Free, Online Data and Tools for the Agricultural Community

Sami Khanal, John Fulton, Ajay Shah, Scott Shearer, Elizabeth Hawkins
Data and tools for sustainable agricultural practices
Figure 1. Data and tools for sustainable agricultural practices.

Today’s agricultural community relies on data and tools to help support decision making at the field level. Data-driven insights help agronomists and farmers to predict what is coming, and decide how to act upon this information more effectively, which can improve on-farm decision making and execution. By integrating a farmer’s experience with data collected via cutting-edge technologies, such as drones, satellites, GPS, and high-tech sensors, decisions can be more focused (i.e., field-specific), quicker, smarter and simpler. Data and tools can help locate areas of a field suffering from stress earlier than the human eye, and can provide recommendations to boost crop yields while minimizing environmental footprints. Hence, comprehensive databases that are easily accessible are essential to the agricultural community (Figure 1).

Several agricultural related data and tools are available from government agencies; however, many in the agricultural community may be unfamiliar with available data and their potential applications. This publication outlines some data, in particular spatial data, and tools that are available publicly at no cost, including information about their sources and how they may be usable within a precision agriculture (PA) database. 

Types of Public Data

Digital Elevation Model (DEM)

What is a DEM? A DEM uses land surface elevations to produce a map that depicts the terrain surface.  Typically, maps use contours or colors to represent elevations, slope, or other parameters.

Why is a DEM useful? It is useful for many applications such as: 

  1. Deriving landform characteristics such as slope and aspect (Figure 2).
  2. Forecasting flash flooding.
  3. Estimating soil erosion.
  4. Estimating vegetation height.
  5. Producing a 3D representation of the surface. 
  6. Identifying tile placement and land upgrades.  
  7. Identifying water catchment or contributing areas, as well as potential locations for best management practices such as grassed waterways.

Aerial image, shaded relief image, and slopes of a field near London, Ohio

Figure 2. Aerial image, shaded relief image, and slopes (%) of a field near London, Ohio.

Where can I get DEM data? The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has developed the National Elevation Database, which is a seamless mosaic of the best-available elevation data. For the contiguous United States, DEM data are available at three different spatial resolutions—3, 10 and 30 meters. For some states, or areas within a state, higher spatial resolution (i.e., 1 meter resolution) DEM data are available. The websites that can be used for downloading DEM data are: 

  1. USGS National Map—Allows users to interactively select the region of interest for data download. It also shows the availability of various resolutions of DEM datasets for the region of interest (USGS, 2017). 
  2. USDA – Geospatial Data Gateway—Offers a drop-down or list of options for selecting the region of interest for downloading the data (USDA-NRCS, 2017a).

Soil Survey Geographic Database (SSURGO)

What is SSURGO? The SSURGO database contains soil information collected by the National Cooperative Soil Survey over the course of a century. Soil data are available for most areas in the United States. 

Why is SSURGO useful? It provides information on soil properties and qualities useful for evaluating and planning the use and management of land or soil. Examples include: 

  1. Land Classification: Specific land use and management groups can be assigned based on soil properties. For example, it can help determine prime vs. non-prime farmlands, or hydric (i.e., soil which is permanently or seasonally saturated by water) vs. non-hydric soils (Figure 3). 
  2. Land Management: Soil response (e.g., erosion, leaching, runoff) to various land management practices, including irrigation and equipment use, can be estimated.  
  3. Vegetative Productivity: SSURGO can be used to estimate potential vegetative productivity for a variety of land uses, including cropland, forestland, pastureland and other land types. 
  4. Water Management: It can help determine the suitability of the soil for various water management practices, including irrigation, grassed waterways and drainage.

Visualization of soil characteristics using soil survey data

Figure 3. Visualization of soil characteristics—(a) hydric rating, (b) farm land classification using soil survey data.

