New building proves that Ag isn’t just for farmers

News | Friday, June 24th, 2016

As of August 29, Purdue’s agronomy farm will have a new building for phenotyping, which is all part of the Smarter Agriculture plan.

The four main steps that are involved in the Smarter Agriculture plan are; expand plant biology, automate phenotyping, drive innovation and foster entrepreneurship. All of which can be accomplished through this new building.

Phenotyping is prediction of an organism’s phenotype, or physical characteristics, using only genetic information.

It can be easy to forget that agriculture doesn’t only consist of farmers or farming. One great characteristic of the phenotyping building is that it is open to a range of Purdue students.

“This building is our new field phenotyping facility and the idea is that it is a very flexible space and it offers the opportunity for students to work together in teams from all different areas,” said Karen Plaut, senior associate dean for research and faculty affairs. “Some of the areas we work with are aviation technology, engineering, computer science, as well as our computer engineering group, which has done a lot of work already.”

Aviation technology is another group that has a fair amount of work for the phenotyping building, by creating and manipulating unmanned aerial systems to help in detecting the phenotype of plants on the farm.

These systems have various cameras on them that either have a visual-spectrum lens or a multispectral lens and then pictures are developed to help gain a better understanding of the crop being looked at.

“So you take that with the genetics of the plant and you can figure out characteristics of that plant that are important in selecting different plants for the future or make recommendations to a farmer. For example, you might be able to tell where areas of low nitrogen are and then you an make recommendations about nitrogen treatments and other things,” said Plaut.

There is also a phenomobile at the new facility, which works a lot like the aerial systems do. Instead of being in the air though, it is ground based or at the same height as the plants and can measure and take photos directly of the plants.

Part of the building is known as collaboration space to meet and talk about different types of things that are going on or being accomplished. The other half of the building is dedicated to research, which involves the threshing, shelling and processing of corn, wheat and sorghum into the seeds and other parts of the plant. The reason that this is done is to measure the characteristics of the seeds.

“For example, right now there are people in the room collecting all the corn and measuring the characteristics of all the corn. Including how many rows there are, how many seeds are in each row, how many seeds are in each corn sample, and how much it weighs,” said Plaut.

“You can see from what they are doing there were about 45,000 individual samples and you take that and then think about how they are probably measuring 10 different characteristics, so then they have about 450,000 samples and that is just one small group of people.”

A really interesting part of the threshing and shelling equipment is that the crop seeds are moved through tubes using air and then the seeds are immediately put into packets, which is a brand new thing. Almaco designed the equipment for the new building and implemented the air and packet idea, which makes the equipment more capable than any in the country, probably even the world Plaut said.

The funding for the phenotyping building came from a multitude of sources, such as, the Indiana Corn Marketing Council and the Indiana Soybean Alliance, which represent all of the farmers in the state of Indiana. They donated four million dollars in total, part of which was used for an endowment. The endowment is allowing Purdue to give away a $50,000 grant opportunity every year to students and faculty that have an idea to build or test something.

“This allows for our farmers in the state to gain new innovations or inventions,” said Plaut.

Purdue has also associated with a new network known as the North American Plant Phenotyping network. During its grand opening of the building, Purdue will hold an inaugural North American Plant Phenotyping network meeting. This means scientist have been invited from all across the country to come to this building and help to develop this network.

“This is a world class facility, and it allows us to really attract the best and brightest faculty and students and the type of research we are doing here is beyond what anybody else is doing. The wonderful thing about this initiative is that it allows us to really move ahead of other universities, and we put big investments into an area that we knew was really important for the future and it helps our farmers,” said Plaut. “Long term, the differences we can make in the field and profitability for our farmers in Indiana is a huge industry and our ultimate goal. We also hope that through entrepreneurship we can start small businesses around the state that also help in terms of economic development in Indiana.”

Source: Avery Nunez, Summer Reporter, Purdue Exponent

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