What Does the Future of Crop Yield Prediction Hold?

In the Midwestern corn belt, farmers are getting ready for the sowing season. Each and every year, farmers rely on a variety of information to help them plan their crops and their budgets, and of these, yield prediction is one of the most important. A new study is attempting to shed some light on methods of improving crop yield predictions using a variety of new methods.

New Technologies, New Prediction Methods

At Iowa State University (ISU), a group of researchers is investigating various methods that will provide better and more accurate yield predictions. Some of the things these researchers are analyzing in their studies include “wearable” sensors for crops, new hybrids, plant genetics, and new tools that may allow for better predictions. Per Pat Schnable, the director of the Plant Sciences Institute at ISU and a professor an agronomy, today’s technologies and innovations are making yields more predictable than ever before.

Using Big Data to Make Bold Predictions

According to Schnable, the goal of the research is to collect and analyze data using today’s technologies, then using that data to more accurately predict yields. In essence, by better understanding how a specific variety of a specific crop performs in a specific field when using specific types of management practices, including irrigation and fertilization, researchers can make more accurate predictions about yields. With that information, farmers can make better decisions about which types of crops to grow.

The Importance of Water

Schnable also says a big part of predicting yield loss or making sense of the best ways to manage crops all starts with water. Sotirios Archontoulis, another professor in agronomy at ISU, says that science has a fairly good understanding of water precipitation, but even with all of today’s new technologies, science still cannot fully understand the impact of water below the soil surface. Some of the studies taking place at ISU will address this and help better define the relationship between precipitation and groundwater.

The Variety of Technologies

The research team provides a list of tools and technologies that will aid them in creating better yield prediction standards. These include:

  • “Wearable” sensors. Things like implantable nitrate sensors and adhesive graphene sensors can go a long way toward the data collection process. The former could help scientists better understand the amount of nitrogen needed to boost yield; the latter would measure the rate of water movement from the crop’s roots to its leaves. A graphene sensor could be the key to developing drought-tolerant varieties of most crops.
  • Scouting tools. Plant sensors are not available just yet, but farmers do have access to scouting tools they can use to help them better understand yields. These include AG Pixel, a set of technologies such as drones that would detect problems like insect infestation, disease, nutrient loss, and lack of water long before the human eye. Scout Pro, a set of tools developed by students at ISU, is another scouting program designed to accurately identify pests and their lifecycles via high-resolution images. This information could be used to predict yield loss, and in time, it could even be used in the development of pest-resistant crops.

Yield prediction is about much more than simply helping farmers create budgets based on their annual harvests. In fact, with the right tools and sensors, the data collected via yield prediction technologies could eventually allow for the development of modified crops that thrive in even some of the harshest conditions. This would improve yields significantly, improve the farming economy, and perhaps even play a role in ending hunger around the world.