Posted: October 19, 2020

Warming Midwest conditions could move corn and soybean production north.

Image by Kemanian Research Group/Penn State

Image by Kemanian Research Group/Penn State

If warming continues unabated in the Midwest, in 50 years we can expect the best conditions for corn and soybean production to have shifted from Iowa and Illinois to Minnesota and the Dakotas, according to researchers in the college.

Using machine learning--a form of artificial intelligence that enables a computer system to learn from data--the team considered more than three decades of county-level crop yield data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service for 18 states in the central region of the United States. That area produces the majority of these crops.

The researchers evaluated crop yields along with weather data. They considered fundamental climate variables to find yield predictors specific to each of the crop-growing phases. The study also analyzed the relationships between climate and corn, sorghum, and soybean grain yields from 1980 to 2016.

"This kind of research was impossible before the era of big data we are living in now, and of course, it can be done only by using the powerful computing capacity that we can access at Penn State," said researcher Armen Kemanian, associate professor of production systems and modeling. "This study is important because in a climate that is changing relatively quickly, these techniques allow us to foresee what may happen."

The findings, published in Environmental Research Letters, do not necessarily mean that the shift north and west in corn and soybean production will occur, said lead researcher Alexis Hoffman, who earned her doctoral degree at Penn State in 2018. But, based on the data, researchers conclude that such a shift is in progress, and there is a strong probability it will continue.

--Jeff Mulhollem