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First steps – rules of the game

Welcome to “My Virtual Farm”. Your goal is to manage your farm as sustainably as possible. That means that you should establish good economic practices, keeping in mind the potential negative effect of your choices on the environment. Your sustainability performance will be displayed on a scale between 0% and 100%. The closer your score is to 100%, the better the overall sustainability of your farm is.

You are the farm manager of 396 hectares of farmland divided into 16 individual plots which have different characteristics. They vary in size and soil type, some are located near waterbodies and others near hedges. Consider all these properties when making your management decision. Details on field characteristics are displayed in the dashboard at the bottom of the screen.

To plant on the fields, simply choose one of the 8 crops available in the menu at the bottom of the screen. Your current choice is always highlighted on a black surface. After the crop has been chosen, select a farming intensity and tillage system in the same way and assign your choice to the fields. If you have changed your mind about the combination of crop, farming intensity and tillage system, you can always modify the selection in the menu. To complete the season, you must have assigned a crop, farming intensity and tillage system to all plots. When this is done, an orange button saying: “sowing completed, go to the results” will appear. Click on the it to finish the season and see your results.

Crops

Winter wheat

Winter wheat is highly profitable and in economic terms, it is usually the most important crop in a cereal rotation. Winter wheat is demanding and to achieve highest yields it must be sown on deep, nutrient-rich clay soils. Compared to other cereals, it needs more moist and warmer conditions but it is very sensitive to wet root zones. Winter wheat can be grown in conventional and all conservation tillage systems and it responds well to intensive farming.

Winter oil seed rape

Winter oil seed rape is a very profitable crop and it is a very important rotation element among cereal crops. Winter oil seed rape is demanding and to attain high yields it must be sown on deep, nutrient-rich clay soils. Nevertheless, other soils will also provide good yields as long as the root zone is not wet. This crop responds well to conservation tillage, to direct seeding production systems and to intensive farming.

Winter barley

Winter barley is a profitable crop in local brewing or livestock markets. It is known to be robust and it tolerates sandy and shallow soils. However, the highest yields will be achieved in deep loamy soils. This crop can grow well in conventional and all conservation tillage systems. In addition, it responds well to intensive farming. Although increasing the investment must be put into economic perspective of possible returns.

Spring beans

Spring beans are a valuable protein source for livestock markets. Profitability is usually lower than for cereals but they provide a useful break in wheat rotations. Spring beans can be grown on a large variety of soils, although heavy clayey soils will be ideal. Both, conventional and conservation tillage systems are suitable for this crop. As a legume, beans will produce their own nitrogen. Consequently, intensification might not deliver the anticipated response in profitability.

Potatoes

Potatoes are a highly profitable crop that grows best in loamy, well aerated soils i.e. sandy loams. Shallow or cold and wet soils are not suitable for production. In addition, it is a very sensitive crop to soil borne diseases, which can be controlled best in conventional tillage systems. Potatoes require some degree of intensive care, but increasing the investment must be put into economic perspective of possible returns.

Maize (silage)

Maize (silage) is a very profitable crop. It is considered robust and it can tolerate almost any type of soil under warm conditions and enough water supply. It performs well in conventional and all conservation tillage systems. Furthermore, it responds well to intensive farming but increasing the investment must be put into economic perspective of possible returns, especially if conditions are not optimal.

Grass (silage)

Grass represents a low-cost feed for dairy production. Unless it is used for consumption in an own dairy farm, profitability is usually low. Grassland, especially if left permanently, can be very beneficial to the environment, which makes it a useful alternative on fields in sensitive areas. Its intensification might not be profitable depending on output and marketability.

Agri-environment schemes

Agri-environment schemes provide funding to manage dedicated areas of a farm in an environmentally beneficial way. However, the contribution of these areas to farm profit is low. Nevertheless, when comparing to productive farming, agri-environment schemes have a greater contribution to the improvement of the environmental condition of the farmland.

Crop rotation

In general, diverse crop rotations are more sustainable than homogeneous ones. Specific pest or weed pressure tends to be lower and crop residues from other crops can provide useful nutrients and biodiversity. Moreover, soil health can increase from different beneficial organisms associated to certain crop environments. Keep in mind the specific characteristics of each crop. For example, the sowing season, type of crop (leaf, cereal or root crop) and the ability to fixate nitrogen.

