What's Happening at AgWeatherNet with David Brown


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Show Notes & Resources Mentioned:

Contact Information:

Contact David Brown via email at dave.brown@wsu.edu or via phone at (509) 335-1859.

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Episode Transcription:

Drew Lyon: Hello. Welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production. If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app and leave us a review while you’re there so others can find the show too.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: My guest today is Dr. David Brown. David is the AgWeatherNet Director and Associate Professor of Soil Science. Prior to taking over leadership of AgWeatherNet in November of 2018, Dr. Brown lead a research and teaching program focused on soil sensors, spatial temporal modeling, data science, and precision agriculture. Over the past year, Dr. Brown has initiated a major reorganization of AgWeatherNet that he will discuss in this podcast. Hello, David.

Dr. David Brown: Good morning Drew.

Drew Lyon: So AgWeatherNet, what is it? And what information can people find there?

Dr. David Brown: So AgWeatherNet really has two main components. One is that we have a network of weather stations all over Washington State–and we do pull in some data from other neighboring states as well–and then we also have a front end, which is where we process all the data and we deliver the weather data in 15-minute intervals, and a whole range of decision support tools that agricultural users can use to make decisions about pest management and pesticide use and all kinds of other decision support we can talk about a little bit later.

Drew Lyon: Okay, a lot of that has been directed more at the tree fruit area.

Dr. David Brown: Yes [laughter].

Drew Lyon: But maybe there’s some hope that we can bring it into the eastern part of the state from for wheat growers.

Dr. David Brown: Yes. And to be fair, the tree fruit industry really did the lobbying to get this funded. And they’ve provided a lot of support over the years, research support to develop it out. But we are at a point where we can certainly think about extending this network to wheat producers. And I would say that in the legislation that funds AgWeatherNet, it specifically talks about serving all the growers in the state and so we can do that.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And the tree fruit, there’s a lot of decisions they make based on weather I take it.

Dr. David Brown: Yeah, so our page gets about 25,000 page views a day. We get really heavy use and then we also feed data into the decision — DAS, which is decision aid system, which tree fruit users use as well. And so in the tree fruit industry, I wouldn’t have to explain what AgWeatherNet and DAS are all about because it’s heavily used by wine grape producers, and tree fruit and hops to a lesser extent. So in irrigated agriculture, it’s very heavily used at present.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I mentioned this reorganization you undertook when you took over the leadership. What was the motivation for this reorganization? And how might this impact wheat growers?

Dr. David Brown: Yeah, well, there’s a couple motivations. One was that I sort of realized with changes in technology and some other changes that the primary limitation to the quality of our tools is the quality of the weather data that goes into them. And so this reorganization means that we now have five meteorologists on staff, you know, they might call themselves atmospheric scientists. But — but we have five individuals now who have training in atmospheric science and meteorology on staff, and that helps support a greater emphasis on the quality of the weather data that we use that goes into all these tools. In the past it was more focused on agronomy and pest management and so on. The other big changes that now we distributed our staff. So we have stations all over the state and we have research all over the state, supporting all kinds of different industries. And now we have staff in Mount Vernon, in Wenatchee, in Prosser, and Pullman. So we have someone who’s based in Pullman, who can much more readily maintain stations in this part of the state. In the old days, if something happened to a weather station in eastern Washington, it might take a while to get out there to fix it, because it’s just kind of far away [laughter].

Drew Lyon: So, speaking of that, how many weather stations do we have in the east? And is there a — what are the opportunities I suppose to — to increase the number?

Dr. David Brown: So that’s probably our most asked question. We get queries almost every day from someone asking for a weather station [laughter] and everyone wants one nearby. And I would say that is a priority for us. If you think about the quality of weather data, one factor is the quality of the sensor and maintaining it well, but another big factor is how far that station is away from the user. And so we absolutely need more stations in Washington State. And so we are working on various avenues in which to do that. I would mention that we’ve been, in particular, talking to the conservation districts, and they’ve funded the addition of two stations in Okanagan that was funded by conservation districts, and then five and Whatcom County, funded by conservation district, and we’ve been talking to sort of the statewide folks about how we can fund more stations. And the key to all that is that we are also using — there’s some more affordable weather stations out there now, which in our analysis show it — the quality of the data is very comparable to a professional station and that makes it possible to have a lot more stations.

Drew Lyon: Okay, maybe supplement those cheaper stations along with them.

Dr. David Brown: Yeah. So we’re talking about having two tiers. The first tier is the really expensive sort of roughly $10,000 station and then having a second-tier where we have a $2,000 station and we have a base network of maybe 100 stations that are of the tier-one quality and then maybe we can have a couple hundred of the tier-two, as opposed to 150 of the tier one. So it — that’s — that’s the trade off in terms of numbers.

Drew Lyon: So AgWeatherNet has a web page and we can put that web page in our show notes for our listeners. Do you expect these — any changes in the AgWeatherNet web page or decision support tool delivery as part of this reorganization?

