The Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute (DWFI) at the University of Nebraska (UNL) is collaborating on a project to help growers and policymakers with short-, mid- and long-range crop production planning. Accurate forecasting helps growers make decisions like crop choice, fertilizer use and irrigation scheduling, optimizing inputs for the most profitable — and sustainable — scenario. The five year, $10 million project is led by the University of Maryland and aims to maximize crop production in the Midwest through efficient water and nutrient use. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
As part of the project, researchers will develop a dashboard allowing growers and other users to input information about their location and crops to customize forecasts. The Dashboard for Agricultural Water use and Nutrient management (DAWN) integrates an innovative forecasting and risk analysis system to provide farmers and water managers across the Corn Belt with the most relevant and reliable information for farm-level decision-making.
“The goal of DAWN is to produce a useful tool for the farmer that saves them money in inputs while helping to decrease the leaching of nitrogen into Midwest water systems and aquifers,” said Christopher Neale, director of research at DWFI and a member of the DAWN team.
DWFI will supply several of its previously-developed tools for estimating daily evapotranspiration (ET) to the project. ET is the total loss of water due to plant transpiration and soil evaporation into the air — a key measurement for determining a crop’s unique daily water or nutrient needs. Accurate and timely ET data helps growers apply precisely the amount of water that crops need, when they need it, to achieve the best possible yields and prevent leaching.
DWFI’s SETMI — or Spatial EvapoTranspiration Modeling Interface — will be incorporated into DAWN as one of the irrigation scheduling approaches. In DAWN, SETMI will use the institute’s GloDET — or global daily evapotranspiration — product in its modeling. GloDET’s datasets will be downscaled from 400 meter resolution to 30 meter resolution using Landsat imagery and the PyDisALEXI routine to provide greater accuracy.
Existing decision support tools may evaluate only conditions and tradeoffs at individual points, but fail to capture larger system feedbacks — complex interactions among agriculture, climate, land and water use, and economic and environmental impacts. However, DAWN will include data from large-enough scales to capture feedbacks across different regions, times and sectors, and make it practical and accessible to growers at a farm level. The information will help them make decisions for the growing season, as well as on a daily basis.
Neale also says DAWN could be useful if carbon credits are given to farmers in the future. The dashboard could help farmers apply exactly the right amount of fertilizer, minimizing the nitrous oxide emissions subtracted from their credits while protecting the environment at the same time.
Although the pandemic has been a challenge over the past year, the team plans to educate growers on the beta version of DAWN this winter and put it to use in fields next summer, engaging farmers locally through the Nebraska On Farm Network and throughout the Midwest using the FamilyFarms Group.
The DAWN project will also hire a new research assistant professor at UNL to work on nitrogen management, crop systems, training farmers and gathering feedback. The new hire will work with Christopher Neale; Laila Puntel, DWFI Faculty Fellow and UNL professor of agronomy and horticulture; and Joe Luck, DWFI Faculty Fellow and UNL associate professor of biological systems engineering and associate director of the Eastern Nebraska Research, Extension and Education Center (ENREEC). Other UNL engaged in the project include Roger Elmore, DWFI Faculty Fellow and emeritus professor of agronomy and horticulture and Laura Thompson, extension educator with the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR).
Neale also sees potential for the project to be modified for other areas of the world. “The aspect of nitrogen management would apply to other large agricultural systems, like Brazil, that have similar crops, or in other places with large-scale farms using fertilizers,” he said.
The DAWN project team includes researchers, extension specialists, educators and stakeholders. The project is led by the University of Maryland and additional partners in the project include researchers at Colorado State University, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, the University of Nebraska and FamilyFarms Group.