Where can I get a SSURGO database? Soil data for a state, county or region of interest can be explored online or downloaded using the following websites:

  1. Web Soil Survey—Allows users to interactively select the region of interest and to visualize soil properties and their derivatives (e.g., Figure 3) without requiring data downloading or special Geographic Information System (GIS) software. Reports or maps can also be generated instantaneously (USDA-NRCS, 2017b). 
  2. USDA – Geospatial Data Gateway—Offers a drop-down or list of options for selecting the region of interest for downloading the data (USDA-NRCS, 2017a).

Climate Data

What are climate data? Climate data provide long-term atmospheric and weather conditions, such as extreme events, precipitation, or temperature. 

Why are climate data useful? Climate and weather conditions have significant impacts on agriculture. Climate data can help inform and prepare producers to reduce the impact of adverse weather events, and provide opportunities to implement plans within favorable weather conditions. Some of the climate derived variables (see below) can be used to help track crop growth and mitigate crop stress. Examples include: 

  1. Growing Degree Days: A measure of heat accumulation that can help assess the phenological development stages of crop, including crop emergence and maturity, crop disease outbreaks, and frost risk. 
  2. Drought Index: A measure of dryness based on precipitation and temperature that can be used to examine the need for irrigation over the growing season. 
  3. Climate Normals: Three-decade averages of climate variables, including temperature, precipitation and storms, can be used for designing climate resilient conservation practices through assessment of the likelihood of an event, such as landslides and flooding. 

Where can I get climate data? Historical climate data for a state, county, specific location, or weather station can be retrieved from the following websites: 

  1. PRISM Climate Group—Provides multiple spatial/temporal resolution climate data from 1895 to the present for the entire conterminous United States. Climate data between weather stations are spatially interpolated, and data are available in multiple forms including maps, csv, and text formats. Users can interactively select a region of interest to retrieve the climate data. Figure 4 shows the 30-year normal annual mean temperature and precipitation for the conterminous United States (PRISM Climate Group, 2017). 
  2. National Climatic Data Center (NCDC)—Provides climate data for a state, county, location, or weather station in csv, pdf and text formats (NCDC-NOAA, 2017). 
  3. Midwestern Regional Climate Center (MRCC)—Provides high-quality climate data, derived information, and data summaries for the Midwest, and prepares specialized historical climate datasets. It serves the nine-state Midwest region (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin) (MRCC, 2017). 

U.S. maps showing 30-year mean temperature and precipitation

Figure 4. 30-year normal annual (a) mean temperature, (b) precipitation based on period 1981–2010 (Source: PRISM Climate Group).

Cropland Data Layer

2016 Cropland Data Layer and Statistics for Madison County, Ohio
Figure 5. Example 2016 cropland data layer, and statistics for Madison County, OH. (Source: CropScape).

What is a Cropland Data Layer? It is a map created using satellite imagery to provide spatial and temporal distributions of major crop commodities in the conterminous United States.

Why is a Cropland Data Layer useful? It can be used for:

  1. Estimating acreage of specific vegetation or crop rotations.
  2. Assessing changes in land use or land cover.
  3. Planning and managing cropland.

Where can I get Cropland Data Layers? 

  1. CropScape—Allows users to interactively select a region of interest, visualize the spatial distribution of vegetation, assess the temporal change in vegetation types, and generate statistics without requiring special type of GIS or image processing software (Figure 5) (USDA-NASS, 2017a).
  2. USDA-Geospatial Data Gateway—Offers a drop-down or list of options for selecting the region of interest for downloading data (USDA-NRCS, 2017a).

Vegetation Index (VI)

NDVI of vegetation in Madison County, Ohio
Figure 6. Normalized Difference Vegetation Indices (NDVI) of vegetation in Madison County, OH for 7/11/2017 (Source: VegScape, 2017).

What is a Vegetation Index? It is an index useful for assessing density and vigor of crop. It is derived using spectral information from satellite imagery, which is acquired using sensors, at various wavelengths. 

Why are Vegetation Indices useful? They allow users to characterize the health of vegetation. By analyzing the temporal and spatial distributions of vegetation indices, users can assess crop health conditions, locate areas of stress, and examine changes in vegetation.

