The Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) is taking advantage of new technological advances in phenotyping that have the potential to increase wheat yields, measure field data more efficiently and save farmers time and labor. Phenotyping involves measuring the observable traits of crops, a process that can be long and tedious for wheat breeders who walk through fields collecting data on individual plants. Uttam Kumar, associate scientist with CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program, is testing several phenotyping innovations in collaboration with Jesse Polland, assistant breeder, and Daljit Singh, Ph.D. student, both from Kansas State University (KSU), in an effort to adapt new technologies to the specific needs of breeders in South Asia and make phenotyping wheat faster and more efficient.
Phenotyping from the Sky
Imagine a farmer knowing exactly what every square inch of his or her crop needs and when it needs it. Imagine knowing this–without having to set foot in a field. This is what unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) promise to breeders and farmers who don’t have the time or resources to observe and accurately assess the health of entire fields.
UAVs, commonly known as drones, are widely used by military forces worldwide. More recently, UAVs have been sold commercially and used to film social events and news stories; they are available online and in stores in many parts of the world.
UAVs could have an enormous impact on agriculture. Farmers need accurate, readily-available data to ensure good yields, but have traditionally not been able to obtain precise information due to time and human constraints. UAVs can fly over fields and collect visual, thermal and hyperspectral data. This allows breeders to observe and analyze a broad range of information that would otherwise be unavailable, as well as focus on specific problems such as crop diseases or drought stress.
Thanks to UAV technology, the time required to collect data is reduced from hundreds of hours to a just a few. For example, during BISA’s UAV field trials, recording data with the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI, used to predict vegetation density and health) from 2,000 plots takes about two working days and two people, if done manually. By using an NDVI sensor on a UAV, this process is reduced to just 20 minutes.
Daljit and Kumar successfully recorded a variety of data from genomic selection trials across BISA sites in India. In one trial, a UAV carrying an NDVI sensor collected data on the nitrogen status of a farmer`s field. Using this data in combination with BISA’s urea calculator application, the researchers were able to determine the amount of nitrogen needed in the field.
Other efficient but inexpensive phenotyping tools are also being developed; for example, the so-called phenocart is being tested for the first time at a BISA research station in collaboration with Kansas State University. Jared Crain, Ph.D. student at KSU, visited BISA Ladhowal, Punjab, for three weeks to assess the phenocart.
The phenocart is equipped with a GPS, a Green Seeker, an infrared thermometer and three high-resolution DSLR cameras. All this equipment is attached to a computer that records the data. The three cameras are simultaneously triggered by a micro-controlled chip connected to the cameras through UBS cables. Each photo is tagged with a time stamp and the GPS location where it was taken. The images are downloaded to the computer and processed for stitching together using the GPS coordinates of each image. The software is freely available here.
Since the DSLR cameras capture images from different angles, it is possible to make 3D images of the plots with the help of image-processing software. Also, thousands of images were captured from the pre-heading to post-heading stages to develop a computer algorithm that can identify crop growth stage through image processing tools. Researchers hope to exploit this “mountain” of new data to make better predictions about crop growth, yield, and tolerance/resistance to abiotic and biotic stresses.
Disseminating Phenotyping Technology to Partners
BISA hosted wheat breeders from across India during field days held at the Pusa, Jabalpur and Ludhiana centers on 11, 13 and 30 March 2015, respectively. The aim was to demonstrate BISA’s USAID-funded genomic selection project, as well as innovations in high-throughput phenotyping techniques. The project provides wheat breeders and national partners with a unique opportunity to obtain improved varieties that would normally not be widely available for another two years.
Kumar introduced the project and presented CIMMYT’s wheat lines to participants, who later observed the trials, marked the lines that interested them and sent seed requests to BISA. Participants also observed the Elite Parcela Chica (EPC) screening trial and hybrid wheat trials conducted in collaboration with Syngenta Inc. In total, BISA received 399 requests from the genomic selection trial and 359 requests from the EPC trial, which will be disseminated once harvesting, threshing and data recording are complete.
Participants in the field days included wheat breeders from Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwavidyalaya (JNKVV); Velu Govindan, CIMMYT wheat breeder; Kishor Panchabhai, Syngenta Inc. wheat breeder; Ashish Wele, president of Nirmal Seeds Limited and several farmers from the region.
BISA’s UAV and other phenotyping technologies were also demonstrated to several government officials from Madhya Pradesh, members of the Punjab Legislative Assembly, representatives from JNKVV, and scientists from the Indian Institute of Wheat and Barley Research and Punjab Agricultural University. Jared Crain, Kansas State University Ph.D. student, gave short training presentations on the UAV and Phenocart to research assistants and other participants.
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