Promoting sustainability of farming systems using digital technology

Precision agriculture expert Bruno Basso studies the sustainability of row crop production and delivers data to agricultural producers using innovative technologies.

Bruno Basso

While looking to minimize cost and maximize yield, farmers need reliable information. And lots of it.

Bruno Basso, an MSU Foundation professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, studies the sustainability of row crop production and delivers data to agricultural producers using innovative technologies.

He has received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Science Foundation, among others, to take his approach all over the world. Basso views his work in digital agriculture as a service to farmers, the community and the environment.

“Blanket application of fertilizers and nutrients poses many problems,” he said. “It’s bad for the farmer because they’re applying too much in some areas and not enough in others, so it’s inefficient, costly and has a negative effect on yield. It’s also bad for the environment because over-application can result in increased runoff.”

Without data, Basso said, farmers are relying on historical management precedent. But he understands the reluctance to change longstanding traditions in farming, which can be a volatile economic arena prone to fluctuations from poor weather or other unforeseen circumstances.

“It’s impossible to manage what you don’t know,” Basso said. “In the end, it’s up to the farmer to be willing to make changes. I want to provide information, so those decisions are based on science.”

One of the featured tools in Basso’s technology arsenal is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone. Buzzing over dozens of acres in a matter of minutes, the UAV uses multiple sensors to collect data such as moisture levels, soil temperature and nutrient profile.

That information is then plugged into a geospatial software program called the System Approach to Land Use Sustainability (SALUS) that scales crop, nutrient, soil and water conditions over many years and millions of acres.

Basso is examining the models under a principle he calls “The Five R’s” of agriculture management: doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right place, in the right way, with the right inputs. This management idea can be implemented for small to several-thousand-acre commercial farm.

In January 2020, Basso published a study in Nature with Rafael Martinez-Feria, a postdoctoral researcher in his lab, exploring a large sample of commercial corn and soybean fields across the Midwest that experience unpredictable yields due to water stress or lack of access to water.

They found that yield losses occurred during heavy rain and drought scenarios, as well as normal rainfall patterns. He said this vulnerability is due to a combination of factors, such as soil type, position in the landscape and weather. Most unstable areas were on unlevel land, such as summits or depressions. He advocates using yield stability maps as a way to inform decisions that mitigate weather-induced stresses in susceptible areas.

“All farmers deal with variability regardless of the size of their operation,” Basso said. “Even across a few acres, plants are dealing with different conditions. We’re working with some of the most progressive farmers in Michigan and across the U.S. to show just how cost-effective it can be to use this type of precision agriculture.”

In April 2020, Basso published a commentary in Nature Sustainability describing the pathways to sustainable farming using digital agriculture. He said stakeholders need to work together to promote adoption of digital technologies to achieve economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainable food production.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

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