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'Eye in sky' could improve efficiency

Why NASA? Well, it turns out that NASA is interested in working with remote sensing in agriculture so images generated by their satellite technologies have a practical application.

But there are many areas of research that must have some validity before NASA images can apply and transfer to producers. Enter Leonard and Bagwell.

Starting in 1999, Bagwell and Leonard began carrying groups of students out to ground-truth information to detect arthropod pest populations and their association with variations in plant growth patterns picked up by remote images. At that time, the satellite images weren’t even available.

“We were simulating that imagery with fixed wing aircraft being flown at around 12,000 feet above the ground,” says Leonard, who spoke at the recent Precision Agriculture Conference sponsored by the AgCenter in Monroe.

“The last couple of years, after collecting this data, we were asked to participate in a federal funding opportunity. We received approval for this funding.”

As a result, Leonard and colleagues have assembled a multidisciplinary team to evaluate, develop and extend this technology to producers in Louisiana. The project is set up for five years and funded for four years.

Remote sensing is the key tool initially being looked at. Beyond that, the GPS technology comes into play when it comes to making prescription applications to correct any obvious problems occurring in crop fields.

“The LSU AgCenter Research and Extension divisions, along with scientists from the Louisiana computer science department and NASA are very important in running this project. NASA has agreed to provide us with the images we need over the next four years,” says Leonard, research entomologist at the Macon Ridge Branch Station in Winnsboro.

The research component of this is to make sure this technology fits not only one producer in the state, but to have confidence it will work for many producers. The Extension component is to transfer the technology to many different entities – not only for other scientists but to the stakeholders and industry.

Newellton, La., producer Jay Hardwick’s land – located in the northeast part of the state – will be the primary test site. He will allocate resources in terms of labor, equipment and land to work this project.

“Our first objective is to obtain images of various sorts – thermal, multi-spectral or hyper-spectral imagery – and try to associate some type of variation in plant growth patterns within fields. Then, we want to try and make the assumption that if we can see a field is growing well or not then pests can be associated with areas in that field,” says Leonard.

This is a very important assumption. If researchers can’t associate insect problems with the images, then they can’t differentiate where a farmer needs to apply a corrective treatment. But if they can pick up images of estimated plant growth associated with insects, then site-specific management technology will be available to farmers.

“Presently, indications are that we can save anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent of the crop protection products being used for pest management. That’s a tremendous potential savings in the cotton business, where farmers are spending anywhere from $50 to $200 per acre to manage pests,” says Leonard.

Researchers already know that insects aren’t randomly distributed across fields. They’re found in certain spots.

“We need to find and identify those spots,” says Leonard.

The project’s second objective is to be able to apply treatments properly.

“We’re developing management zones. In some instances, rather than treat a whole zone, we’ll apply variable rates within a zone. We can do this not only by ground but also by air. Tremendous strides are being made in being able to apply pesticides in this manner by air.”

In addition to examining arthropod pest populations, agronomists will be looking at variations in moisture content. Another application to measure in this process, “since we’re already going to be in the fields, is soil moisture levels. If we compare those to remote sensed images during the season and yield maps at the end of the year, we can better time irrigation treatments,” says Leonard.

Finally, agricultural economists will analyze the data for cost/benefits to producers. This will let researchers know of savings, if any, have occurred by using this technology.

The last component of the program, will be taking what is gleaned over the next two to three years and transferring it to producers.

“We want this to be applicable not only to the largest commercial producers, but to all.”

Leonard says the point is not to produce a new industry within the state. Instead, there is an attempt to try and utilize what’s already available.

“This will integrate the technologies currently available into a system producers can use to make better decisions. A producer can acquire images from a private service or, we hope, from the aerial applicator industry. These images may also be available from satellites, although we don’t think so due to some other problems occurring.”

Agriculture consultants will take the images, review them and ground truth certain areas. The producer and consultant will then be able to come up with prescriptions for troubled fields. After developing the prescription, it’ll be applied by the same aviator who might have provided the images. The process is then started again and can be repeated on a daily or weekly basis.

“This has incredible benefit potential. Production agriculture is in tremendous trouble in the United States. We’re not going to compete based on cheap land and labor anymore. We’re going to have to look at new technologies and new management systems,” says Hardwick.

Farmers must look at new research, insists Hardwick.

“This project, in particular, I think will identify a new model we can refer to. The expertise involved in this is top-notch and is exciting. This will be applicable to farmers makes the next 4 or 5 years worth looking forward to.”

The structure of the research project also spreads the risk, says Hardwick.

“There’s no single producer that would be able to embark on this. This shares the risk of money, technology and expertise. It’s a win-win for all. If we’re to make this work, we’ve got band together.”

While Hardwick says there aren’t a lot of answers at the outset of the project the benefit potential is “incredible. Pesticides are a huge part of our inputs. If we can significantly reduce that cost, we’re looking at a positive result. We can’t control the costs of equipment and material. And we can do little about futures prices. But we can do a whole lot with how we apply these materials that are becoming ever more costly.”

What kind of cost per acre are Hardwick and other farmers looking at to incorporate this technology?

“I don’t know. We’re at the beginning stages and it probably wouldn’t even pencil out at this point. That’s why the risk needs to be spread across so many partners. Much of the hardware being used in this project is already well established. It isn’t anything that’s experimental but rather off-the-shelf. We’re embarking on this come spring. You’ll definitely be hearing more from us as the project moves along,” says Hardwick.

Louisiana consultant Harold Lambert, who is involved in some cutting edge precision agriculture work himself, says the project is interesting for several reasons.

“First, their work on variable rate applications from airplanes is marvelous. If they refine that, it would be fantastic. Second, when it comes to using the imagery or some other source of info to direct the consultant to certain areas of fields. We have to have some indication to allow us to take a short cut to get site specific. If we don’t have a meaningful way to make those short cuts, we’d end up having to scout the whole field and geo-reference counts. That isn’t cost effective – you’d have to have a busload of scouts. If they can get this to work, it’ll open many more precision ag avenues.”


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