Can crop simulation models be used to predict local to regional maize yields and total production in the U.S. Corn Belt?

Francisco J. Morell, Haishun S. Yang, Kenneth G. Cassman, Justin Van Wart, Roger W. Elmore, Mark Licht, Jeffrey A. Coulter, Ignacio A. Ciampitti, Cameron M. Pittelkow, Sylvie M. Brouder, Peter Thomison, Joe Lauer, Christopher Graham, Raymond Massey, Patricio Grassini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

56 Scopus citations


Crop simulation models are used at the field scale to estimate crop yield potential, optimize current management, and benchmark input-use efficiency. At issue is the ability of crop models to predict local and regional actual yield and total production without need of site-year specific calibration of internal parameters associated with fundamental physiological processes. In this study, a well-validated maize simulation model was used to estimate yield potential for 45 locations across the U.S. Corn Belt, including both irrigated and rainfed environments, during four years (2011-2014) that encompassed diverse weather conditions. Simulations were based on measured weather data, dominant soil properties, and key management practices at each location (including sowing date, hybrid maturity, and plant density). The same set of internal model parameters were used across all site-years. Simulated yields were upscaled from locations to larger spatial domains (county, agricultural district, state, and region), following a bottom-up approach based on a climate zone scheme and distribution of maize harvested area. Simulated yields were compared against actual yields reported at each spatial level, both in absolute terms as well as deviations from long-term averages. Similar comparisons were performed for total maize production, estimated as the product of simulated yields and official statistics on maize harvested area in each year. At county-level, the relationship between simulated and actual yield was better described by a curvilinear model, with decreasing agreement at higher yields (>12 Mg ha-1). Comparison of actual and simulated yield anomalies, as estimated from the yearly yield deviations from the long-term actual and simulated average yield, indicated a linear relationship at county-level. In both cases (absolute yields and yield anomalies comparisons), the agreement increased with increasing spatial aggregation (from county to region). An approach based on long-term actual and simulated yields and year-specific simulated yield allowed estimation of actual yield with a high degree of accuracy at county level (RMSE ≤ 18%), even in years with highly favorable weather or severe drought. Estimates of total production, which are of greatest interest to buyers and sellers in the market, were also in close agreement with actual production (RMSE ≤ 22%). The approach proposed here to estimate yield and production can complement other approaches that rely on surveys, field crop cuttings, and empirical statistical methods and serve as basis for in-season yield and production forecasts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalField Crops Research
StatePublished - Jun 1 2016


  • Crop simulation model
  • Regional production
  • Upscaling
  • Yield anomaly
  • Yield potential

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Soil Science


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