Soils

Loam

Loam can be considered a fertile soil that offers good growing conditions for all crops. It contains sand, silt and clay particles in similar proportions. It’s ability to retain water and nutrients make it a favorable arable soil.

Clayey loam

Clayey loams have a slightly higher content of clay particles than normal loams. Although infiltration rates can be slightly lower, the capacity to retain moisture and nutrients for plant growth is even higher. For most crops, this is the best soil for high quality production. For instance, cereals, and oil seed rape are crops that benefit from the good growing conditions offered by this type of soil.

Sandy loam

The higher sand content of sandy loams makes them lose water and nutrients more easily than heavier loams. Nevertheless, it is well aerated and less prone to high humidity. Some crops, such as potatoes, grow best on sandy loam.

Shallow ground water

Water availability is not a bad thing, but some crops cannot deal well with very humid conditions. For example, all root crops are sensitive to humidity. As long as the soil is not too wet, maize and grassland can deal best with high water availability. It is worth considering, that the latter has a lower profitability but it is more tolerant to humidity.

Karstic soil

Karstic soil does not retain water and nutrients over longer periods. Usually, this soil type is shallow, contains rocks and is less fertile than other soils. Under these conditions, lower yields are inevitable. Therefore, it is worth considering a reduction of inputs and investment. All crops planted in karstic soils will be subject to harsh conditions. However, some can deal with them better than others. Barley is relatively robust and also oils seed rape can be profitable even with reduced inputs and management. Alternatively, spring beans are a good option for a low input – low output scenario.

Economic risk

If a farmer grows several different crops, the risk of economic failure caused by unforeseen damage in one specific crop is lower. As a result, growing different crops in a season will decrease the economic risk and the score for this indicator will be better.

Basic data and indicators

Each crop has its own characteristics which influence the impact on individual indicators. The potential to perform well or not, is strongly influenced by management decisions (soil in which the crop is sown, tillage system, farming intensity etc.). Take a close look at the charts below to understand the potential performance of each crop based on the different indicators.

Please keep in mind that the results are not exclusively driven by the selected crop. The thoughtful combination of management factors (plot characteristics, crop, farming intensity and tillage system) in the most effective way (environmentally and economically), will lead to good and sustainable farming. Consequently, the length of the bars in the graphs can vary considerably depending on the management factors chosen on the individual plots.

Profit

The profit is calculated by subtracting operational costs from the revenues generated by selling the harvest. The costs may include agricultural machines, utilization of plant protection products and fertilizers, land leases, etc. Total profit depends on the quantity harvested, the price the farmer receives and the operational costs mentioned above. Furthermore, the potential profit differs from one crop to the other based on variables like the yield potential of the soil, the intensity of farming, among other factors. This variability is indicated by the transparency of the bars in the graph.

Profit

The higher the profit of the selected combination of crop, field characteristics (soil type and structure element), farming intensity and tillage system, the better will be the score of this indicator.

Greenhouse gas emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions are all gaseous emissions relevant to the greenhouse effect (CO2, N2O, CH4 etc.), which are released during the production of a certain crop. One source of greenhouse gases is the combustion of fossil fuels as a source of energy. This includes the use of diesel for all machinery operations on the field as well as the transport of goods and the energy demand during the production of input materials such as fertilizers.

Another source of greenhouse gas emissions is the one caused by the reaction of fertilizer nutrients, the so-called field emissions. Transformation processes of solid or liquid nutrients in the soil to greenhouse gases such as N2O and CH4, are largely inevitable and will take place wherever fertilizers are applied. The potential greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to the amount and type of nutrients applied. Therefore, they are a function of the individual cropping system.

The potential performance is strongly influenced by management decisions (soil in which the crop is sown, tillage system, farming intensity, etc.). This variability is indicated by the transparency of the bars in the graph.

GHG Emissions

The lower the GHG emissions, the better the crop performs.

Eutrophication potential

The eutrophication potential is the potential accumulation of nutrients from farming practices in rivers and ground water. Wherever fertilizers are being applied, some of the nutrients are being transported into waterbodies by infiltration and rain water run-off. The eutrophication potential is different for each crop and also for each field according to soil characteristics and the proximity of waterbodies. Obviously, the closer a field is to a river the more likely it is that nutrients can be washed into it. Additionally, soils with a lower content of clay particles are more prone to the leaching of nutrients. Clay minerals are very fine and the small pores between them retain infiltration water and nutrients more effectively if clay content is high.

