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The Future of Predicting Yield Production

As farmers gear up for planting season each year, a certain question may cross their minds before putting seed in the planters: How will we be better able to predict yields this fall?

Researchers at Iowa State University (ISU) are investigating just that. From analyzing genetics, developing new hybrids, creating plant wearable sensors, and establishing new tools, these professors are hoping to make breakthroughs for all farmers to better predict yields long before harvest.

The Big Picture

Pat Schnable, an ISU professor in agronomy and director of the Plant Sciences Institute, says innovative technologies on plant genetics and field management are making biology more predictive.

“The idea is that if we can fully understand cropping systems, we will be able to predict the performance of a given variety in a given field under a given management practice,” says Schnable. “If we’re successful, we’ll be able to increase the rate of genetic gain, breed crops to withstand weather variabilities, and improve access to farmers with evidence-based recommendations.”

Overall, he says, this should lead to boosting yields and increasing yield stability from field to field and year to year.

The data collected from Schnable’s research will benefit both small and large farmers. By understanding the genetics, researchers will be able to incorporate them into commercial hybrids, establishing a better yield for everyone.

Studying improved crop yield predictions includes examining the crop’s environment and precipitation. “If we really want to predict the yield loss or identify management practices to increase yields, we have to start with the water,” says Sotirios Archontoulis, ISU professor in agronomy.

Archontoulis says science has a good understanding of water precipitation but lacks understanding of water below the soil surface and is working to narrow the gap between the two.

Plant Sensors and Plant ‘Tattoos’

Recently developed technological devices measuring nitrogen and moisture intake, are creating remarkable strides for scientists and plant biologists in predicting yields.

An implantable nitrate sensor, developed by Liang Dong, SU associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is specific for nitrate and can be embedded right into the stalk of a crop.

Dong says the goal of the nitrate sensor is to obtain real-time data, enabling researchers to give recommendations to farmers regarding how much nitrogen is needed.

“This has never been done before,” says Schnable. “Not only can the sensor be used on crops, but it can measure nitrates in tile water, nitrate levels in the soil, as well as nitrogen in manure, which can be beneficial in knowing the true concentrations.”

He is using the device as he seeks to develop hybrids that are more efficient in using nitrogen fertilizer.

A second sensor developed by Dong, known as the plant tattoo, is an adhesive graphene sensor measuring a plant’s water vapor or how much water leaves the plant.

Schnable says they can measure how fast the water moves from the roots to the lower leaves and from the lower leaves to the upper leaves of a plant. There are genetic differences among the varieties, providing hope that it will be possible to develop varieties that will be drought-tolerant.

The sensor will be important for scientists to measure drought tolerance in different crop varieties and hybrids. However, Schnable says the biggest impact will be on farmland.

“Farmers are going to be able to use these to make water management decisions,” he says. “They will be able to put sensors on a number of plants in a pivot circle. The data received from the plants will be able to communicate to the pivot and tell it how much water to put in certain parts of the field.”

These discoveries will guide researchers to a better understanding of genetic control of plant and agronomic characteristics, leading to development of better hybrids for farmers across the Midwest.

Yield-Predicting Tools

While the plant sensors haven’t been released for commercial use, there are products on the market farmers can use to better predict yields and take stressors off their crops.

Ag Pixel

Ag Pixel, located in Johnston, Iowa, is a company assisting farmers by using unmanned aerial vehicles such as drones. The company can locate potential crops and farmland in need of attention with high-performance cameras that can detect water, nutrient, disease, and insect attacks before the human eye.

“One of the things we strive for is getting the data to farmers in a format they can use,” says Kevin Price, executive vice president of Ag Pixel. “The last thing we want to do is hand them the information and say good luck, so we convert the information in a highly detailed map that is true to scale.”

Scout Pro

Developed by three Iowa State University students, Scout Pro is designed for retailers, independent agronomists, grower organizations, and seed companies.

This scouting program provides high-quality images to identify pests as well as their life cycle and threshold. Photos can then be added to the scouting report to diagnose issues affecting yield.

“Our goal with our system is to be an extension of what folks are already doing in the field,” says Stuart McCulloh, director of customer success for Scout Pro. “We want to provide consistency and efficiency, and have good quality data.”

Scout Pro customers can easily access scouting platforms and information from the Urbandale, Iowa-based company by downloading the app from the Apple AppStore.

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