By Jeff Nagel
Scouting crops pays. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be an agronomist for Ceres Solutions Cooperative. I also wouldn’t be an Indiana certified crop adviser. The questions I often get revolve around what is the best way to accomplish scouting, especially if you grow a sizable amount of crops.
I was recently asked how I would sort out scouting options for efficiency and cost-effectiveness for 2018. Here is how I see it.
Ask yourself questions
Technology in agriculture continues to evolve rapidly. When evaluating any technology, ask yourself how it can help you make better management decisions to make the farm more profitable.
Farmers have several choices that can help monitor the crop during the growing season. However, none will substitute for “boots on the ground,” particularly from emergence through the early vegetative stages.
Digital platforms that provide satellite Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and/or scouting images can be helpful after the crop gains enough biomass to display crop growth differences. These images essentially try to compare corn color. They can help direct you to where potential growth concerns are occurring so you can ground-truth what may be the cause.
One challenge with satellite images in the eastern Corn Belt is cloud cover. At times there may be gaps in timely images due to cloud cover.
Flights can be more dependable for timely NDVI and/or thermal images that detect crop stress. They do tend to cost more per acre for the service, but also may be of higher quality. Both satellite and aerial images can provide a method of creating variable-rate seeding or nutrient scripts.
As an example, some companies are attempting to convert an NDVI or thermal image on V10 to V12 corn into a variable-rate nitrogen application map. This is still a work in progress and is limited to high-clearance equipment for the in-season applications. Correct algorithms to convert “corn color” to N rate maps and a relatively narrow application window have limited adoption so far.
Where UAVs fit
An unmanned aerial vehicle can be a helpful tool on the farm but does take some time to learn how to use. UAVs can be used simply to gain an overhead view of a field to get a perspective on potential stress areas and direct in-field scouting. Software services can also be used to fly the field and “stitch” the images together to create a map of the field.
Drones can be helpful in making management decisions. For example, a large farm operation was deciding how much more to invest in the 2015 corn crop in regards to rescue N after excessive rains that season. Attempting to walk large fields was difficult, and road observations showed a mix of yellow and green corn. UAVs gave a more complete picture of the extent of damage and led to the decision not to spend more money on what was determined to be extensive, irreversible injury.
Nagel is an agronomist for Ceres Solutions Cooperative. He is based near Lafayette, Ind. Indiana Prairie Farmer editor Tom J. Bechman contributed to this story.