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Determine fungicide return on investment through on-farm trials and data science.

Mindy Ward, Editor, Missouri Ruralist

April 13, 2021

5 Min Read
sprayer spraying soybean field
SPRAY VALUE: Farmers may soon have the chance to determine whether a fungicide application will pay off at harvest. The Climate Corporation is looking at this and other spray strategies that affect return on investment. simazoran/Getty Images

Fungicides. To apply or not to apply? That is the question heard across the row crop industry, and the answer depends on the farmer.

Corn growers pushing yields, such as Missouri’s Mike Reagan, do not go a season without fungicide. “Almost everything gets a fungicide application,” he says.

Then there are farmers who want to see the return on investment with fungicide applications. Kansas farmer Jeff Koelzer saw wet growing conditions in 2019. “We knew we had problems,” he says. “We took tissue samples. We aerial-sprayed every acre of our corn that year.”

And while the cost of fungicide is $20 to $30 an acre to fly on, it worked, leading to a 30- to 40-bushel increase from projected yields.

Still, many farmers are simply stuck sitting on the fungicide fence.

Growing up on a family farm in Ohio, Brian Lutz, chief science officer at The Climate Corporation, always thought a fungicide application was one of the hardest decisions to make. “It’s not the cheapest of inputs, and it’s based on the conditions of the season," he says. "Sometimes fungicides pay extremely well, and sometimes not so much.”

However, Lutz says the future of the Climate FieldView platform will help farmers make this decision easier through digital disease management.

Getting the data

When Lutz looks at all the data, he believes that only about half of U.S. row crop acres are receiving a fungicide application. “That means there's a lot of opportunity there that's not being taken advantage of by our farmers,” he adds.

The reason, in many cases, comes back to guessing when an application really pays, and it’s all about the type of growing season. This is where data science comes in, Lutz explains.

“We can take field-specific weather information, information about the soils and soil types, past management practices, our massive library of seed germplasm, susceptibility ratings to different diseases,” he explains, “and all of those combined takes a lot of guesswork out of whether or not fungicides are really going to pay in a given year’s growing condition.”

It is about combining the data and offering a prediction on whether the application will pay off. But data and recommendations need substantiation.

At the Climate Research Farm in Martinsville, Ill., the company is in its second year of a fungicide trial. However, the project ramped up this year and expanded beyond this location into farm fields across the Midwest, says Josh Parcel, research farm manager for The Climate Corporation.

“The reason for the trials was to validate the fungicide recommendation models that we’re working on,” he says. “A lot of work goes to ground truthing the models coming out.” His research focuses on fungicide application results based on hybrid, weather, diseases pressure and growth stage.

Parcel says hybrid selection does have something to do with the success of fungicide application, but the big thing is scouting. “Guys have to get out and scout through the season and know if they've got disease," he says. "Then you've got to put the application down to help protect the yield that you have.”

The Climate model currently in development will look at several diseases such as green leaf spot and northern corn leaf blight — the highest priority diseases farmers manage. Parcel and his crew are painstakingly scouting and documenting.

“We’re determining what the disease pressure is, how high it is, and when to spray,” he says. Right now, most farmers apply fungicide on corn at the VT range or at tassel or right after tassel. For soybeans, it is at the R3 stage or pod development. However, the data may prove a case for earlier application strategies.

Your own on-farm trial

Lutz says Climate FieldView makes connecting your cab to the planter, sprayer or combine simple, flowing data into FieldView, so farmers can have all the data in one place. The system makes finding patterns in data easy, which can lead farmers to uncover productivity decisions.

Farmers want to do more of their own analysis on crop management practices and return on investment, he says. But the question is, how does one run a good experiment that offers confidence if a fungicide paid or not?

Results often vary depending on where farmers put the strip test in the field or even how wide it is. Some farmers simply spray half a field with fungicide to compare. Lutz says this leads to inaccuracy in the data.

So, Climate created a set of algorithms to help farmers scan through all fields and find those with the right size, geometry and width the experiment needs to be, and then FieldView creates an as applied map, which it sends to the sprayer controller. This allows farmers when going across the field to automatically control whether a strip is sprayed, and then intersect it with your combine passes in the fall.

“Farmers can compare those combine strips to adjacent strips in the field, so you're not comparing just the not sprayed area with the entire field,” Lutz explains. “You're comparing the not sprayed area with the areas right next to it, so that you're getting the best comparison.”

His goal is to have farmers run trials, like fungicides, and get “really reliable results on the back end.” Currently, these algorithms are being tested with customers and verified before widescale launch.

Future of fungicides

Climate is developing this new business model that will help farmers determine fungicide performance.

For instance, Delaro Performance Showcase, through Bayer, has been running the past couple of years and continues to run this year. The project looks at timely fungicide application with an untreated strip between two Delaro fungicide treated strips.

“That's where these tools are really getting tested,” Lutz adds, “but we're also in the process, as we go through this year, we're building out those capabilities in FieldView.”

He says farmers can anticipate tests such as fungicide applications to be a dropdown menu product feature even if they do not participate in the Delaro program. Initial Bayer data found that 74% of the time, farmers see a positive response from fungicide application. This type of decision tool should come to fruition in the next couple of years, Lutz says.

About the Author(s)

Mindy Ward

Editor, Missouri Ruralist

Mindy resides on a small farm just outside of Holstein, Mo, about 80 miles southwest of St. Louis.

After graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism, she worked briefly at a public relations firm in Kansas City. Her husband’s career led the couple north to Minnesota.

There, she reported on large-scale production of corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and dairy, as well as, biofuels for The Land. After 10 years, the couple returned to Missouri and she began covering agriculture in the Show-Me State.

“In all my 15 years of writing about agriculture, I have found some of the most progressive thinkers are farmers,” she says. “They are constantly searching for ways to do more with less, improve their land and leave their legacy to the next generation.”

Mindy and her husband, Stacy, together with their daughters, Elisa and Cassidy, operate Showtime Farms in southern Warren County. The family spends a great deal of time caring for and showing Dorset, Oxford and crossbred sheep.

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