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Watching the plants all season

The new way to scout: photos of your crop's progress through the growing season

I’m working on a new project,” Franck Groeneweg says. “I’ve been working with aerial imagery. There’s a lot of drone excitement out there, but to get it done, I am using a regular fixed wing plane on my farm.” Groeneweg is flying his plane over farmland and using attached cameras to take aerial pictures of every square inch of his land every seven to 10 days during the growing season.

Groeneweg works with AirScout.com, a U.S.-based company, to turn his photos into two types of maps. The first maps are ADVI (Advanced Difference Vegetation Index) maps. ADVI is AirScout’s proprietary technology that shows how much biomass is in each area of the field. ADVI is comparable to NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), but, AirScout says, with greater resolution and better colour stratification.

The second maps give Groeneweg a thermal precision picture of the field. That one, Groeneweg says, “acts a little like people and fever.” When you can see where the temperatures of the field vary, he says, “you can see areas of problems before they would appear to the naked eye.”

Groeneweg flies his own farm every week or 10 days during the growing season. He takes the photos, then sends the information to AirScout, a U.S. based company. AirScout processes the data and sends it back to his computer and to an app on his phone.

“Then I do the ground-proofing,” he says. “I might see a place on the picture that looks like a bad spot, so I’ll go and check that out.” This allows Groeneweg to be more effective when he’s scouting fields on his own or with an agronomist. In the past he might stop and look at a random spot in the field. Now he can pinpoint an area where the crop may be significantly better or worse than the rest of the field, and have a chance to see what’s going on in that spot relative to the rest of the field and before it is even obvious.

Benefits in the field

This technology is still relatively new to Groeneweg — 2015 was his first year. He doesn’t yet have an example of using these satellite images to find a specific insect or disease problem in his fields. However, he has used it to make decisions about spraying fungicide. The images helped him assess how much biomass is in the area, and decide whether the crop was worth spraying or not.

Where he did decide to spray, Groeneweg was able to use less chemical. He designed his own variable rate prescription fungicide maps using the AirScout website, then downloaded the maps straight to his sprayer. Groeneweg was making his own spraying prescriptions before 2015, he says, but it was a lot more complicated. “There were so many steps to get it done that few people were able to do it. It was time consuming, and you maybe had to be a bit of a geek.”

With new technology, Groeneweg says, making your own sprayer variable rate prescriptions is much easier. “Anybody with sectional controls on their sprayer would have the capability to make their own maps,” Groeneweg says. “Although they might not all know it.” Farmers new to this type of technology might need some assistance the first one or two times they make their own prescriptions, but these tools make it relatively easy.

Because he takes photos over the entire growing season rather than just once a year, or instead of just looking at the yield map from the combine at the end of the year, Groeneweg says, “It’s a story over the whole season, a bit like the family album of a crop year.”

One of the benefits of these photos is the ability to develop more accurate yield estimates during the summer. Using the app and scouting, Groeneweg inputs his own best yield estimates at a few points in the field. The program will use these estimates to calculate an estimated yield for the entire field. “This has the potential to make me a better marketer,” he says. “I like to be about two-thirds sold by harvest time. If you’re wrong in your yield estimates, you could be 40 or even 90 per cent sold before the crop comes in.” Groeneweg believes this gave him more accurate yield estimates than he would have otherwise had in 2015.

Groeneweg also finds value in having the photos of areas that, for one reason or another, weren’t combined, like areas with salinity or saturated areas. Farmers using only their combine’s yield monitors won’t have any information about those areas. “It’s a report card over the whole field.”

Try this at home

If you’re interested in trying this on your farm, Groeneweg is offering services for $5 per acre. This would include seven sets of images — one pre-seeding, one-pre-harvest, and five other times during the growing season. To learn more, contact Franck Groeneweg at [email protected] or visit AirScout.com.

About the author

Editor

Leeann Minogue is the editor of Grainews.

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