New climate data assessment tools for US grain farmers

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A university-led team has developed a set of tools to make climate data and information more accessible and useful to feed producers, says manager.

The Useful to Usable project (U2U) was designed to take currently collected climate data and generate accessible data that feed crop producers could use to decide what to plant, when and where along with how to maximize yields and reduce negative environmental effects, the group reported.

The team involved multiple researchers at several universities comprising a 12-state region in the Midwest, said Melissa Widhalm, U2U project manager. It was funded by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Although there has been research done on weather and a large amount of data generated, there also have been barriers for farmers wanting to make use of that information, she said. “We know there’s a lot of information out there,” she added.

“People are measuring data, and making new models, but [we looked to see] how could we make the existing data better for the people we serve” she told FeedNavigator. “We needed an inter-disciplinary team to change the approach [and] take existing information and make it more useful.”

Then the challenge was how to transfer that information to producers in a way that they could use it and that they could see the benefits of such data, she said. The work focused on gathering and translating that information for producers growing corn and soybeans.

“Early on in the project, we worked with farmers and farm advisors [to see] what kind of decisions they were making and what gaps could we fill,” she said.

Careful to not duplicate the work of others, especially in the area of big data, the project team set about examining historical trend data for longer-term future planning or to help farmers assess decisions.   

Project objectives

The project had five overarching objectives. These included:

Using data and models to understand the influence that anomalous weather has on crop variability and what this means for future management.

Understanding how climate information is used in agricultural decision making and establishing what are effective ways to spread usable climate knowledge.

Integrating climate model results and the needs of the agricultural community to develop tools, training materials and implementation practices that result in more efficient decision-making and use of climate-resilient farm practices.

Establishing the effectiveness of tools and materials used to support decisions and improving those resources based on user feedback, and 

Disseminating the refined decision support materials and extension programs in the US Corn Belt.

Barriers to data use

The project also included a social science piece, which gathered data on producer beliefs and responses to climate change as a way to better understand how it is viewed and to make tools developed more accessible, said Widhalm. “There are some strong trends on climate change and how receptive [producers] are to trying new strategies – we made a lot of interesting discoveries on that front, and that will help us communicate better with the agricultural community,” she added.

The process also sought to challenge common assumptions on what barriers existed by working with producers to gather their opinions.

Tools developed

The tools developed included: the AgClimate View, Climate Patterns Viewer, Probable Fieldwork Days, Corn GDD, Corn Split N and the Irrigation Investment.

The climate tools detaile information on what the presence of different climate patterns, like El Niño or the Artic Oscillation, have meant for conditions and crop yields in the Midwest and offer customized climate and crop yield data for the Corn Belt, with details on temperature, rainfall and feed crop yield trends for a multi-year period, said the group.

Crop-focused tools included details about current and historical growing degree days (GDD), frost risks and offer suggestions for planting, harvest and seed selection with location-specific support, the group said. Those tools also were designed to help with establishing the profitability of using a post-planting nitrogen application for corn.

Other tools offer information on fieldwork, the likelihood projects can be completed in a specified time period and can help producers determine the potential profitability of installing irrigation equipment based on historical models of use and yield calculations from different rainfall scenarios, they said.

“The corn growing degree tool is maybe the most popular,” said Widhalm. 

Now that the project has concluded, final comments are being collected and are set to be published later this year, she said.

The tools created through the program are set to migrate to the online services of the Midwestern Regional Climate Center and the High Plains Regional Climate Center, she said. They will be maintained and updated through those facilities.

It is possible that the planning tools also may be expanded to cover more crops and potentially livestock production, she said.

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