Maize is an extremely important grain crop, and the demand has increased sharply throughout the world. China contributes nearly one-fifth of the total production alone with its decreasing arable land. Timely and accurate prediction of maize yield in China is critical for ensuring global food security. Previous studies primarily used either visible or near-infrared (NIR) based vegetation indices (VIs), or climate data, or both to predict crop yield. However, other satellite data from different spectral bands have been underutilized, which contain unique information on crop growth and yield. In addition, although a joint application of multi-source data significantly improves crop yield prediction, the combinations of input variables that could achieve the best results have not been well investigated. Here we integrated optical, fluorescence, thermal satellite, and environmental data to predict county-level maize yield across four agro-ecological zones (AEZs) in China using a regression-based method (LASSO), two machine learning (ML) methods (RF and XGBoost), and deep learning (DL) network (LSTM). The results showed that combining multi-source data explained more than 75% of yield variation. Satellite data at the silking stage contributed more information than other variables, and solar-induced chlorophyll fluorescence (SIF) had an almost equivalent performance with the enhanced vegetation index (EVI) largely due to the low signal to noise ratio and coarse spatial resolution. The extremely high temperature and vapor pressure deficit during the reproductive period were the most important climate variables affecting maize production in China. Soil properties and management factors contained extra information on crop growth conditions that cannot be fully captured by satellite and climate data. We found that ML and DL approaches definitely outperformed regression-based methods, and ML had more computational efficiency and easier generalizations relative to DL. Our study is an important effort to combine multi-source remote sensed and environmental data for large-scale yield prediction. The proposed methodology provides a paradigm for other crop yield predictions and in other regions.
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