Big data helps farmers adapt to climate change

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A study by Michigan State University says big data and digital technologies can help farmers adapt to climate change.

The study is the first to precisely quantify soil and landscape features and spatial and temporal yield variations in response to climate variations.

It is also the first to use big data to identify areas within individual fields where yield is unstable.

The US lost an estimated US$536m between 2007 and 2016 because of yield variation in unstable farmland across the Midwest.

More than one-quarter of corn and soybean cropland is unstable with yield fluctuating between over-performing and underperforming.

Bruno Basso, MSU foundation professor of earth and environmental sciences, and postdoctoral research fellow Rafael Martinez-Feria set out to address the key pillars of the National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Coordinated Agricultural Project that Basso has led since 2015.

Basso said, “First, we wanted to know why – and where – crop yields varied from year to year in the corn and soybean belt of the USA. Next, we wanted to find out if it was possible to use big data to develop and deploy climate-smart agriculture solutions to help farmers reduce cost, increase yields and limit environmental impact.”

Using data obtained from satellites, research aircraft, drones and remote sensors, and farmers via advanced geospatial sensor suites in combine harvesters, Basso and Martinez-Feria mixed big data and digital expertise.

They found the interaction between topography, weather and soil had a major impact on how crop yields respond to extreme weather in unstable areas.

Terrain variations create localized areas where water stands or runs off, and two-thirds of unstable zones occur in these summits and depressions.

Yields in water-deficient areas can be 23-33% below average for low rainfall seasons and water excess areas were 26-33% below in wet years.

Basso said, “Knowing that you have an area shown to be water deficient, you will plan your fertilizer applications differently. The amount of fertilizer for this area should be significantly lower than what you would apply in areas of the same field with more water available to the plants.”

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