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Computer to Help Overcome Yield Constraints in the Tropics

By Jim De Quattro
June 11, 1999

How could computers help African farmers who still use oxen to plow their fields? A scientist with the Agricultural Research Service is part of an international team working on an answer. ARS is USDA's chief research agency.

The scientists are developing and testing software that extension workers in the tropics would use to advise farmers. In the tropics, soil acidity, phosphorus deficiency and climate often limit crop yields. But with the right computerized "decision support system," a farm advisor could offer farmers alternatives consistent with their available tools and methods.

The software plan is part of a multi-institutional 5-year program of the U.S. Agency for International Development to evaluate soil management and productivity in many countries. Intensive test sites include the Cinzana region of Mali in west Africa, along with sites in Costa Rica and the Philippines.

Plant physiologist Dan Israel at ARS' Soybean and Nitrogen Fixation Unit in Raleigh, N.C., visited the Cinzana last year for a first-hand look at farming methods. There, oxen till the soil and manure is the main fertilizer source for millet, sorghum, cowpeas, peanuts, cassava and sesbania.

In the U.S., Israel's research focuses on how soybean root nodules convert nitrogen from the air to a form plants can use. Cowpeas, Cinzana's main protein source, also fix nitrogen in this way. But phosphorus deficiency and soil acidity limit the nodules' efficiency at fixing nitrogen.

The new software draws on years of US-AID funded research at North Carolina State University, Texas A&M, Cornell University and the University of Hawaii. The software has three components for making decisions on needs for lime, nitrogen or phosphorus. NCSU sociologist Frank Smith will evaluate the software's impact by surveying Tropical extension agents and farmers.

An article about the project appears in the June issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine and on the web at: