‘App’-riculture: Mobile apps bring science to farmers anytime, anywhere
Mike Cerny has been farming long enough to have a reliable intuition when it comes to decisions about applying chemical protection to his crops.
So it came as a surprise to the Wisconsin farmer when he downloaded a smartphone app — developed by UW–Madison field crops pathologist Damon Smith — and it told him he should hold off on spraying a fungicide to prevent an infestation of white mold on his soybean plants.
“I thought the conditions were favorable for the development of white mold,” Cerny says of the disease that can drastically reduce soybean yields. “But when I looked at Damon’s Sporecaster app, it said there was no need to spray. By not applying, it saved me more than $10,000.”
Smith is one of a growing number of experts at CALS who are developing mobile apps as a way to get applied research into the hands of farmers quickly and efficiently — and in an easy-to-use form. An app (short for software application) is a computer program, accessible through a smartphone or other mobile device, that is designed to perform a specific function for the user. With a few clicks of a button, certain apps can help farmers determine whether they should replant a crop, calculate how much fertilizer they should use, or decide if they should change what they are feeding their cows.
Sporecaster in particular helps farmers determine if and when they should apply fungicide during their soybean crop’s flowering stage — when it’s most susceptible to an influx of white mold fungus spores. The program accesses GPS weather data, does some mathematical analysis, and spits out a probability of risk for infection by the white mold fungus that day.
“It helps farmers determine the best time to apply [fungicide] based on the highest risk,” says Smith, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology. “It has saved folks some money. During the 2018 season, we had about 250 active users a day.”
Apps have been developed in several UW–Madison departments to help disseminate new knowledge beyond campus borders. While CALS researchers continue to publish their research in peer-reviewed journals, present findings at conferences, and share results with the public in many ways, they have come to the logical conclusion that sometimes the best way to get information to users is through mobile devices.
“If [the apps] are handy and useful, they spread like wildfire, and everybody uses them,” says Eric Birschbach, a crop consultant with Ag Site Crop Consulting in Verona, Wisconsin.
Several apps developed at CALS have certainly taken off. This new generation of tools for agricultural education is helping the college fulfill its mission of sharing knowledge with Wisconsin farmers and beyond.
Better crop management on the go
The concept of apps as a research delivery method was pretty new when Carrie Laboski, a professor in the Department of Soil Science, developed her first one in 2012. Her Corn N Rate Calculator was the first university-based agronomic app introduced to the Apple iTunes Store.
The calculator is designed to help farmers determine how much nitrogen fertilizer to use based on the price they expect to pay and how much income they expect to
receive for their crop. For many plants, nitrogen is a key nutrient that often limits growth. The app’s goal is to maximize the return on investment in nitrogen fertilizer.
“We decided that, since our nitrogen recommendations were already available in a table, we should try to make them into an app,” Laboski says. “We figured we could use this as a new platform to deliver tools to growers.”
The groundbreaking app won an award from the American Society of Agronomy. And since 2012, it has been downloaded on nearly 25,000 devices on every continent except Antarctica.
“It surprised me when I heard people are downloading it in Africa because the app is built on Wisconsin data and is not necessarily applicable everywhere,” she says. “But it just speaks to the fact that some countries may lack resources and are starving for information.”
A second app Laboski developed, the N Price Calculator, allows farmers to quickly compare nitrogen fertilizer prices from multiple sources to find the least expensive option. And her third app, NPK Credits — which helps farmers compute the “credit” they should take for the fertilizer value of having manure and legume crops on their arable land —can save money and protect the environment at the same time. The value of these credits is subtracted from the base fertilizer recommendations for the fields.
All these apps are steeped in soil science, a field that has captivated Laboski since her first introductory course as an undergraduate. She then knew that she had found what she was looking for in a career.
“Soil is our most important resource; it sustains life,” she says. “If we don’t have soil, we’re not eating.”
She eventually gravitated toward a specialty in soil fertility and nutrient management when she was a graduate student. She has been conducting research on Wisconsin soils since she started her position at CALS nearly 15 years ago.
“We know if we want to have good production of crops, we need to apply some plant nutrients,” she says. “Two of our major plant nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, are also environmental contaminants. I like the challenge of developing nutrient application guidelines that balance profitable crop production with environmental sustainability.”
The recommendations in Laboski’s apps are based on many decades of research by CALS scientists. The college’s first fertilizer recommendation bulletin was distributed in 1962. About that same time, UW soil scientists were among the first in the nation to develop a computer program to easily make field-specific fertilizer recommendations that account for the influence of soil type and crop rotation on nutrient need.
The apps are designed to be farmsize neutral and dependent only on the interest level and technological savvy of the farmer or crop consultant. Laboski believes more people will use them as they become more comfortable with the technology. And the apps will continue to prove useful in the field, where connections can be spotty, because they do not depend on the internet after being downloaded.
