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Farmers go Digital to Confront Changing Growing Conditions

Posted by Carlos J. Harris, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Research and Science
Oct 07, 2014

This post is part of the Science Tuesday feature series on the USDA blog. Check back each week as we showcase stories and news from USDA’s rich science and research portfolio.

American farmers have a long history of overcoming obstacles. In 1938, they helped the country emerge from the Dust Bowl by switching to contour plowing and eradicated the boll weevil forty years later by employing integrated pest management techniques.  In both cases – and many others – USDA was there to help farmers achieve success.

Many of the obstacles they face today are on a much larger scale, associated with climate change and seasonal weather variability. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is helping farmers get the tools they need to meet those challenges.

NIFA provided a $5 million Agriculture and Food Research Initiative grant in 2011 to Purdue University to lead a multi-institutional effort to provide farmers with online tools that could make their crop-related decisions easier.  Today, the resulting “Useful to Usable” (U2U) project is helping Corn Belt farmers improve their resilience and profitability amid the irregular weather conditions of a changing climate. The U2U project takes existing weather data and then provides the information in formats that farmers can use to manage their crops – what, when, and where to plant; fertilizing; irrigating; and more.

The U2U team consisted of Purdue, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, South Dakota State University, University of Illinois, University of Michigan, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and University of Wisconsin.

“Developing solutions to the complex problems associated with agricultural production and climate change requires many skill sets and also localized knowledge,” said Melissa Widhalm, U2U project manager at Purdue. “While the entire Midwest is growing corn, specific regions have unique climate characteristics, farm management strategies, and social factors that must be considered. By bringing together a diversity of experts from across the region we can accomplish work that no single university could do alone.“

“The goal of U2U is to develop a dashboard of tools that people can use for decision-making, not only within the season but also when looking ahead at multiple seasons,” explained Dennis Todey, South Dakota State University’s U2U program director.

According to Todey, U2U contains various web-based tools, including the Corn Growing Degree Days (GDD). Most plants, including corn, develop at rates that are dependent upon how much warmth they receive each day. GDD is a mathematical formula (based on daily temperatures) that determines how many units of heat the corn accumulates over the course of the growing season. Farmers can then use that data to compare how their crops are actually performing and when they may reach maturity compared to potential freeze conditions. U2U’s GDD method has proven to be helpful in both food safety and economic growth for farmers.

Farmers select the location and time when corn is planted and determine the amount of days it will take to reach maturity. According to Todey, the program then assesses the development compared to a 30-year average to project tasseling and maturity dates.

“The GDD tool has been particularly useful this year because of delayed planting and overall cool summer conditions.  Producers have been able to review where they are in development and how likely corn is to reach maturity.  Producers can then make decision on chopping corn for silage, changing marketing decisions, or propane purchases for corn drying needs,” said Todey.

Another U2U decision support tool is the Climate Patterns Viewer (CPV).  CPV gives a historic view of how El Nino weather patterns and Arctic Oscillations have influenced corn yield across the Corn Belt.  The CPV map shows how these weather events have affected temperature, precipitation, and deviations in yield from 1981-2010.

“This is very timely, since we’re looking at a pending El Nino,” Todey said. “Farmers are now able to track the potential weather month by month and better understand how oscillations effect temperature changes, precipitation and crop yielding.”

Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people’s daily lives and the nation’s future.

Category/Topic: Research and Science