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New tool spots crop disease early

Evergreen FS Thermal image from Ceres Imaging
I SPY: Thermal images from Ceres Imaging capture disease in a healthy-looking soybean canopy.
Evergreen FS partners with Ceres Imaging to offer customers an early look at plant health through multispectral imaging, which can detect disease five to 10 days before symptoms appear.

Catching disease or crop stress early is a good thing, right? What if you could identify crop disease 10 days before typical NDVI imaging or traditional scouting methods? Matt Free, agronomy department manager with Evergreen FS in Bloomington, Ill., says with Ceres Imaging, they were able to pinpoint stressed plant tissue five to 10 days before disease symptoms visually appeared during a several-thousand-acre trial run in 2017.

Ceres Imaging uses proprietary multispectral imaging to capture data that identifies stress indicators such as nutrient and water deficiencies.  The California-based company began in the tree nut industry, explains product lead Anthony Atlas, adding that Evergreen FS helped calibrate the imaging process for Midwest row crops. Instead of flying a pattern over one centrally located tree nut farm, they learned the best entry point and angle to fly once over spread-out corn and soybean fields. The goal is to capture one image that tells the story at a cost-effective price.

Why is Ceres Imaging better than Normalized Difference Vegetation Index or satellite images? NDVI images capture how much vegetation is in a given area, Atlas says, and do not show potential variability once the crop canopy closes. Ceres includes chlorophyll and thermal imaging, or what Atlas calls the “disturbance index,” which correlates well with nitrogen levels, disease, stress and, ultimately, yield maps. A field that looks healthy on NDVI and RGB maps, but has a large strip down the middle on the chlorophyll map, could indicate a missed nitrogen application, Atlas explains.  

Ground-truthing Ceres
With help from local pilots, Ceres Imaging captures images and provides data analysis, based on proprietary processing and agronomic models. Evergreen FS provides the “boots on the ground” follow-up by scouting the “hot spots” in fields, Free says.

Evergreen FS

WHAT LIES BENEATH: This soybean field looks good on its surface, says Ryan Vogelzang, Evergreen FS, but aerial imaging from Ceres showed disease lurking beneath the canopy. A closer look revealed early disease symptoms.

“This helped find fields we wouldn’t have treated otherwise,” says Ryan Vogelzang, agronomy technology manager for Evergreen FS. The key is flying fields before key growth stages — such as emergence, V3, V5, V9 and tassel in corn; and emergence, R1 and R3 in soybeans — for timely fungicide, insecticide or fertilizer applications. “This year, almost all of the trouble spots Ceres images picked up were disease outbreaks,” Vogelzang says, like gray leaf spot and northern corn leaf blight in corn, and sudden death syndrome and cercospora leaf blight in soybeans. “In the fields we treated, the images gave our customers confidence in spraying,” he adds.

Evergreen FS will offer three scouting packages in 2018. The basic $4-per-acre package includes six images and is designed to focus on one period of time, like early planting to tassel, at a lower cost. At $6 per acre, the Plus package includes nine images and N tracker, a nitrogen monitoring program. Farmers get more images earlier in the season through just after tassel. The $8-per-acre Pro package includes nine images, N tracker and additional agronomic support during follow-up field scouting.

“This gives our crop specialists tools to better serve our customers with better insight,” Vogelzang says. “At the end of the day, they want good yields. We need to give them the tools to do that.”

Evergreen FS services Woodford, McLean, Livingston, Dewitt and Macon counties. Atlas anticipates more retail partnerships in the near future.

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