In addition to producing new resources for farmers, some of the app development at CALS provides educational opportunities. All eight apps managed by the UW Nutrient and Pest Management Program were created in-house with the help of students. This can extend the amount of time it takes to move an app from concept to finished product, says Roger Schmidt, the program’s information technology specialist, but it saves a considerable amount of money and provides students with a hands-on learning experience.
Schmidt, who has been with the program for 27 years, says apps are a relatively new way for researchers to reach farmers, so he and his colleagues need to change the way they operate — just like farmers have to adapt their practices in the field.
“It’s different than doing outreach through a website or a publication or a journal,” he says. “You have to take your research or the model you might be using, and it has to work in the real world on the fly.”
To spray, to seed, to start again
One major decision many soybean farmers face each year is whether to replant if their initial crop stand appears to be coming in thin or sparse. It’s a complicated choice, and a big chunk of profit can sometimes be on the line.
The modern context in which farmers operate confounds the issue further, says Shawn ConleyBS’96, MS’99, PhD’01, a professor in the Department of Agronomy and soybean and wheat specialist with the Division of Extension. Many producers today are running larger operations and have less time on a per-acre basis to manage their crops, he says. Recognizing this, CALS delivers apps that offer farmers instantaneous data for making rapid yet informed decisions. Conley’s Soybean Replant app is a prime example.
The replant app calculates plant populations by averaging five plant-count samples taken randomly within a soybean field during various growth stages. The app then provides expected yield percentage at harvest, with or without replanting. It performs these tasks by consolidating and drawing on years of data collection and multiple research papers. To apply this knowledge to the field, all you need is a smartphone with a camera.
“You simply snap five photos, and the app does the rest,” Conley says. “It’s as easy as it sounds.”
The recommendation will rarely be to rip up a field and start over because, even if a stand comes in poorly, the crops in the field typically have a better yield potential than a totally replanted crop, he says. But sometimes it makes sense to add more seeds on top of what is growing.
Cerny, who plants about 2,000 acres between the villages of Walworth and Sharon, says a friend asked him for a recommendation on replanting his soybean field based on what he perceived as a poor stand. After analyzing the field using Conley’s replant app, Cerny advised against it.
“An agronomist was there with me, and he recommended replanting,” Cerny recalls. “I said I wasn’t so sure that was great advice. I suggested that if he was going to replant, he should leave five acres of the stand so he could compare.”
The yield turned out about the same where he replanted and where he didn’t. But the replanting added extra seed and fuel costs, so the app’s advice was sound.
As weather patterns have migrated to less frequent, more intense rainfall events, pounding rains sometimes seal the soil and hinder soybean emergence, Conley says. This intensifies the need to make quick decisions in the field, and for this purpose, apps backed by CALS research can deliver.
“I’ve been giving farmers these replant recommendations for years, and they didn’t believe me. But now that I put it into a phone it’s got to be right,” he jokes.
Conley, who grew up on a dairy farm near Browntown in Green County, had several sales internships in college but felt odd making recommendations when he knew the product he was selling wasn’t necessarily the best option. That led him into the research arena and, eventually, into academia.
“This is where academic freedom is so important,” he says. “If I have a strong data set, I can make recommendations that, ‘Yes, this product or practice works,’ or, just as importantly, ‘No, this product or practice does not work or doesn’t have a positive return on investment for Wisconsin farmers.’ That ability to deliver unbiased recommendations to Wisconsin farmers is vital and at the core of the Wisconsin Idea.”
Schmidt, the IT specialist, says apps like Conley’s get downloaded all year round as farmers and crop consultants analyze them for their usefulness. He estimates that a couple hundred Wisconsin soybean growers will use the Soybean Replant app during the growing season.
Seeding and replanting are two aspects of soybean management; disease prevention is another. In addition to Sporecaster, Smith, with the help of agricultural and applied
economics professor Paul Mitchell, has developed one other app that helps farmers deal with white mold infestations in their fields.
While Sporecaster helps farmers determine when or if they should be applying a fungicide to prevent white mold, Sporebuster can help determine which fungicide program would be the most profitable. Farmers enter their expected soybean price, expected yield, and treatment cost, and the app instantly compares 10 different treatment plans to determine the average net gain and break-even probability of each.
After the 2015, 2016, and 2017 growing seasons saw significant outbreaks of white mold, farmers were quite interested in getting the white mold apps developed, Smith says. This includes Jonathan Gibbs, a crop farmer from Beaver Dam, who is convinced that the white mold apps could help improve his profitability.
“One nice thing about the Sporecaster app is it’s a really good prediction tool for when you might have all the [white mold] factors coming together,” Gibbs says. “You don’t want to spend more money [on a fungicide] than you need to, but you don’t want to give up any more production, either. You’ve got a margin that’s awfully thin, if it’s even there. This is one way to keep money in farmers’ pockets.”
