Explorations in soybean growth habits under different planting populations and with simulated hail damage in order to enhance the agricultural learning of future agriculture professionals
Sustainable Production
ExtensionIndustry outreach
Parent Project:
This is the first year of this project.
Lead Principal Investigator:
Adam Alford, Southwest Minnesota State University
Co-Principal Investigators:
Project Code:
Contributing Organization (Checkoff):
Institution Funded:
Brief Project Summary:
This project will demonstrate how different soybean planting populations can impact plant architecture, canopy development, and final yields. Using drone photography in conjunction with image analysis software, the canopy space of soybeans grown at different planting populations will be quantified throughout the season and correlated to season total yield. The other main goal is to educate students on how field management decisions can change the trajectory of a growing season. Students will be able to see how soybeans respond to increased canopy space, the effect of compensatory growth (simulated hail damage), how weed pressure and plant populations affect yield.
Key Beneficiaries:
#agronomists, #extension specialists, #farmers, #students
Unique Keywords:
#canopy, #drones, #education, #planting
Information And Results
Project Summary

The agricultural department at SMSU has several major areas of study including ag business, agronomy, and ag education. SMSU also has ~50 acres of crop land donated by a local alumni and farmer which we routinely use for hands-on student learning. Summer 2023 will be the ninth field season the SMSU research plots has been established and the 5th at our current (and permanent location). These plots are primarily used by SMSU students for experiential learning, and since I have started at SMSU (in 2020) and became the plot manager, I have expanded the use of these field plots in SMSU coursework. My primary goal as plot manager is to fund/develop ag literacy for all plot visitors.

In the 2022-23 academic year, the SMSU research plots received 50-75 unique undergraduate students, which is ~1/20th of the fulltime undergraduate SMSU student body. This proves to me that the plots can be used to help augment/enhance student learning for ag focused students, and at the least, help introduce non-ag students to agriculture. This brief introduction for the non-ag students may be superficial at first, but it can help lead to a greater understanding of what types of jobs are involved in modern farming.

While agriculture focused majors are by far the most common type of student that interacts with the SMSU research farm, I have been able to extend the utility of the plots to other majors and student organizations in the 2022-23 academic year. These include:
• Biology and Environmental Science majors: who have used the plots for insect collection and for soil health labs
• Culinology, Business, and Political Science majors: who have used the field plots to develop the Mindful Meals program (https://www.marshallindependent.com/news/local-news/2022/02/food-for-thought/) in which crops are grown at the research plots, turned into home-cooked meals in the SMSU kitchens, and delivered to food insecure children + families on the weekends.
• DECA: a business-focused student organization consisting of foreign students who toured the plots as a group activity and learned about U.S. agriculture along with previously funded MNSRPC projects (Utilization of drone technology as a tool to enhance the agricultural learning of future agriculture professionals in the 2022 funding cycle)
• A dorm event: In which a SMSU RA took their floor and close student friends to the field plots to learn about them as well as how students can use them.

My primary responsibility at SMSU is that of an educator, and depending on the student make-up of the agronomy courses I teach, I estimate ~33% of my students each semester actively farm, with another ~33% having some sort of close familial connection to farming (such as occasionally helping out during planting or harvest). The last ~33% are interested in agriculture for its career opportunities and job prospects. With my farming and farming-adjacent students, I have found that many cannot communicate the why of whatever practice they are conducting in their field. Said another way, they often know how to operate the machinery, but can’t communicate the reason as to why they perform one management practice over another. These management decisions are often made by their parents, but are usually not communicated. The proposed research methods are heavy on visual and hands-on learning opportunities, and while somewhat of an obtuse goal, one of the main objectives of this project is to help students put their own words to management practices either performed or observed.

While this proposal is primarily written to enhance the educational opportunities and experiences within the SMSU agriculture program, my first objective in the next section is research aligned. The order of objectives and goals listed in the next section does not represent their relative importance to me, but rather I have structured the grant as such for clarity purposes. It is easier to present the research project first, how it will be achieved, and then describe how the project will further student learning at SMSU, rather than presenting them in the opposite order. Said another way, GOAL 1 will provide the learning opportunities that GOAL 2 and GOAL 3 are focused on.

