Tools help farmers make real-time decisions, manage crops, reduce environmental impacts

Weather is an integral part of a farmer's equation for success. MSU weather-based tools Enviroweather and MI EnviroImpact Tool help farmers make real-time decisions that pay and protect.

Weather is an integral part of a farmer's equation for success. MSU weather-based tools Enviroweather and MI EnviroImpact Tool help farmers make real-time decisions that pay and protect.

Camera lens with four different weather panels.

Farmers operate at the intersection of the land, the water and the atmosphere. They often need quick and easy access to weather information to make important real-time calls, from knowing when to plant to determining when to harvest. 

“This is what farmers tell us: ‘We’re really busy people, we’ve got a lot on our plates and we’ve got a lot of decisions to make,’” said Jeff Andresen, Michigan State University professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences. “They really need to have somebody give them an informed decision about what’s going to happen with the weather.”

Andresen is the director of Enviroweather, an MSU-developed digital tool that provides current weather information that farmers can use as a base for their decisions. Ninety-six weather stations in the state monitor local weather conditions.

“Each weather station is essentially a little microcomputer that is hooked up to a number of sensors that take observations automatically,” Andresen said. “We monitor conditions like maximum and minimum air and soil temperature, wind speed and precipitation – there are all sorts of things that you can measure.”

Learn more about how weather stations work:

The stations, which meet research standards, send data to a server on the MSU campus that also receives information from the National Weather Service (part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA). An interactive webpage displays the data through a map and charts that farmers can access at home and in the field.

Enviroweather started in 1996 with six stations. Since then, Andresen and his team have expanded the number of stations as well as the functionality and the services that the tool offers.

“Now we have this huge array of disease risk algorithms, pest-related applications and crop-water demand estimates for irrigation management,” he said.

“So much depends on those environmental conditions for people who produce food, we’re reminded of it every day.” Jeff Andresen, MSU Professor of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences

Equipped with current weather conditions and 60 topic-specific applications, Enviroweather helps farmers make choices on managing production, pests and natural resources. One topic-specific application helps with a fungal pathogen called apple scab, which starts as a spore in early spring and can cause serious damage.

“Growers can use Enviroweather to see if conditions are right for apple scab spores at the station near them,” said MSU Extension fruit grower educator Amy Irish-Brown. “If you can stop any infection from those primary spores early in the season, you’re done managing scab for the rest of the year.”

A second tool in the MSU toolbox

In 2017, MSU introduced another digital weather tool. The MI EnviroImpact Tool predicts the risk of environmental runoff on a farm and can even send alerts directly to farmers’ phones. 

“MI EnviroImpact Tool uses National Weather Service data about precipitation, soil moisture, temperature and Michigan landscape characteristics to determine what the runoff risk is that day and forecasts the week ahead,” said Erica Rogers, MSU Extension environmental management educator. 

Rogers helps farmers make management decisions about manure and nutrient application and helps them use MI EnviroImpact.

“It helps farmers that might be applying manure, or any nutrient for that matter, to be able to identify the best day to spread these nutrients so they’ll remain on their fields,” she said.

Farmers can spend thousands of dollars infusing the soil with nutrients one day and lose it the next in one heavy rainfall.

“That’s money literally going down the drain,” Rogers said.

Like MI EnviroImpact Tool, Enviroweather also has a direct financial impact. Because pests and diseases thrive in specific weather conditions and environments, Enviroweather identifies when the conditions are ripe for infestation.

“With Enviroweather, farmers can make more informed decisions and can end up being more efficient if they have to use chemical sprays or control sprays,” Andresen said.

In 2011, Andresen worked with economists and farmers to estimate that Enviroweather-based decisions saved apple and cherry growers more than $1.7 million each year and increased yield by 7 million pounds.

“So much depends on those environmental conditions for people who produce food,” Andresen said. “We’re reminded of it every day.”

MSU weather-based technology pays and protects

Both Enviroweather and MI EnviroImpact Tool help farmers save money by avoiding unnecessary sprays or nutrient applications. On a broader scale, both technologies also help farmers be better stewards of the environment.

“Using Enviroweather, growers can save on spray costs and also lower the impact on the environment,” said Keith Mason, Enviroweather outreach coordinator in the MSU Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences.

Before joining the Enviroweather team, Mason worked directly with growers on integrated pest management, which means using a variety of methods – not just pesticides – to control pests. Together, they used Enviroweather as an important decision-making tool. Mason said the farmers he worked with were able to delay or even eliminate certain sprays  on the basis of weather and pest data.

“If Enviroweather indicates that there’s a pest that’s out at a specific time, then farmers want to spray at that appropriate interval instead of a wasted spray,” he said. “That is something the environment doesn’t need and the grower doesn’t need either.”

Nutrient runoff also has its environmental risks because most Michigan streams and rivers flow into the Great Lakes, a risk that MI EnviroImpact Tool was designed to help mitigate.

“When excessive nutrients enter the Great Lakes, they can cause algal growth,” said Meaghan Gass, an MSU Extension Michigan Sea Grant educator. “Because they produce toxins, the excessive growth of blue-green algae can result in harmful algal blooms.”

Learn more about MI EnvioImpact Tool and how it works:

Gass works to educate communities about issues affecting the Great Lakes, such as the dangers of harmful algal blooms, while providing resources to address these issues. Some algal blooms are capable of releasing toxins that can contaminate drinking water and can be harmful to people and animals.

“Then as the algae sink and decompose, they consume the oxygen that fish and other wildlife need to survive in the water,” Gass said.

MI EnviroImpact Tool helps farmers predict rainfall events and saturated soil so that they can take the necessary steps to mitigate runoff risk.

“Agriculture is just one of many sources of excess nutrients, and MI EnviroImpact Tool is helping farmers to address that,” Gass said. “We want to help protect the Great Lakes, the world’s largest freshwater system, as much as we can and ensure that people can safely use and access the resource.”

With a changing climate and greater understanding of the far-reaching effects of agriculture on human and environmental health, technology can help farmers adapt and evolve their practices. Enviroweather and MI EnviroImpact Tool are two important tools that enable farmers to monitor and predict natural events and make real-time decisions that protect their crops and the environment.

“Ultimately, the producer is going to be faced with making a decision about what to do that depends on the weather,” Andresen said. “Our challenge longterm is to find ways that we can help producers make a more informed choice.”

To learn more about Enviroweather, visit: https://www.enviroweather.msu.edu/

To learn more about MI EnviroImpact Tool, visit: https://enviroimpact.iwr.msu.edu/

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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