Predicting crop yields and soil‐plant nitrogen dynamics in the US Corn Belt

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Archontoulis, Sotirios
Baum, Mitch
Huber, Isaiah
Martinez-Feria, Rafael
Puntel, Laila
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Licht, Mark
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VanLoocke, Andy
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The Department of Agronomy seeks to teach the study of the farm-field, its crops, and its science and management. It originally consisted of three sub-departments to do this: Soils, Farm-Crops, and Agricultural Engineering (which became its own department in 1907). Today, the department teaches crop sciences and breeding, soil sciences, meteorology, agroecology, and biotechnology.

The Department of Agronomy was formed in 1902. From 1917 to 1935 it was known as the Department of Farm Crops and Soils.

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  • Department of Farm Crops and Soils (1917–1935)

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Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Since 1905, the Department of Agricultural Engineering, now the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering (ABE), has been a leader in providing engineering solutions to agricultural problems in the United States and the world. The department’s original mission was to mechanize agriculture. That mission has evolved to encompass a global view of the entire food production system–the wise management of natural resources in the production, processing, storage, handling, and use of food fiber and other biological products.

In 1905 Agricultural Engineering was recognized as a subdivision of the Department of Agronomy, and in 1907 it was recognized as a unique department. It was renamed the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering in 1990. The department merged with the Department of Industrial Education and Technology in 2004.

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  • Department of Agricultural Engineering (1907–1990)

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We used the Agricultural Production Systems sIMulator (APSIM) to predict and explain maize and soybean yields, phenology, and soil water and nitrogen (N) dynamics during the growing season in Iowa, USA. Historical, current and forecasted weather data were used to drive simulations, which were released in public four weeks after planting. In this paper, we (1) describe the methodology used to perform forecasts; (2) evaluate model prediction accuracy against data collected from 10 locations over four years; and (3) identify inputs that are key in forecasting yields and soil N dynamics. We found that the predicted median yield at planting was a very good indicator of end‐of‐season yields (relative root mean square error [RRMSE] of ∼20%). For reference, the prediction at maturity, when all the weather was known, had a RRMSE of 14%. The good prediction at planting time was explained by the existence of shallow water tables, which decreased model sensitivity to unknown summer precipitation by 50–64%. Model initial conditions and management information accounted for one‐fourth of the variation in maize yield. End of season model evaluations indicated that the model simulated well crop phenology (R2 = 0.88), root depth (R2 = 0.83), biomass production (R2 = 0.93), grain yield (R2 = 0.90), plant N uptake (R2 = 0.87), soil moisture (R2 = 0.42), soil temperature (R2 = 0.93), soil nitrate (R2 = 0.77), and water table depth (R2 = 0.41). We concluded that model set‐up by the user (e.g. inclusion of water table), initial conditions, and early season measurements are very important for accurate predictions of soil water, N and crop yields in this environment.


This article is published as Archontoulis, Sotirios V., Michael J. Castellano, Mark A. Licht, Virginia Nichols, Mitch Baum, Isaiah Huber, Rafael Martinez‐Feria et al. "Predicting crop yields and soil‐plant nitrogen dynamics in the US Corn Belt." Crop Science (2020). doi: 10.1002/csc2.20039.