Researchers from the Agroecosystem Sustainability Center (ASC) at the University of Illinois can detect soil tillage practices from space, weaving together data from ground images, airborne sensors, and satellites. Now, with a grant from the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture, they will expand on that work to produce more accurate estimates of tillage effects on corn and soybean yield, greenhouse gas emissions, nitrogen loss, and changes in soil organic carbon.
Leading the project is Bin Peng, senior research scientist at ASC and research assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES) in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) at Illinois. He says although no-till and other conservation tillage practices are on the rise throughout the U.S. Midwest, small-scale studies on tillage effects have produced contradictory results. Furthermore, no integrated high-resolution study has been done at large spatial scales.
“This project will likely settle some long-standing debates about conservation tillage,” Peng says. “We aim to integrate several streams of observational data, including from ground, airborne, and satellite remote sensing, with advanced ecosystem modeling.
“We expect to provide deep insights to farmers and other stakeholders on the suitability of different tillage practices on farmland from multiple angles, including crop production, soil carbon sequestration, and greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds.
Until now, research linking tillage practices with crop and sustainability outcomes has been done on the ground at the field scale. Data from these studies constitute a useful starting point and provide the “why” behind certain patterns, the research team says, but it’s difficult to extrapolate variable results from individual fields to an entire region.
The new project, which pulls data from satellites and simulates thousands of fields simultaneously via supercomputers, will allow a more holistic view of the effects of tillage across a large region. The three-year project will evaluate Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota’s corn and soybean fields under various tillage regimes, with plans to expand to the entire Midwest region in the future.
“This is another exciting project coming from our scientists and team at ASC. We believe the deep integration of agricultural and earth system science with AI, remote sensing, and supercomputing is the way to drive true innovation and solve some of the biggest problems in our society,” says Kaiyu Guan, founding director of the ASC and associate professor at NRES. Guan is also a co-principal investigator of the project.
Other co-PIs include Zhenong Jin from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Lixin Wang from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and Dennis Bowman from University of Illinois Extension and the Department of Crop Sciences at ACES.