The amount of nutrients which could potentially leach into water bodies varies between crops. This is mainly due to the varying fertilizer requirements of different crops. Furthermore, crops which do not fully cover the ground until their later growth stages exacerbate runoff which leads to nutrient losses early on. A key factor is the combination of soil properties and the intensity of cultivation.

Eutrophication

The lower the eutrophication potential is, the better the crop performs.

Contribution to biodiversity

The biodiversity performance describes the potential of crops to be beneficial for organisms within the field and its surroundings as well as to support biodiversity in the agricultural landscape. Some crops such as beans or grassland are known to have a higher value as habitat and a source of food for a variety of species compared to crops like maize or potatoes. The potential performance is strongly influenced by management decisions. For example, high farming intensities negatively affect biodiversity on the field. There is an inherent tradeoff between biodiversity and farming intensity. Ideally, the farmer can minimize the tradeoff effect by identifying fields which have the least arable value. On these fields, biodiversity enhancing crops or agri-environment schemes have the same positive effect on biodiversity compared to highly productive fields but without leading to more significant losses in total farm profitability.

Biodiversity

The higher the contribution to biodiversity is, the better the crop performs.

Soil health

Soil health describes the potential of certain crops and management practices to contribute to soil fertility, good structure, resistance to erosion, etc. Apart from agri-environment schemes, which have the largest positive effect on soil health, beans and grassland are very beneficial crops. Beans can use atmospheric nitrogen as a nutrient source and require less additional fertilizers. Grassland usually develops a thick sward accumulating large amounts of soil organic carbon. Problematic crops include maize and potatoes, which require conventional tillage (plough) that generates strong soil disturbance. In addition, soil exposure due to lower ground coverage, increases the risk of erosion. Lower farming intensities tend to be advantageous because the risk of soil compaction, soil erosion, over-fertilization, acidification and the loss of soil organic carbon, decreases. If higher farming intensities are chosen, potential problematic effects can be mitigated by conservation tillage or direct seeding. However, some crops like potatoes cannot deal well with reduced tillage.

The potential performance is strongly influenced by the combination of management decisions (soil in which the crop is sown, tillage system, farming intensity etc.). This variability is indicated by the transparency of the bars in the graph.

Soil health

The higher the soil health performance is, the better the crop performs.

Ecotoxicity

Ecotoxicity describes the risk of chemical substances (crop protection agents) being released into the environment after their intentional application on a certain field. The driving factor influencing the ecotox score is farming intensity. A higher farming intensity implies a larger number of pesticide applications increasing the risk of an unintentional release in the environment. Furthermore, some crops require few crop protection measures even at relatively high intensities. For example, grassland and spring beans are robust crops which generally require less pesticides applications even under high intensity farming. On the other side, even under low intensity farming schemes, crops like barley or potatoes require a significant amount of crop protection measures to be feasible.

The potential performance is strongly influenced by management decisions (soil in which the crop is sown, tillage system, farming intensity etc.). This variability is indicated by the transparency of the bars in the graph.

Ecotox

The lower the ecotox risk is, the better the crop performs.

Farming intensity

The farming intensity describes the amount of inputs, such as fertilizers, crop protection, diesel, labor time, etc., which a farmer decides to invest in the production of a given crop.

Very low

The investment is minimal and barely sufficient. Labor time and passes over the field are minimized. The reduced amounts of fertilizer reduce costs but this limits the attainability of the yield potential. Additionally, crop protection is low and it is not used preventively, which can lead to significant yield losses under adverse pest pressure.

Low

The investment is reduced but sufficient. Labor time and passes over the field are minimized. Reduced amounts of fertilizer reduce costs but the yield potential can possibly not be attained if conditions are favorable. Crop protection is used efficiently but not preventively, which can lead to yield losses under highly adverse pest pressure.

Medium

The investment is optimized to attain good yields. Labor time and passes over the field serve the purpose of meeting the yield potential. Fertilizers are used efficiently according to the expected nutrient demand and allow good yields under favorable conditions. Crop protection is used at all stages, occasionally preventively, to protect the expected yield.

High

The investment is optimized to attain high yields. In addition, labor time and passes over the field are adapted to achieve the full yield potential. Fertilizers are used to meet the nutrient demand of high yields including reserves allowing to attain the full yield potential under favorable conditions. Crop protection is used at all stages to the full extent, often preventively, to protect the full yield potential.