Project Objectives

GOAL 1 : Describe how different soybean planting populations can impact plant architecture, canopy development, and final yields.

OBJECTIVE : Using drone photography in conjunction with image analysis software, the canopy space of soybeans grown at different planting populations will be quantified throughout the season and eventually correlated to season total yield. Aboveground biomass will also be described on a bi-weekly basis and look at how plant population impacts aboveground biomass.

GOAL 2: Demonstrate/Educate SMSU students about how even simple field management decisions (alteration of planting population) can change the trajectory of a growing season.

OBJECTIVE : By altering the planting rate in our test plots, students will be able to see how soybean responds to increased canopy space (increased branching, biomass, etc.), and better understand the effect of compensatory growth (simulated hail damage), how lower planting populations can still yield the same, and at what planting population weed pressure increases. The plots will serve as a visual resource for local and up-and-coming (student) growers as they complete their SMSU coursework.

GOAL 3: Provide hands-on learning/training opportunities in agriculture to SMSU students.

OBJECTIVE : The vast majority of field work and data collection will be accomplished by SMSU students, and be used in coursework throughout the academic year.

Project Deliverables

While the focus of this grant is centered on student education, the preliminary results of this project will be shared with the local farming community during the annual SMSU agronomy field day in mid-July 2023, and our final results will be presented in mid-July 2024. Over the past three years, this event has been attended by an average of ~75 local farmers and ag business representatives each year. SMSU Agronomy uses this event to showcase the type of research it is conducting, how we as a school focus on hands-on/experiential learning, and how we use the field plots to educate our students during the plot tour. Preliminary data from the proposed project would be presented during the speaking part of the event, and attendees would be welcome to check out the plot and visualize our findings during a plot tour given at the end of the event. While the research won’t be done in summer of 2023, a poster of our findings will be presented in summer 2024.
As mentioned above, SMSU agriculture students will be able to use the plot for experiential learning to help cement their understanding of various aspects of soybean growth and development.

Data generated from the field plot will be used to provide learning opportunities in at least 5 different classes:
• AGRO 132 Crop Production + Lab: This class is the equivalent of an “Agriculture 101” class and is required by all ag majors at SMSU. As such it averages ~20 students each fall semester. This grant will eventually provide the material needed for a lab activity. For this lab, students will go to the field and make observations on how changing soybean planting rates impacts plant growth structure and canopy space. Once we return to school, students will be presented with yield data as a function of planting population, and be asked to make a “Yield response to planting population” graph using the real world data the project will fund and collect. In a series of questions associated with the assignment they will be able to determine/argue what they believe the most economic planting rate would look like with considerations to weed control.

• AGRO 212 Grain and Forage Crop Management: This class is required by Agronomy and Agriculture Solutions majors, and averages around 16 students every other fall. This course focuses on the production of corn, soy, and alfalfa and topics such as optimal planting rates, best fertilization practices, and genetic traits that impact production and is the most agronomist centric of the agronomy courses. Photos taken of canopy development in the plots, branching of soybeans at lower planting populations, and final yield data along with personal experiences will be used and for future lecture material in our soybean unit.

• AGRO 341 Principles of Pest Management + Lab: This class is required by Agronomy and Agriculture Solutions majors, and averages around 9 students every fall. It primarily covers the role IPM plays in US crop production and how proper planning and scouting can be used to save growers money while not compromising on yields. Additionally, this class has students going to the SMSU field plots every week where they then create scouting journals and collect pests for a curated collection as part of a semester-long project. The soybean plots in this project will help demonstrate how a closed canopy can help fight off weeds, and provide a plot for students to develop a scouting plant and a plot from which to collect insects (beneficial and problematic).

