You could say John Norman has gone underground. His fascination with cause and effect has led the University of Wisconsin soil physicist to model water's movement in the soil.

He has been diligently working for several years on a University of Wisconsin crop modeling program called the Precision Agricultural Landscape Modeling System — or PALMS.

This comprehensive system examines rainfall, water movement, tillage practices, fertility levels and soil types to assess their impact on corn and other crops.

“During the past 10 years, models have never proven to be reliable enough to guide farmers' decisions,” says Norman. What makes PALMS different, he says, is that the model can closely resemble the localized variations in soils and topography to track the expected movement of water across and below the soil's surface. The program can predict the water infiltration rates in soils.

Creating PALMS has really been a team effort, according to Norman, which includes soil scientist Christine Molling, as well as other researchers from the UW-Madison Space Science and Engineering Center and the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment.

Some fields may look uniform on the surface, but that's not always the case underneath, according to Norman.

“Predicting water movement in fields — with different high and low spots, soil types and profiles — are critical components of PALMS,” he says. “PALMS uses information specific to a given field.”

PALMS also examines the impact of different tillage and crop management systems on yields.

“The model might also be modified to account for the variations in organic matter and surface residues,” Norman says.

PALMS is proving itself at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station (north of Madison) and on several farm fields. The results consistently show that the model's predictions on grain yield and moisture conditions match actual field observations.

That success attracted serious interest from John Deere's Agri-Services. The company has already entered into formal arrangements with the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) to help move the PALMS project on to the commercial stage.

“PALMS appears to be one of the most comprehensive field crop modeling and management tools out there right now,” says Steve Faivre, director of research and innovation of John Deere's Agri-Services in Hoffman Estates, IL.

“As a former Illinois grain producer for 25 years, I can fully appreciate PALMS' assessment of water movement and tillage practices on crop production,” he says.

PALMS — or whatever it's called in the future — will likely be tested for another year or two before becoming a candidate for commercialization, Faivre says.

When PALMS enters the marketplace, he says producers may find a suite of services available on a subscription basis.

Due to its complexity, the PALMS-generated data will probably be delivered from John Deere to a supporting network of crop consultants, chemical and seed companies and supply cooperatives.

PALMS could even play a key role in helping producers assess when fields are too wet for traffic.

“We don't view PALMS as the silver bullet for all the challenges producers face in managing crops,” says Faivre. “However, PALMS is a hub that helps bring together numerous facets of crop modeling, and it will eventually offer producers more efficient and accurate ways to make profitable crop management decisions.”