Fillmore County farmers are a lot of things; hard-working, dedicated, intelligent. They’re also at the forefront of innovative technologies that are changing the industry.
One technology, the use of aerial drones in crop production, is increasing at an impressive pace. A May 2016 press release by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) predicted the value of drone powered solutions in global agriculture at $3.2 billion. A later PwC article in the MIT Technology Review spelled out six key methods in which drones are taking farming to the next level: soil and field analysis, planting, spraying, monitoring, irrigation, overall health assessment. While available prior to the turn of the millennium, drones were largely inaccessible in the marketplace. By 2013, drones were lighter, more capable, and cheaper, making them obtainable to more businesses and individuals.
In Fillmore County and nearby Iowa, at least two agriculture professionals are on the bandwagon are incorporating the use of drones into their own farms and those of their clients. Tom Thompson, of Thompson Land & Livestock in Harmony, first caught a glimpse of the possible opportunities last year. Thompson, who is a also Wyffels Hybrids representative, was introduced to it by district sales manager Royce Rottinghaus, of La Porte City, Iowa. The two met, along with a Greg Emerick, a representative from Minneapolis drone marketer Sentera. While he had no experience using drones, Thompson’s previous background as an Agriculture Management Solutions consultant had provided ample training in GPS. Still, when it was suggested he take charge of the flight, he balked. “I’d never flown one and was nervous a bit,” recalls Thompson. “They assured me I couldn’t damage it. It turned out to be really easy.”
Rottinghaus has been using a drone for his own farm since April 2015, but began offering it to his Wyffels clients by July of that year. Farmers were initially skeptical, but once they saw the aerial footage and data it provided, they were excited about the time and cost savings. “After using on my own farm, I started expanding it out,” he says. “We in the industry walk a lot of fields, but we don’t get the perspective of what you can see above. I estimate this cuts down on scouting time by half.”
“After drones first came out, my first thought was use in agriculture,” adds Thompson. “If you go out to walk, you’re going to see 2% of that field. The imagery in these sensors can pick out certain areas and you can follow up on spots identified through real-time mapping. The tech is really coming along.”
After flying Rottinghaus’ drone, Thompson ordered his DJI Phantom 4 unit in January and outfitted it with cutting edge camera sensors including Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, which measures the amount and health of vegetation in an area, and Normalized Difference Red Edge, which centers on the concept of the red band of light indicating high levels of chlorophyll in vegetation, helpful in mapping fertilizer requirements. “I had iffy stands last year,” adds Thompson. “It helps make better critical decisions on my corn, soybeans, and alfalfa.”
The units typically being used in this type of agricultural application can range from $4,500-7,000 in cost, depending on features and sensors added. Thompson’s unit is entry-level, but flexible for his needs. “It was the best bang for my buck to get my feet wet. It’s rugged and long lasting.”
Likewise, Rottinghaus is utilizing the model he began with. “I did a lot of research,” he notes. Both units are programmed by the user with parameters of the area, launching up to a designated height to take a series of pictures, which are stitched together with various software for real-time video availability. “Once you get it in the air, it’s self-piloting. It flies a pattern of the field outline, whether square or not, using GPS.”
Rottinghaus chose his model, a quadcopter style, based on stability and the quality of the camera. The unit weighs approximately five pounds and is 14 inches square, requiring just four square foot of room for takeoff. The memory available in the cameras varies on the user’s needs and the battery will fly 30-40 minutes, under perfect conditions. What’s more, the unit has a lengthy lifespan. In the three years since he’s gotten it, Rottinghaus has only replaced two sets of propellers, a total of $40 in maintenance. “They’re pretty much bulletproof,” he jokes. “I’ll do upgrades as the tech upgrades, but that’s about it.”
The perfect flying conditions, it turns out, are impactful to the units and affect battery flight time. With hands-on experience, determining range becomes easier. “You have to be smart as to how you operate and take some precautions,” cautions Rottinghaus. A clear line of sight is required. Once lost, the unit will return to its start point. Trees, wind, and humidity will all affect how much power the drone takes to operate.
Earlier crop scouting will also eliminate the guesswork and timing issues in needed replanting, according to Rottinghaus. “In the early season, we naturally gravitate to the best or worst area of the field. With the technology that’s coming, we can fly the entire field and will be able to tell you how many plants per acre. With replanting, this will save time, save yield, and cut down on seasonal problems. That technology isn’t too far away and can make a huge difference.”
“The sky is the limit,” adds Thompson. “I can’t speculate exactly what’s coming, but I know they’re working on a lot more algorithms for various testing and disease identification. The technology changes fast.” Thompson also stressed the clear advantage of section control, reducing the overplanting of waterways and eliminating overspraying of crops.
Rottinghaus also suggested other possible opportunities for the farmers including livestock and stored crop monitoring, particularly the latter with his clients. “With infrared cameras, we can see heat sources. With the storage of silage in bags, we could identify hot spots in stored grain from the air.”
Thompson is also planning on using the imaging provided by the drone for media content on a website that is under development. “This has all been happening in the last 10-15 years. It’s really taken off,” he says. “To think about where we came from 20-25 years ago and now there’s autonomous tractors. It’s interesting to see where it’s going to go. Technology is a huge part of the farm.”
Even with improved technologies, farmers will need to continue being quick on their feet. “It’s great information as long as recorded properly,” cautions Thompson. “If you can’t follow through with the decision making process, it’s worthless. If we don’t change something to improve, it’s worthless.”