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Venture charts course with precision

Precision agriculture soared from the drawing board to over 60,000 acres of cotton in 2003, with the startup of a new, Internet-based, precision agriculture company, located in Cleveland, Miss.

The founder and chairman of the venture, In Time, Inc., is Perthshire, Miss., cotton producer and ginner Kenneth Hood. The producer, the Institute for Technology Development and a team of researchers and consultants have spent the last seven years trying to make precision agriculture a reality for cotton producers, using Hood's farm to explore the possibilities.

In Time, Inc., has been set up to be a full-service precision farming provider, Hood noted. “To date, there is no company out there that takes it this far.”

During the growing season, In Time will fly over fields every seven to 10 days to map areas of crop variability within a field. These maps are converted to a variable rate prescription that can be applied by any chemical applicator.

According to Kelly Dupont, In Time sales and marketing manager, “The premise of VRT (variable rate technology) is that fields, in general, are not uniform in their growth patterns and should not be managed as such.”

Sixty-three cotton producers were enrolled in the In Time program in 2003, according to Hood. Next year, he hopes for large increase in farmer participation.

“Our first priority is to develop the technology in the United States,” Hood said. “In three years, we're aiming for 10 to 15 percent of the total U.S. acreage. We're ramping up for over a million acres in a very short period of time.”

During a recent meeting of the National Agri-Marketing Association, Hood used data from his farm to illustrate that increased profit margins are possible using precision agriculture techniques to variably apply inputs over a farm.

“Last year, it cost me $452.95 per acre to raise cotton,” Hood said. “Fifty-seven percent of that cost is not affected by VRT, such as boll weevil eradication fees, management, etc. VRT saved 33 percent of the costs on the remaining 43 percent ($194.76) which put the value of VRT on my farm at $68.17 per acre.”

VRT applications can be made with just about any input, according to Hood. For example the producer used the technology to vary his planting rate from three seeds to five seeds per foot.

“A planting rate of three seeds per foot of row — 39,000 plants per acre — produced between 2 and 10 percent more cotton yield and saved between 31 percent and 66 percent in seeding costs, when compared to seeding rates of four and five seeds per foot,” Hood said. “I increased my profit margins by 7 to 13 percent using the three seeds per foot seeding rate rather than four.”

Factors used to vary seeding rate include the moisture-holding capacity of the soil and the tendency of the soil to crust under certain conditions.

VRT allowed Hood to eliminate spraying for insects on 779 acres of 1,825 acres that otherwise would have received a blanket application. “That's a 43 percent total chemical reduction. I saved $4,120 on just one application. I'm not only more efficient, but I'm also so much more environmentally friendly.”

Variable-rate applications on insects is based on the premise that certain insects prefer more vigorously growing parts of a cotton field while others like the more stressed areas. “We're learning a lot about insect control so we can go in and spray the areas we know have plant bugs and not spray these other areas.”

Computer enhancements of airplane imagery (called NDVI images) separate Hood's fields into three management zones for PGR applications and a much more effective use of the product. In fact, variable-rate applications of PGRs offer the most potential cost savings for most farmers.

After harvest, VRT can be used to economically control other troublesome weeds, like red vines, according to Hood. “Some products cost $35 per acre. If you have a 100-acre field, you can't spend $35 an acre spraying for red vines. But if I can spray 10 acres out there where the red vines are, then it's $350 instead of $3,500.”

VRT technology is now available for aerial applicators, noted Hood, and is very effective. “That was a missing link,” he said. “If it rained, I couldn't use my ground rig, I had to have an aircraft.”

While precision agriculture is still in its infancy, its premise is rooted in a basic farmer instinct to cut costs any way he can, according to Hood.

“We've had four consecutive years of low prices. We've had increasing costs and decreasing returns. We've also had more demand for quality and it costs you money to do that. When you're in survival mode, you look for what valves you can open up and what valves you can close down a little bit and which ones you can completely shut down and save money.”

A farmer can set his sprayer up with VRT for less than $6,000, according to Hood. In Time charges $9 an acre for its service. The farmer owns all the data associated with his farm and has 24-hour access to it.

To generate a prescription, the farmer accesses an Internet Web site and supplies information on the number of management zones he desires (from three to 15), and the chemical rate he wants to apply in each one. In less than three minutes, he'll receive the VRT prescription, via the Internet.

In Time satellite offices have been established in Courtland, Ala., and are being set up in California and Texas. “We're also working on bringing the technology to other crops,” Hood said. “We put all our emphasis on cotton early on. But we are doing work on rice.”

e-mail: [email protected]

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