The Indiana On-Farm Network kicks off this year thanks to a grant obtained by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. Roz Leecks, in charge of the program for ISDA, says that the Indiana Corn Marketing Council and Indiana Soybean Alliance also kicked in matching dollars against the federal USDA grant funds to make this program possible in 2011.
The idea is for farmers to learn about crop management practices, and share the information with each other. The topic groups will be tackling this first year will be nitrogen. Most will likely tackle nitrogen rates needed to produce a bushel of corn. Other possible comparisons within the nitrogen field include comparing sources, applying anhydrous ammonia and then liquid N in the same field.
Started by a former university researcher in Iowa some 10 years ago, on-farm networks usually consist of clusters of farmers scattered around a state. Each group of farmers learns what works best on their soils in their area. If nitrogen rate is what farmers who join these groups primarily look at this year, then through the funding, there will be several tools available to help farmers look at their N rate practices, Leeck says.
"One thing we want to utilize is aerial imagery," Leeck says. "We believe farmers can learn a lot about their fields by looking at an aerial picture taken during the season."
That's not new technology. It's been tried in various forms for the past three decades or more. Problems often boil down to getting enough clear days to get good pictures form the air, and then getting fast turn-around on the images. If you're using the information as a guide on how to improve next year, the turn around- time may not be so critical. If you're doing it early enough that adjustments could be made, such as applying more N to areas that turn out to be deficient, then turn-around-time becomes important.
Other commercial entities are also offering imagery services. Beck's Hybrids offers aerial imagery to their customers. Last year was a ramp-up year for that effort. Beck's Hybrids not only uses it to evaluate their own production fields, but also offered the service to customers. Both regular film and infra-red images were used to get a good look at fields.
"The secret to making it work is then going into the field and ground truthing areas that appeared to have problems from the air," notes Jason Webster, manager of Becks Practical Farm Research farm plots in Lexington, Illinois. Many of their plots are actually demonstration plots, but they too help farmers get ideas about what might and might not work on their own farms.