URBANA, Ill. – The USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced a $2.4 million grant through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to fund an interdisciplinary program led by researchers at the University of Illinois. The data-intensive farm management (DIFM) program will use precision agriculture technologies to run full-field, on-farm agronomic trials that change application rates of nitrogen fertilizer. The data generated from the project will help farmers manage nitrogen application to increase profits and reduce nutrient runoff.
Until now, precision agriculture technology’s potential for improving farm management has not yet been fully realized.
“What we’re doing differently is changing the management variables,” says U of I agricultural economist David Bullock. “We’re characterizing the fields and taking yield data, but we’re also going to be changing nitrogen application rates on a fine scale throughout each field. This will generate a lot of information on what works and what doesn’t.”
The team of 28 researchers and extension personnel from six universities will be coordinating on-farm experiments across 100 fields in Illinois, Nebraska, Kentucky, Argentina, and Uruguay over the four-year study period. In addition to generating a substantial amount of data, the ultimate aim of the project is to develop software that will communicate management ideas to farm advisors. Once that software is developed, the researchers hope to run trials on thousands of farms.
“Because all our experiments will be run on a common framework, we will end up with a lot of data,” Bullock reports. “We’re going to use cutting-edge statistical and economic analysis to determine how different farm characteristics affect optimal application rates.”
Existing management recommendations are often geared toward entire regions or cropping systems, without taking site-specific data into account. The researchers estimate that, after a few years, they will be able to give farmers profitable advice based on experimentation done in their specific fields.
“That’s revolutionary,” says Bullock.
The researchers are seeking farmers to participate in the study. Although farms will become experimental sites, disruption to farmers will be minimal. Experimental protocols will be automatically programmed into farm machinery, meaning farmers simply need to drive their machines as usual. Importantly, farmers will be fully compensated for any losses throughout the experimental period. They will also receive $500 for their participation in the project.