Where can I download Vegetation Indices data? 

  • VegScape–Vegetation Condition Explorer—Allows users to explore, visualize, query and disseminate vegetation conditions without requiring users to download the data or use GIS or image processing software (Figure 6). It uses a normalized difference vegetation index, derived using 250 meter resolution MODIS satellite data, to represent the vegetation conditions. Data are available for the conterminous United States since 2000 (USDA-NASS, 2017b). 

National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) Database

What is the NASS database? It is a comprehensive tool for accessing agricultural data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These data, which include crop and livestock production figures and statistics, are based on either surveys or the agricultural census that is conducted every 5 years (Figure 7).  

Why is the NASS database useful? It allows users to find agriculture survey and census data quickly. The search can be customized by commodity, location, or time period.

Where can I download NASS data? 

NASS Database—Offers a list of options to access agricultural related data (USDA-NASS, 2017c).

NASS database

Figure 7. Graphic user interface of the NASS database. 

Agro-Climate Tools

What is the Agro-Climate Tool? It is an online resource for the agricultural community in the north central region of the United States and is used to assess weather, climate, drought, and cropping data. 

Why is the Agro-Climate useful? It provides a suite of decision support tools, including:

  1. AgClimate View: Users can access historical climate and crop yield data for the U.S. Corn Belt, view graphs of monthly temperature and precipitation, plot corn and soybean yield trends, and compare climate and yields over the past 30 years (Figure 8). 
  2. Corn GDD: Tracks real-time and historical growing degree day accumulations; assesses spring and fall frost risk; and guides decisions related to planting, harvest, and seed selection. 
  3. Climate Patterns Viewer: Examines the effect of global climate patterns, such as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation and Arctic Oscillation, on local climate conditions and crop yields.
  4. Corn Split N: Determines the feasibility and profitability of using post-planting nitrogen application or corn production. 
  5. Irrigation Investment: Explores the potential profitability of installing irrigation equipment at user-specified locations across the Corn Belt.

AgClimate View data for Madison County, Ohio

Figure 8. Maximum temperature and corn yield comparisons from 1980 to 2015 for Madison County, Ohio, based on AgClimate View.

Where to find this tool?

High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC, 2017)—Offers a suite of decision support tools as discussed above.  


Several agricultural datasets and tools exists that can either be freely downloaded or visualized online. These data and tools are mostly provided by federal agencies, recognizing that these data can be used for: daily decision making, such as where and when to plant; where to improve soil; when to apply fertilizer, pesticides and insecticides; and when to harvest. More data are anticipated to be available for public to use under the “open data” policy that is currently underway around the world. Use of these data help promote the efficiency and effectiveness in agricultural decision-making.

The authors thank Laura Lindsey, Assistant Professor, Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, and Margaret Kalcic, Assistant Professor and Mary Wicks, Program Coordinator, both of whom are from the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering for their technical and editorial reviews of the fact sheet.

HPRCC, 2017. U2U Decision Support Tools [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.17).
MRCC, 2017. Midwest Regional Climate Center [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.2017).
NCDC-NOAA, 2017. Climate Data Online Search [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.17).
PRISM Climate Group, 2017. PRISM Climate Data [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.17).
USDA-NASS, 2017a. CropScape—Cropland Data Layer [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.17).
USDA-NASS, 2017b. VegScape—Vegetation Condition Explorer [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.17).
USDA-NASS, 2017c. Quick Stats [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.17).
USDA-NRCS, 2017a. Geospatial Data Gateway [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.17).
USDA-NRCS, 2017b. Web Soil Survey [WWW Document]. URL (accessed 7.15.17).
USGS, 2017. USGS—Elevation Products [WWW Document]. URL,nedsrc&tit... View (accessed 7.31.17).

Visit The Ohio State University’s Precision Agriculture website and Agronomic Crops Network for additional information on nutrient management and stewardship.