Gibbs says some older farmers might shy away from apps because they don’t think they have enough technological savvy, but from his experience, they aren’t that difficult to use. “If you can find your pictures on a smartphone, you can work your way through a Sporecaster or replant app,” he says. “They’ve made it fairly user-friendly.”
Both Conley and Smith say their apps can be used by farmers beyond the borders of Wisconsin. In fact, Conley asserts that the replant app is applicable to farmers who grow 82% of the soybeans in the U.S. And both soybean apps are offered free to the public, paid for by farmers through a checkoff to the Wisconsin Soybean Marketing Board, which uses the funds for soybean research and marketing projects.
Next up: Dairy
Managing a dairy farm requires keeping tabs on the operation’s multitude of facets, from livestock breeding and diet to housing and medicinal treatments. Somewhere within the data pouring from these sources is the information to make the best choices for production and profitability. But tracking and making sense of it all is a massive undertaking.
CALS dairy science professor Victor Cabrera knows this, and it’s the very reason he launched the Virtual Dairy Brain Project. It’s designed to integrate all of a dairy farm’s various data streams in real time and then use artificial intelligence to perform a sophisticated analysis. His hope is that, someday soon, dairy farmers will be able to access this rich reservoir of knowledge through mobile apps.
“Farmers may not be realizing the full extent of the information they have available to them because it is not all connected,” Cabrera says.
The “brain” is a conglomeration of computers installed on multiple dairy farms. At the moment, data from six Wisconsin farms stream continually into servers at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, where they are securely stored and analyzed. Eventually, more farms will be added to the project. These efforts are guided by a 35-member advisory committee that includes farmers, academics, and industry representatives.
After the data are analyzed and researchers determine how they can best help farmers, Cabrera says the project team plans to develop several apps to disseminate the information to a broad base of farmers in user-friendly forms.
“Farmers are inundated with data,” he says, “but nobody has taken the effort to connect all the information together with the events that are happening with the cow. We have all the data; the technology is improving fast. It’s an exciting time to be working to bring it all together.”
Other CALS faculty working on the project include Kent Weigel MS’92, PhD’92, chair of the Department of Dairy Science, and Heather White, an assistant professor of dairy science. They are collaborating with Miron Livny, Michael Ferris, and Jignesh Patel from UW–Madison’s Department of Computer Sciences.
The first app to launch will likely be one that helps farmers predict occurrences of ketosis in their dairy animals, Cabrera says. Ketosis, or acetonaemia, is a metabolic disorder that afflicts cattle when energy demands from producing large amounts of milk exceed energy intake. A costly condition for dairy farms, it usually shows up in
cows during the first several weeks of lactation and is accompanied by weight and appetite loss, fever, and lower milk yield, among other signs. The ketosis app should give farmers a better tool for predicting the disorder so they can treat their animals in a timelier fashion.
Yet another future app will connect feed data with other management information, which will be invaluable in setting the best nutritional requirements for animals.
“Farmers will be able to access the data in a very easy and direct way,” he says. “There will be layers, and depending on their level of interest and knowledge, some farmers will want to go further than others. It will provide them information about day-to-day management but will also predict what will happen six months from now if they
change their feed composition today.”
Some of the companies participating in the project have competitive interests when it comes to the data they collect for farmers, so collaborators are still working on ironing out the potential conflicts. There are many players in the dairy industry, Cabrera says, and each one fills a role as best it can.
But no company can cover everything, so researchers hope to aggregate the decision-support tools to provide farmers with the most complete information possible. The dairy brain team recently submitted a $1 million grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that Cabrera says could help pull loose ends together in a hurry.
Cabrera took his position at UW–Madison in 2008 after working in a similar role at New Mexico State University. His ultimate goal as a researcher has always been to help dairy farmers improve their bottom line, and he thought he could make more of an impact in Wisconsin, where dairy represents a larger part of the state agricultural sector. Providing high-quality apps that create more efficient access to the university’s knowledge banks can only help him achieve this aim.
“The great thing here is there is a lot of research going on at the university all the time,” he says. “The latest discoveries are happening here, or we are on top of that information from somewhere else. What I have done is connect the latest discoveries with the economics, trying to help producers make the best decisions they can using that scientific information. We think we can make a huge difference.”
Where are the apps at?
The UW Integrated Pest and Crop Management program delivers research-based information to Wisconsin farmers and
landowners. One way the program shares knowledge is through free mobile apps.
Learn about the apps highlighted here, and others, at ipcm.wisc.edu/apps.
One app developed by CALS faculty, SilageSnap, can save farmers time and money during the fall feed-corn harvest and make for more content, productive cows year-round.
With just a handful of harvested corn, the app allows farmers to gauge — without leaving the field — the effectiveness of their harvesting machinery so that they can achieve the highest-quality cracked corn, which is easier for cows to digest. Learn more at go.wisc.edu/silagesnap.
This article originally appeared in Grow, Wisconsin's magazine for Life Sciences.