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Spreading the Seeds of Big Data

MSU Corn field at sunset

Michigan State University is spreading the seeds of big data to improve agricultural practices around the United States.

Through a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, MSU will lead a team of scientists to develop big-data approaches to better manage water and fertilizers and to adapt to changes brought on by climate variability.

“Our research shows the interactions between soil, crop, climate, hydrology and agricultural management, and determines their effects on crop yield and the bruno-basso_smenvironment,” said Bruno Basso, MSU ecosystems scientist. “This project links science with technology and big data analytics; we aim to help farmers better adapt to temperature extremes, droughts or excess water in fields so that they can make better decisions for the environment and maximize production and/or profits.”

Increased levels of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere from fertilizer, water runoff carrying phosphorous that contributes to algal blooms and nitrate leaching into groundwater are problems related to agriculture.

“Our team will develop and promote water-, nutrient- and climate-smart technologies,” Basso said. “To help increase the resiliency of our nation’s cropping systems, our goal will be to integrate crop models with yield maps, satellite, airborne and UAV imagery and to make them more accessible to producers and stakeholders.”

As part of the grant, Basso also will deploy the System Approach for Land-Use Sustainability model, pioneered at MSU. SALUS predicts crop yield, soil, water and nutrient conditions in current and future climates. It also can evaluate the effects of crop rotations, planting dates, irrigation and fertilizer use and project crop yields and their impact on the land and the environment.

Additional high-tech tools in MSU’s arsenal include the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to scan farm fields. One of MSU’s UAVs has three sensors: a multispectral camera to measure chlorophyll and plant nutrients status, a thermal camera, used to monitor plant temperature and a laser scanner, which measures individual plant height down to centimeters.

These integrated suites of tools can increase water and nutrient use efficiency. They will allow farmers to quickly pinpoint problem areas and address them precisely, as opposed to, a shotgun approach.

The project also includes extension and education components.

Basso’s research is funded in part by MSU AgBioResearch. Additional MSU researchers contributing to this grant include David Hyndman, Anthony Kendall, Joyce Parker and Jane Rice, geological sciences; Phil Robertson, Kellogg Biological Station; Jeff Andresen, geography; Jinhua Zhao, economics.

Other external partners include Jerry Hatfield, USDA-ARS Lab for Agriculture and the Environment, Iowa; Jim Butler, Kansas Geological Survey; Nick Brozovic, University of Nebraska; and Jonathan Winter, Dartmouth University.

Layne Cameron and Bruno Basso via MSU Today

— Feature photo by Kurt Stepnitz

— Inset photo, Bruno Basso, College of Natural Science

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