The days of farmers using instinct and experience to determine when and where to plant may soon change as growers become increasingly reliant on sophisticated online tools to gather information.
Two new programs recently introduced by Purdue University researchers, the Corn Growing Degree Day tool and the AgClimate View, allow farmers to get detailed information using computers and cellphone applications.
The programs were developed through the Useful to Usable (U2U) project funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The project includes 50 faculty, staff and students at nine universities who work together to improve profitability and longevity of U.S. farms amid a variable and changing climate.
Purdue University’s Melissa Widhalm, a U2U project manager, said the tools are the first in what is planned as a comprehensive library of online resources to assist farmers, all for free.
“We were just trying to take some existing information that is out there and make it a little more user-friendly and develop more sophisticated tools.”
Widhalm said the programs allow researchers to connect to local farmers and farmers’ advisers to get input while developing new tools.
“Rather than have a bunch of scientists in a room coming up with a good idea, we are going out to the people who will be using the tools and asking them what issues they are facing,” Widhalm said. “We bring the information back to the team to develop a prototype.”
The Corn Growing Degree Day tool allows farmers to access current and historical data to help predict plant development and maturity rates. Corn degree days, or units as they are also called, are the days when conditions exist that allow corn to mature.
“One piece of data that can be helpful for farmers and farm advisers at the start of the season is the frost-freeze information that we have incorporated into the tool,” Widhalm said. “Bars on the screen represent the average historical freeze occurrence, and lines around it represent the dates of the last spring freeze through the last 30 years.”
Farmers who have a planting date in mind can check the chart; and if a freeze after that date is likely, they may want to wait a little longer to plant. Moving forward, the same information is available for the first freeze in the fall, which is helpful for that end-of-year decision about what is going to happen with the yield.
Clint Arnholt of Sudan Farms, a sixth-generation farmer who grows corn and soybeans, said online programs that provide historical weather information can be valuable tools.
“It would be interesting to see the data for different years because, if it keeps raining and we have a late crop, we’d be susceptible to an early freeze,” Arnholt said “Unfortunately, when it gets down to it, you can’t really do much about it because the crop has to be mature or you can’t harvest it.”
Widhalm said farmers always have been at the mercy of Mother Nature to some extent, but many would still like to have the information at their disposal.
“Once the plant is in the ground and it’s growing, some things are out of your control. But it kind of helps to know where you compare to history,” Widhalm said. “Farmers who recall similar conditions in a previous year can drop in a date and use the historical data for comparison.”
Arnholt, 37, said that, when he returned home after graduating from Purdue University, he knew diversification and technology were going to be critical to the continued success of the family business.
“We only farmed 475 acres when I was in college, and I was bound and determined to get into farming when I came back home,” Arnholt said. “I had to find a way to make it profitable, and land is hard to come by around here, so I had to look at other ways to make money. I knew about GPS and the technological stuff, so I started using that to my advantage.”
The Arnholts grew their farm, which now includes about 1,100 acres, but they also do custom work for other farmers and have a lime spreading business.
People with small-acreage farms or those who have another job find it difficult and cost prohibitive to work a farm or purchase and maintain equipment. The Arnholts harvested about 1,500 acres for other farmers last year and planted approximately 2,000 acres. They also spread about 18,000 tons of lime last year, a process that normally takes place during the winter months.
Arnholt said that with such a diverse operation, having tools that provide information online becomes extremely valuable. Much of the information he needs can be accessed in the field through cellphone applications.
Because the Purdue University tools are new, Arnholt has not tried them but said they appear to be similar to the Grower’s Edge programs he uses that are supported by the Indiana Farm Bureau, which are also free.
He said gauging how many growing degree days are available can be critical, especially if spring conditions such as a late freeze or excessive rainfall cause farmers to get a late start planting.
“The grower degree units are the accumulated days of warm weather that matures your crop,” Arnholt said. “Even if we are behind but the temperature is higher, with more growing degree units, the crop is going to advance more quickly than if it was cooler. On the other hand, if you fall behind on growing degree days it takes a little longer to fully mature your crop.”
Widhalm said the Purdue program is different from some other programs because it limits the range of temperatures to between 50 degrees and 86 degrees, which are optimal for development.
“A lot of times you will see a chart that will start accumulating growing degree days when temperatures get above 50 degrees, but once the temperature gets above 86 degrees it is not optimal for corn development,” Widhalm said. “We are looking at temperature ranges that are critical for optimal growth, so it’s very specific to corn.”
The AgClimate View is designed more as a source of historical data than as a tool that will help farmers with decision-making.
“It’s really just a simple way to look at historical climate and crop yield,” Widhalm said. “Farmers told us they just want to be able to look at something easily and quickly without having to search for information.”
In the AgClimate View program, circles represent historical weather stations that provide monthly average maximum and minimum temperatures and total precipitation. All of those years taken together and averaged out give an indication of average crop yields. Farmers can identify a year with conditions similar to the current year to get an idea of potential crop yields.
Widhalm said input from farmers such as Arnholt is critical to the success of the U2U programs. A feedback page is being developed to encourage input from farmers and advisers about the existing tools and other programs that might be useful.