A bird's-eye view of water
Tyler Nigon comes from a strong agricultural background. He grew up on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin that has grown increasingly diverse with crops including alfalfa, corn, wheat, soybeans, and pumpkins.
He’s now looking at critical issues for agriculture and the environment from a scientific perspective. Nigon is a doctoral student in the U of M’s Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, and he’s focused on improving fertilizer recommendations for farmers so that they can grow their crops effectively while reducing water pollution from nitrogen.
More specifically, he says he is working “to improve nitrogen management in corn production systems—both maintaining and improving productivity, but then, to the extent possible, quantifying the amount of nitrogen that is being lost and acknowledge that there is an unknown cost [in terms of pollution]."
He points out that farmers are trying to produce food in the most efficient manner possible, while avoiding pollution, but there may be ways to accomplish both better, especially by managing nitrogen and possibly shifting to more in-season application.
Nigon is using two primary tools: drones that can capture millions of pixels of information for spatial analysis, and crop models that capture soil and weather information and other data for temporal analysis. “I’m evaluating whether the marriage of those two is better than either approach individually,” he says.
And even though a premise of his pursuit—that in-season application of nitrogen might improve yield or reduce costs—is yielding mixed results, he says that the “social costs” of nitrogen loss to ground or surface water make the issue worth exploring further.
“I understand the importance of establishing a balance among the economic, environmental, and social ecosystems that are influenced by agriculture,” Nigon says, “and I am motivated to address this problem from each of these perspectives.”