PRI projects and data boost agricultural producers’ productivity

by Lisa Sheppard, Prairie Research Institute

With some of the best farmland in the country, Illinois has a competitive advantage over other states in the agriculture sector. The Prairie Research Institute (PRI) at the University of Illinois is leveraging this advantage, investing in Illinois’ agriculture economy by offering programs, tools, and research projects to support producers and address current farming issues.

PRI scientists are now focusing on decreasing crop plant pests, tracking weather and soil conditions, and reducing the economic and environmental costs of nutrient losses. The following are several of the resources PRI provides.

Surveying crop pests

PRI participates in the Cooperative Agriculture Pest Survey (CAPS) program, monitoring exotic pests that threaten our production and ecological systems. Kelly Estes coordinates the program and manages surveys for pests of commodity crops.

The primary responsibility of the CAPS program is the early detection of invasive and emerging pests. CAPS surveys encompass the entire state, monitoring for new pests in not only corn and soybeans, but also specialty crops associated with orchard and vineyards. Estes also partners with the University of Illinois Department of Crop Sciences and coordinates field crop pest surveys to monitor the distribution and density of corn and soybean insects in Illinois.

Western corn rootworms and Japanese beetles are always a concern during the growing season in Illinois, Estes said. This year, northern corn rootworm populations are particularly high in northwest Illinois. Japanese beetle populations remained low throughout the state. The surveys also show an emergence of the Dectes stem borer as a pest in southern Illinois. This information on insect populations helps growers make informed management decisions regarding pest control.

Calculating pest degree days

Two PRI pest degree day calculators were updated this year, one each for commodity and specialty growers in Illinois. The tools now feature seven-day forecasts, graphs, and maps to track accumulated degree days and estimate pest activity. With the Illinois Climate Network data, growers calculate growing degree days in their region for specific pests, such as the corn rootworm and spotted wing drosophilia.

The local seven-day forecasts from the National Weather Service help producers plan and determine when crops will be most vulnerable to certain insect pests.

Studying rootworms in Illinois

PRI insect behaviorist Joseph Spencer is organizing a project on innovative techniques for corn rootworm management and monitoring corn rootworm resistance to the Bt toxins expressed in Bt corn hybrids. The new project will take a fresh look at standard corn rootworm adult monitoring with sticky traps combined with cover crops and the use of nematodes to prey on corn rootworm larvae in cornfields planted with Bt corn hybrids. Spencer and collaborators are exploring the potential to use aerial drones to streamline the collection of insect count data for sticky traps located far out in soybean fields.

The effectiveness of Bt toxins against both western corn rootworms and northern corn rootworms continues to decline, Spencer said. Where there are high populations of either species, significant injury to corn roots is possible regardless of whether Bt-expressing corn hybrids were planted. Thankfully, local rootworm populations have been lower than usual over the past few years, and many growers have not had a population of larvae large enough to cause economic injury in corn.

Monitoring soil and weather conditions

What is the condition of cropland soils and weather in Illinois? To find out, thousands of Illinoisans, particularly those in the agricultural industry, visit the Water and Atmospheric Resources Monitoring Program (WARM) website every day. Nineteen stations across the state collect data on soil moisture and temperature and weather conditions as part of the Illinois Climate Network. Soil temperatures are available hourly for specific soil depths and daily minimum and maximum temperatures are provided. Other WARM networks monitor suspended sediment transport in the state’s rivers and streams and water levels for reservoirs and shallow groundwater.

The USDA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Illinois Drought Response Task Force use the information for research, program support, and long-term planning. The National Weather Service uses the data to assist in forecasting and tracking severe weather.

The monthly Illinois Water & Climate Summary reports on current and trending water and weather conditions in Illinois and their impacts on other water resources.

Tallying heat accumulation

PRI’s growing degree day calculator tallies heat accumulation throughout the growing season, comparing maximum and minimum temperatures with a base temperature for each crop. The calculator is updated daily through local weather stations for users to calculate projections on crop development and maturity specifically for their location. The WARM website also provides a state map of growing degree days.

Estimating nitrogen availability in corn fields

Knowing when to apply supplemental nitrogen to corn fields is difficult for producers to determine since there is a lack of knowledge on how spring rainfall affects early-season nitrogen application. Excess applied nitrogen is costly and adversely affects the environment. Atmospheric scientist Junming Wang and colleagues developed a user-friendly online decision support tool that estimates real-time soil nitrogen availability by simulating crop growth, crop nitrogen uptake, and nitrogen losses.

The tool uses soil data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) soil database and hourly weather data from the National Weather Service. Farmers enter their own crop management information to the online tool. The tool helps to increase nitrogen use efficiency and decrease fertilizer costs and water pollution.

Capturing nutrients from tile drain runoff

PRI scientist Wei Zheng and colleagues are creating a designer carbon-based biochar that captures phosphorus from tile drain runoff water and recycles it in soils to improve crop growth. A bioreactor is installed in the field with a biochar-sorption filter so that water running through the tile system is filtered to remove nutrients before they reach lakes and streams. The filter holds biochar—a biomass product that looks like charcoal and is made mostly of carbon with high calcium and magnesium—which traps fertilizer nutrients.

After the fertilizer season, biochar pellets are removed from the channel, and the phosphorus-captured biochars are applied to the fields where they will slowly release phosphorus and other nutrients into the soil. As a result, producers can keep fertilizer costs down and increase crop yields when applying the biochar pellets at optimal times in the growing season.

PRI projects related to agriculture are funded by the USDA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Illinois Department of Agriculture, Corteva Agriscience, the Illinois Nutrient Research and Education Council, and others.

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This story originally appeared on the Prairie Research Institute News Blog. Read the original story.

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