Prairie Research Institute boosting farmers’ productivity

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 farmers and address current farming issues.

The following are several resources provided by PRI.

Surveying crop pests

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

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

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 corn rootworm and spotted wing drosophilia.

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

Studying rootworms in Illinois

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

The effectiveness of Bt toxins against both western corn rootworms and northern corn rootworms continues to decline, Spencer said.

Monitoring soil, weather conditions

What is the condition of cropland soils and weather in Illinois? Thousands of Illinoisans, particularly those in agriculture, visit the Water and Atmospheric Resources Monitoring Program (WARM) website daily. Nineteen stations across the state collect data on soil moisture, 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.

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.

A monthly Illinois Water & Climate Summary reports 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 cornfields

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 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 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 water and recycles it in soil to improve crop growth. A bioreactor is installed in the field with a biochar-sorption filter so water running through the tile is filtered to remove nutrients before they reach lakes and streams.

After fertilizer season, biochar pellets are removed and applied to fields to slowly release phosphorus and other nutrients. As a result, farmers can keep fertilizer costs down and increase yields when applying biochar pellets at optimal times.

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

Lisa Sheppard serves as a media and communications specialist with the Prairie Research Institute.