Dr. David Brown: Yes. So we’re completely revamping the delivery of our tools. Right now it’s a webpage based delivery. And if you go on there, you’ll see under Tools just, you know, cherries, grapes, wheat, there’s a wheat yield tool. I don’t think anybody really uses it, but there is a tool there for wheat yield estimation [laughter]. And we’re going to a site-specific app-based delivery. So instead of you picking a weather station and saying what’s the weather at this station and assuming that’s the weather that’s closest to my farm, what kind of a pest problem might I have or whatever the tool is. Instead of doing that, we’re actually — you put in the latitude longitude of your farm or a field. And we will estimate the weather as best we can for that location and deliver all the tools for the weather at that location. And that also includes if you want to put in your own weather station and it’s sufficiently high quality, we will deliver weather and tools and forecast to your weather station.

Drew Lyon: Oh really? Wow.

Dr. David Brown: So we’re incorporating private weather station data into our network. That’s another big change [laughter]. And it’s not easily done. I will just add that there’s a lot of quality control that goes into absorbing private weather station data to make sure it’s sufficient.

Drew Lyon: Okay, I know plant life is driven a lot by growing degree days and temperature. So a lot of things could be predicted if we had a good estimation of growing degree days at a location. Probably a lot of tools similar, maybe to what’s in the — in the tree fruit area, could be developed. Why don’t you think we have those tools now and do you think — what the future might be for tools like that?

Dr. David Brown: [Laughter] Well, I think part of the reason is that AgWeatherNet has been based in Prosser and there’s a history behind it. But also part of the reason is that we haven’t had funding yet from the grain industry to develop some of those tools, but I — and the tools will be bit different. So the tree fruit industry really needs 15-minute decision-making tools. I think that for the wheat industry, it’s not quite so timely, but I do think that there’ll be a lot of value in tools that one, for example, would be predicting weather conditions for spring. So you’d be looking at a week, a weekly forecast and building into that some decision support about am I — what’s the wind going to be? Am I going to have inversions or other concerns about spraying? But the other part of it would be building in a wheat phonology model that would tell a grower right, here’s the time of year when you might want to spray for a certain pest. And that’s more your area, Drew?

Drew Lyon: Yeah. For weed control, I think it could be very useful.

Dr. David Brown: [Laughter] Yes.

Drew Lyon: Because a lot of pesticides are limited as to when they can be applied. And if you have an idea that, like one stage is the boot stage, right? So a lot of things have to go on before the wheat starts hitting the boot or before it joints.

Dr. David Brown: Yes.

Drew Lyon: And a lot of people don’t know when their wheat joints. So, but it’s pretty closely tied to growing degree days. So if we could get people at least an estimate within a few days of when their wheat might be jointing that can drive a lot of their decisions.

Dr. David Brown: Yeah. So what we want might want to do is build a model that’s a physiological model that estimates when these stages happen, but also then in our app, and this is true for all the users, we have feedback options. So we want to know, we estimate this is when you’re jointing, when are you actually seeing it? And then we can learn and we can tune it and for every location, for every farm, we can automatically tune these models to your conditions and what you’re seeing. And that’s where it gets really useful.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, um, any other new updates on the AgWeatherNet? I know farmers are always interested in weather [David laughs]. I guess, is it easy for a grower to go to the AgWeatherNet website and — and just play with it? Or do they have to login and get an account or what’s —

Drew Lyon: They can play with it without an account. But if they really want all the features we ask — it’s a free account — but we asked them to log in and get an account. And all that is going to be a little more streamline, we hope our app comes out around May. And then that’s what we’re really going to be pushing people is to use the app. And there’s a web app and a — and a mobile app.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Dr. David Brown: So those who want to sit at home and use their computer can do that, but um, and that is going to really streamline a lot of your interaction with with AgWeatherNet. And the one other big thing I would add is that we are now putting out weekly forecasts, and so that comes out — and if you sign up, you can get that forecast coming to you. That’s targeted towards growers.

Drew Lyon: Is it an email or?

Dr. David Brown: It comes as an email, and we put it out on Twitter and we put it everywhere.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Dr. David Brown: And then also we are developing tools to do automated forecast delivery to every station. So we — and that includes a private station if you have a private station we can deliver. There’s some new data science techniques that allow us to customize delivery of forecast data to individual weather stations, and that’s a big push for AgWeatherNet.

Drew Lyon: So if one of our listeners decides that they really need a weather station in your network, or that their conservation district should seek — do they contact you or how do —

Dr. David Brown: They contact me right now.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Dr. David Brown: I take all the input [laughter].

Dr. David Brown: And how would they contact you? What’s the best way?

Dr. David Brown: They can email me at Dave.brown@wsu.edu.

Drew Lyon: All right, very good. I’m looking forward to seeing some of these changes roll out and I hope we can develop some useful tools for wheat growers in the near future.

Dr. David Brown: I hope so as well.

Drew Lyon: Thanks, David.

Dr. David Brown: Thank you.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon — that’s lyon@wsu.edu –(drew.lyon@wsu.edu). You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.