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Wisconsin Goes High Tech With Weather For Farmers

Farmers across the state can visit an internet site to check on the corn borer situation, see if potato late blight is a problem, or find out if they should flood their cranberry bogs. It”s all part of a revolution in the way growers get weather and related information.

The internet-based information replaces the old University of Wisconsin Automated Weather Observation Network, according to UW Madison soil scientist Bill Bland. Bland is the architect of Wisconsin”s approach, which analyzes data from satellites and federal weather networks in order to create weather-related information for growers.

The weather data are available at www.soils.wisc.edu/wimnext/

The site also provides farmers with other information helpful in making decisions about their alfalfa, apple, corn, cranberry and potato crops. The decision aids help farmers monitor the development of several key insects and diseases, and the need for irrigation.

“To produce crops while minimizing pesticides, water pollution and energy use, many Wisconsin farmers are relying on management tools that depend on up-to-the-minute weather data,” says Bland, a College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and UW-Extension scientist. “Weather data is the backbone of most integrated pest management and integrated crop management programs.”

Although many other states are expanding their ground-based systems, Wisconsin is pursuing a high-tech approach. Wisconsin”s old ag weather network once included 20 stations, but is now down to two stations, at Hancock and Arlington. Information from the old network has been replaced by information from satellites and ground station networks maintained by the National Weather Service and Federal Aviation Administration.

“The internet has made it far easier to compile and move data,” Bland says. For example, he says, the National Weather Service collects data from weather balloons it sends aloft every morning about 7 a.m. That information is received and assembled in Washington D.C. Computers at the UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center quickly download that information and route it to Bland”s computer, which updates the web site.

“It”s all automated,” Bland says. “By 11 a.m., when a cranberry grower checks our site, information collected by that morning”s balloon flights has been integrated into the frost forecast for that night.”

Bland says the site would be impossible without collaborators at the UW-Madison.

“There are only a few universities with the breadth of skills and knowledge to do something like this,” he says. “Wisconsin leads the nation in this technology thanks to the work of atmospheric scientist George Diak in the Space Science and Engineering Center, and soil physicist John Norman in our college.” Diak developed a computer model that creates high-resolution, 48-hour forecasts. Norman developed a second model that uses Diak”s forecasts to predict how the weather will affect crop and pest conditions at the field level.

Although Bland was initially skeptical about farmers having good access to the internet, he has become a convert. He believes there is a trend to provide more web-based information rather than stand-alone software programs for growers” computers. He says growers often have trouble operating software on their computer systems. Growers and their advisors visit his web site about 1,500 times a month during the growing season.

Bland and his associates began the site three years ago. He works closely with researchers in horticulture, entomology and plant pathology to improve the decision aids available to Wisconsin farmers. Each year they expand the web site, adding new features.

While the web site will provide farmers with most of the weather information they need, it”s not accurate enough yet to be useful for rainfall. “Rainfall is so patchy that farmers need to put out and monitor their own rain gauges,” Bland says.

Information for Wisconsin farmers dominates the web site, although it also provides data that farmers in Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio can use in deciding if they need to irrigate their crops.

The site is a joint effort of the UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the UW-Extension Cooperative Extension Service. The project was supported by state funding to the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the UW-Madison Graduate School, and grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association, the Wisconsin Cranberry Growers Association and the Minnesota potato industry.