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Soybean research goes high-tech with spectral analysis

When you think of next-generation soybean breeding, the term “spectral analysis” might not be the first thing that comes to mind.

But the Kansas Soybean Expo is all about the cutting edge, and Bill Schapaugh, a Kansas State University agronomy professor and soybean researcher, shared just that — the latest cutting-edge technology — with this year’s attendees.

While spectral analysis may sound “out-there” complicated, it becomes less so when compared to a technology that more familiar to many precision farmers in Kansas.

“This is really the same principle as GreenSeeker technology that is in place on a lot of variable-rate application equipment,” Schapaugh explained at the Nov. 9 Expo. “Sensors measure the color of the vegetation and break it down into a fingerprint that lets us compare the vegetative characteristics of individual plants in a test plot.”

Key Points

• Spectral analysis is the latest in cutting-edge variety research.

• Sensory equipment works much like GreenSeeker.

• Analysis of color provides clues to the health and future yield of plants.


GreenSeeker has been around for a decade, long enough for many farmers to become familiar with its value in helping determine how much nitrogen needs to be applied to a given area of a field, based on a color comparison with a previously identified “ideal green” that has been programmed into the equipment.

Schapaugh said phenotyping using a similar technology is what “spectral analysis” is all about. Sensors capture color-spectrum data over small plots being compared. A computer model then breaks down the data to make comparisons between the plots, typically different varieties of soybeans being analyzed. The sensors so far have been pretty low-tech, he said.

Graduate students helping with the research — Nathan Keep, Brent Christianson, Nan An, Kevin Price, Vara Prasad and Hatice Aslan — carry a hand-held sensor over the plot. The sensor feeds data into complex equipment carried in a backpack.

Eventually, Schapaugh said, the goal is to make the sensor and analytical equipment small and lightweight enough that they can be attached to a small, remote-controlled airplane or helicopter, which can fly over plots to collect more detailed data.

“We think this technology is very promising for the future in terms of being able to collect more data and find more ways of analyzing it,” he said.

Schapaugh said researchers also have some good news for producers from the traditional plant breeding department at K-State. “We’ll have a release of one of those new, higher-yielding varieties this year and another one next year,” he said.

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COLLECTING DATA: Kansas State University graduate research student Brent Christianson collects spectral analysis data in a soybean variety test plot.

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CUTTING EDGE: Bill Schapaugh, a K-State agronomy professor and soybean plant breeder, introduces Kansas Soybean Expo attendees to spectral analysis technology.

This article published in the February, 2013 edition of KANSAS FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2013.