Very high

The investment is optimized to attain maximum yields. Labor time and passes over the field are adapted to reach the maximum yield attainable. Fertilizers are applied to meet the nutrient demand under all circumstances including reserves allowing to reach the highest yield levels under optimal conditions. Crop protection is used at all stages to the full extent, including all preventive applications, to protect the maximum yield potential under all circumstances.

Tillage

Direct seeding

Direct seeding is a type of tillage system where the disturbance of soil is reduced to a minimum. The preparation of the seedbed and the actual sowing is combined in a single pass over the field using specialized machinery. Usually, the plant residues of the previous harvest are left on the field completely untreated. In the following sowing season, the seed is mechanically placed directly into the soil beneath the residues of the previous crop. The reduced number of passes combined with the above ground plant residues and the undisturbed subsoil, results in a lower risk of compaction and soil erosion, a better soil structure, higher infiltration rates and increases in soil organic carbon. The disadvantage is that direct seeding usually requires a higher use of pesticides as pest pressure increases without mechanical soil management.

Conservation tillage

Conservation tillage includes all soil preparation system where the disturbance of soil is reduced compared to conventional ploughing systems and the soil remains covered by plant residues of the previous crop by at least 30%. The preparation of the seedbed and the actual sowing can be combined in a single pass over the field using specialized machinery. However, the separation of these two combined with multiple soil preparation passes is also possible. The soil preparation does not include mold board or deep chisel ploughs. The reduced number of passes, the above ground plant residues and the less disturbed subsoil, results in a lower risk of compaction and soil erosion, a better soil structure, higher infiltration rates and soil organic carbon increase. In this context, it is less effective than direct seeding. Conservation tillage usually requires a higher use of pesticides as there is some increase of pest pressure with reduced mechanical soil management.

Plough

The use of the plough is synonym for conventional tillage systems, where most crop residues are incorporated into the soil using mold board or deep chisel ploughs. The conventional tillage system includes several additional passes using discs, harrows, rolls and cutters in many variations to assure effective weed management and seedbed preparation. The high number of passes and the disturbance of the soil can increase the risk of compaction and soil erosion, reduce soil structure, infiltration rates and soil organic carbon. However, the mechanical pest control is very effective and can reduce the amount of necessary chemical crop protections measures.

Landscape elements

Rivers

Rivers and other waterbodies are vulnerable ecosystems providing valuable services, e.g. source of fresh water. Ecosystem services can be significantly compromised if the composition of a waterbody is changed by nutrients, crops protection agents or heavy metals from external sources e.g. agricultural activities. In addition, most substances are very mobile once they are transported by water. Therefore, to avoid substances entering an adjacent waterbody, either directly or through infiltration or erosion, specific measures need to be taken into account. Reducing the farming intensity and choosing crops which require fewer inputs on fields adjacent to rivers, can help to mitigate the risk of substances entering surface water ecosystems.

Hedges

Hedges provide valuable services like habitat for beneficial species or protection from wind. Any farmer should have an interest to maintain or improve the conditions of hedges on his land. The provided services, especially the habitat function, can be negatively affected by farming activities in the hedge’s proximity. Drift of crop protection agents and the transport of nutrients into adjacent habitats can impact species compositions and diminish beneficial populations. Consequently, increasing the farming intensity next to hedges or similar structures should be avoided or done with special care.

Community chest cards

During the course of the game community chest cards will be displayed. These cards will confront the farmer with additional challenges which need to be addressed. Some cards will appear before a round is played, so that farm management can be adapted if necessary. However, other events will happen unexpectedly, as it is the case in the reality of all farmers. Nevertheless, the impact of unknown challenges can be minimized through diverse and sustainable farm management.

Interpretations of results

The sustainability performance is displayed in a percent score. The score can range from 0% to 100%, where higher scores indicate better results. There are three levels of results:

  1. Indicators
    • Profit
    • Economic risk
    • GHG emissions
    • Eutrophication
    • Biodiversity
    • Soil health
    • Ecotox
  2. Categories
    • Economy
    • Environment
  3. Total score
    • Sustainability

For each indicator an individual score between 0-100% can be attained. The scores of the indicators GHG emissions, Eutrophication, Biodiversity, Soil health and Ecotox are weighted equally and then aggregated to the Environment category. The indicator scores of profit and economic risk are aggregated to the category score of Economy, with each of them contributing by 75% and 25% respectively. Finally, the average of the two categories, Economy and Environment, is calculated to obtain the total sustainability score.