How U.S. Cotton Growers Support Biodiversity with Sustainable Agriculture
October 4, 2022
A new Cotton LEADS℠ webpage explores the industry’s impact on biodiversity and emerging conservation technologies.
Cotton fields are home to a diverse population of large and small animals, insects, plants and microflora that support healthy ecosystems on and around the farm. This biodiversity is not only important to support crop growth and cotton production, it’s a vital aspect of sustainable agriculture in the face of declining plant and animal species around the globe.
Fortunately, many of the agricultural practices that that improve soil health, prevent erosion and improve water use efficiency help preserve biodiversity. U.S. cotton farming families are also discovering that as they prioritize practices that enhance wildlife habitats, they simultaneously enrich the ecosystem and cotton production system.
Agricultural Practices that Support Biodiversity
Sustainable agricultural practices that support the ecosystem surrounding cotton inevitably benefit cotton production as well. But a few stand out as particularly relevant to biodiversity conservation efforts.
Employing Reduced Tillage and Cover Crops: Conservation tillage and the use of cover crops positively impact nearly every area of sustainability by reducing soil erosion and increasing soil health. These practices allow soil to hold more water and nutrients and support a more diverse soil microbiome. The microbiome improves nutrient cycling and efficiency, which helps growers optimize fertilizer use.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM): IPM is an environmentally and economically sensitive strategy for reducing damage from weeds and insects, where growers only apply herbicides and pesticides when necessary. Limiting herbicide and weed tillage again enriches the soil, and by limiting pesticide use, cotton growers help protect pollinators vital to all plant growth. Some growers are even partnering with beekeepers to develop and implement state-specific pollinator protection plans, known as Managed Pollinator Protection Plans.
Planted Buffers and Field Borders: Instead of leaving fields fallow, farmers often plant field borders and buffers to improve the ecosystems that buttress their crops. Partnering with Quail Forever, cotton growers across the South are supporting the iconic bobwhite quail by creating habitats as field borders. Another strategy to support biodiversity includes planting strips of vegetation called “riparian buffers” around waterways to protect water quality. These buffers provide habitats for birds and terrestrial species while supporting downstream aquatic species.
To learn more about how sustainable agriculture practices support conservation efforts, visit our Biodiversity webpage.
Precision Agriculture and Conservation
Precision agriculture helps U.S. cotton growers cut down on inputs while maintaining healthy plants by providing farm-specific and even field-specific data on where to apply water and fertilizer. The data enables growers to identify underperforming areas of their land that might serve for conservation opportunities. Several research studies and technologies use the data from precision agriculture tools to support conservation efforts. Just a few examples include:
- Field to Market’s Fieldprint® Platform enables farmers to evaluate their own progress using the Habitat Potential Index (HPI), a biodiversity metric that “scores the potential for a given farm to provide wildlife habitat on land or in the water.”1
- Cotton Incorporated and Mississippi State University researchers are collaborating on a project that created the MSU Precision Conservation Tool, a decision-support software that leverages precision agriculture data to identify exact locations where conservation practices are the most economically beneficial. The tool puts precision conservation into more cotton growers’ hands and provides them with additional incentives for taking action to improve biodiversity.
Visit our Biodiversity webpage to learn about NGOs and government resources that foster biodiversity conservation on the farm.
U.S. cotton growers see themselves as part of a long line of stewards dedicated to leaving the land they work and the environment better than they found it. Supporting biodiversity is an important aspect of that mission: it intertwines with soil health, water quality, pet management and much more. As precision agriculture continues to gain ground, U.S. cotton farms should see additional advances in conservation technology and in biodiversity improvement.
1Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture. (2021). Environmental Outcomes from On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States. National Indicators Report, fourth edition.
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