Illinois Researchers Contribute to Publicly Accessible Agronomy Database


URBANA, Ill. – Data from the USDA-funded Sustainable Corn Coordinated Agricultural Project, which includes contributions from University of Illinois scientists, are now publicly available at Comprising data from five years and 30 field research sites in the Midwest, it has been called one of the most comprehensive agricultural datasets ever to be published.

The research was funded from 2011-17 with a $20 million USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant. The research included nine states, 11 institutions and a 140-member team, which was led by Lois Wright Morton and Lori Abendroth from Iowa State University, and included U of I researchers Maria Villamil and Emerson Nafziger, both in the Department of Crop Sciences.

“The team focused on management practices that could build resiliency to weather variability while maintaining crop yields and reducing negative environmental impacts,” Abendroth says. “It was our goal to make the data available to other scientists in a collaborative effort to advance our understanding of the interactions between the crops we grow, local soils, changing climate, and management decisions.”

The research areas included agronomy, soil science, greenhouse gas, water quality, drainage, and entomology. Data was collected at different frequencies ranging from yearly to sensor-based measurements collected in 15-minute intervals.

The U of I portion of the project was conducted at two western Illinois sites where Nafziger established crop rotation and tillage studies in the mid-1990s. “These studies have produced valuable data on long-term effects of crop rotation compared to continuous corn and soybean, and on how tillage affects yield and yield stability within different crops and rotations,” Nafziger says.

Villamil and her team focused on soil factors associated with different crop rotation cycles, including soil as a source of greenhouse gases. “We found that crop rotation, as opposed to continuous corn, helps to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and also helps to boost the yields for each cash crop,” says Gevan Behnke, graduate student in crop sciences at U of I and member of Villamil’s research team.

Nafziger adds that the use of nitrogen fertilizer on corn is the major factor in greenhouse gas emissions, so finding more emissions with continuous corn was not unexpected. “The major practical drawback for continuous corn in the experiment was that it yielded less than corn in rotation with other crops, and so was less profitable,” he says.

Standardized protocols were developed, as well as standards regarding data structuring and consistency for end-users. A data dictionary describes the measurements taken along with detailed field management data and notes to help users properly interpret the data. “This real-world data can be used in classroom exercises to better understand the responses and relationships inherent in agriculture. In addition, data can be used to train students in data sciences including visualization, analysis and interpretation,” Abendroth says.

“It’s public data; anyone can use it. I’m very proud of having been part of that effort,” Villamil says.

The team posted the data to the USDA National Ag Library Ag Data Commons,, which is a long-term repository and provides additional access to the data. Teams receiving USDA-NIFA funding are required to make data publicly available once a project has ended. The Sustainable Corn CAP team encourages others to use the data to generate added value for research applications and educational purposes.

The Sustainable Corn CAP was a transdisciplinary team funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA, Award No. 2011-68002-30190).

News writer: Lauren Quinn, 217-300-2435,

Submitted by: Connie Beck, County Extension Director of Unit #24