working with farmers, ranchers and landowners for 35 years to help them be sustainable and to conserve land for wildlife.

"Precision agriculture is simply a new tool in our proverbial toolbox to help farmers," he said.

Cover crops, precision ag tools help improve soil

Pheasants Forever's program was not the only conservation topic on the agenda at the Precision Ag Summit. Chris Augustin, area soil health specialist at the North Central Research Extension Center in Minot, gave a talk on cover crops.

New tools allow producers to measure soil salinity, and when hooked up to GPS, those tools can give precise maps of where the salty areas of the field are. Using that data, farmers can decide to use cover crops to help control salinity or to determine which crops will thrive in the field conditions.

In some areas, soybeans might not be a good fit due to soil salinity, but barley, wheat or even corn might work, Augustin said. In other areas, the only thing that might work is a salt-tolerant grass.

"It can help remediate the area or at least help it from spreading," he said.

Using modern tools and cover crops to take care of soil is important for agriculture, Augustin said.

"Soil is our biggest asset we have as producers of agricultural crops," he said.