Doug: Data Drives Improvement in Sustainability

posted on Tuesday, December 13, 2022

DougWith a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Iowa State University, Doug McCorkle was never initially drawn to a career in agriculture. Still, his data-driven background has proved to be beneficial to thousands of farmers across the Midwest.

Born and raised in northern Virginia, Doug’s education, work and research have always been “behind the scenes,” driving better ways to evaluate data through computational analytics, data management and cloud computing.

Now five years as the Chief Science Officer with Sustainable Environmental Consultants, Doug leads the technology and data initiatives for the firm that has provided third-party verified environmental impact reports to nearly 10,000 pork, dairy, poultry and beef farmers.

“We’ve seen a big increase in the number of farmers who want to understand better how their decisions impact outcomes like erosion, greenhouse gas emissions, crop yields and water quality,” said McCorkle. “There’s an increasing desire to view things more holistically."

Doug says SEC’s work starts with collecting data points from farmers like yield data, planting dates, fertilizer use and tillage and spraying passes.

Then, he and his team run that data through four models so farmers can look at environmental outcomes through a broader lens.

SEC uses the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation 2 (RUSLE2) to measure soil erosion due to water, the Wind Erosion Prediction System (WEPS) to measure soil erosion due to wind, the Nutrient Tracking Tool to measure nitrogen and phosphorus loss in relation to water sources, and COMET-Farm, which measures greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration.

Doug says the models are essential because each is a widely accepted measurement tool used by the scientific and government community.

“Through the modeling and resulting reports, farmers have been able to make better decisions in their drive to meet both profitability and sustainability goals,” said Doug.

Manure Drives Positive Environmental Outcomes

The SEC team says the data demonstrating the environmental outcomes of manure is clear. “When applied with the rates outlined in the field’s manure management plan (MMP) and incorporated, manure generally has a positive impact on erosion because it reduces soil movement from wind and water,” said Doug.

“The most important aspect is the impact of manure on the bottom line for farmers,” said Doug. “At the end of the day, any nutrient source must be financially sustainable. With manure, farmers get twice the bang for their buck. They’re increasing soil organic carbon and overall soil health, with secondary benefits of reducing erosion if following those MMPs.”

Doug says that with the improvements in manure technology, farmers can apply manure more precisely while building organic matter and improving biological activity in the soil. He said there is an additional benefit because the soil receives the macronutrient plus micronutrients found in manure, which further benefits the soil’s health.

Doug says the exciting thing is Iowa Select Farms’ role with their farming partners. “They’re part of the solution, not the contributor to the problem.”