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Big Data Shows How to Improve Profits and Help Environment

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Research and Science Technology
Apr 22, 2019
Yield stability in a field graphic
Research at Michigan State University (MSU) can produce charts that show crop yield stability in individual fields across the U.S. Corn Belt. (Image courtesy of the Basso Lab at MSU)

(Editor’s note: April 22 is Earth Day, when events worldwide demonstrate support for environmental protection. Grants from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) support many projects dedicated to improving air, soil, water quality.)

Technology always changes the way we think and how we do things. Now, thanks to research at Michigan State University (MSU), farmers have a new tool to determine precisely where to focus their efforts… or not. The result can save them money and save the environment from excess – wasted – fertilizer.

Dr. Bruno Basso, MSU professor of ecosystems science, led a project that has determined which areas of a farmer’s field consistently produce high yields and those areas that always under produce. Armed with this knowledge, farmers may reliably save time and money while reducing fertilizer loss and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

“The study provides a breakthrough in agricultural research as it helps to solve one of the most widespread environmental problems facing crop-producing regions – nitrogen loss,” Basso said.

No small-scale effort, Basso’s research was able to determine how much small-scale yield variability there is across in the United States Corn Belt. The novel procedure uses high-resolution satellite imagery to quantify each small piece of ground (30 m) in fields across 70 million acres of the U.S. Corn Belt.

“The cool thing is that after many years of talking about big data and precision agriculture, we have now a knowledge of how much variability is present in single fields of the Midwest,” he said. “This information is of paramount importance to accurately develop variable input prescription maps to increase farmers’ profitability and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture.”

The study is the first to quantify nitrogen losses from the low-producing areas of individual fields. By assessing how much Corn Belt farmers spend on fertilizer that goes unused, Basso learned that the best outcome – both for farmers and the environment – is to avoid fertilizing the underperforming areas of each field. He said it might be better, from an economic standpoint, to leave these areas unfarmed and to plant them with conservation grasses or perennial bioenergy crops.

“Farmers want to be good environmental stewards, and these findings give them an additional way to do so – to avoid over-fertilizing areas of fields that will lose the most nitrogen to groundwater, rivers and streams,” he said. “Nobody wins when fertilizer is wasted on areas that won’t produce. Once farmers identify these areas, they can both save money and help the environment.

“There is no ‘Planet B’,” he said. “We need to continue to build resilient and healthy soil, which is a very thin layer of our precious earth. The current agricultural systems need to adapt and become more efficient on less farmland to produce enough food for everyone while protecting our environment that we desperately rely on.”

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education, and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.