• AGRO 390 Precision Ag: This class is required by Agronomy, Agriculture Solutions, and Ag Ed majors. As such it averages ~17 students each fall semester. This course covers precision agriculture tools including variable rate technology, equipment auto-guidance, remote and on-the-go sensing, and gets into the mechanisms of how these tools are utilized. The major assignment in this class is when students get a chance to fly the SMSU drone, take photos, and develop a project/answer a question using the ImageJ program. Like last year's funded project (Utilization of drone technology as a tool to enhance the agricultural learning of future agriculture professionals), this proposal will create a time series of soybean and weed canopy growth at different planting populations and will provide students with hands-on experience in analyzing remotely sensed data to make conclusions. They will also gain experience in scouting the fields with drones during our drone orientation class. Furthermore, they would be free to use the soybean plots while they are still standing to develop their own semester project.

• AGRO 454 Experimental Design in Agriculture + Lab: This class is an Agronomy major elective offered every other spring and averages 8 students a semester. In this class, students use real world data for a weekly assignment to learn about experimental design in a typical agronomic test plot. Some of these assignments include assessment of insecticide sprays, reinforcing the need for replication and blocking, and statistical model development. This course’s main goal is to get the students to a level of statistical understanding where they are eventually able to run an ANOVA by themselves, and to interpret those results correctly. The weekly canopy development dataset, along with the final yield data will provide students a variety of datasets to use and develop their statistical skills. Using a drone to measure canopy development, the biomass measuring approach I describe above, and the eventual yield data we’ll collect, students will also be able to see the many ways in which viable data can be collected.

Progress Of Work

Plots have been managed well throughout the field season. Due to some abnormally dry conditions, emergence of soybean seed was somewhat spotty in some parts of the field, but data on canopy closure will still be able to be collected from drone photography. Canopy development data and stand counts have been collected. Yield data will be collected when plants are ready.

At the time of this progress report, preliminary data has been presented to ~85 individuals at our SMSU field day (July 13th) as well as ~20 individuals during a visit from 2 of MN's state representatives (July 31st). The student intern who oversaw this project gained a bunch of experience in running experimental trials as well as a quick primer in running farm machinery.

As this grant is primarily focused on education, the plots will receive more attention from students during the actual school year.


View uploaded report Word file

See final project results below

Final Project Results


View uploaded report PDF file

See final research attached

Benefit To Soybean Farmers

The primary manner in which this project will positively impact MN soybean farmers is via education and demonstration. The future crop scouts, consultants, product sales service, and researchers that our MN soybean farmers will rely on are in college right now. A broad and robust agricultural education during their college years will not only ensure they can identify and get the jobs best suited to their individual abilities, but once hired, will allow them to excel and help MN soy growers to be agricultural leaders they always have been.

While this grant will provide a variety of education opportunities to most the SMSU ag students via coursework (listed above “Project Deliverables”), all agricultural majors at SMSU also need to complete an internship by the time they graduate. This grant will provide one such internship opportunity to at least one student intern who is unlikely to be familiar with farming or conducting research (most of my farming students work the farm over summer). In recruiting a non-farming student, this grant will allow them to become familiar with all aspects of farming, not just the ones this grant focuses on. This includes, but is not limited to, driving a manual tractor, making field repairs on machinery, or even just knowing when the soil is dry enough to actually plant. Some of the research lessons they will learn is how to set up a field plot with 90 degree angles, the value of replication and blocking, and finally how to conduct a statistical analysis. Finally, this student will give a presentation on the projects findings/their experiences during the SMSU field day, and will present the final results at the end of their internship to develop their public speaking.

Finally, SMSU is also the recipient of another MN soy growers grant in which we train students to pass the CCA exam. We have been largely successful with 5 out of 7 upperclass students passing in the 2021-22 academic year (and at the end of the grants funding) and 2 out of 5 upperclass students in the 2022-23 academic year (the grant is currently ongoing). This grant, if funded, will allow us to further reinforce agricultural ideas and concepts which appear on the CCA exam.

The United Soybean Research Retention policy will display final reports with the project once completed but working files will be purged after three years. And financial information after seven years. All pertinent information is in the final report or if you want more information, please contact the project lead at your state soybean organization or principal investigator listed on the project.