This summer, canola growers will likely again be faced with the tough decision of whether or not to spray fields with a fungicide to protect the crop from sclerotinia. Spraying unnecessarily can mean wasted inputs, but failing to protect crops when needed could also mean significant yield losses.
Even if producers decide to spray fungicide, it may not make economic sense to spray all parts of all fields.
In March, Bayer’s Digital Farming arm launched Zone Spray, which can help farmers select which parts of a field should be sprayed, and where it may be uneconomical to bother with it. It can be accessed through the website digitalfarming.ca.
“It’s web based,” says Warren Bills of Bayer’s Digital Farming. “By operating exclusively in the cloud, there’s no software to download and users can receive the sprayer ready zone spray files directly from the web. It’s been tested for two full growing seasons, 2016 and 2017 and has been refined based on our customer feedback.”
The cloud-based technology allows growers to set up their own accounts and upload or draw their digital field boundaries. As the season progresses, the program will begin receiving in-season satellite images for the selected fields that indicate the amount of biomass present, one indicator of where fungicide should be applied.
“It’s not a rate decision,” Bills adds. “It’s should I spray or should I not spray within a field. It’s an on-off treatment not a variable rate. The grower would set his rate based on the product label and then decide which parts of the field he wants to spray it on. [Zone Spray] uses the sectional control of a sprayer, where nozzles are able to turn on and off according to a prescription map.”
There is no annual fee or charge for setting up an account or creating field views. But if growers want to download a prescription map, there is a fee for that.
“A fee to download the Zone Spray prescriptions may be a way to describe the cost structure,” he says. “But there’s no upfront or annual costs or licence fees.”
Zone Spray is only set up for sclerotinia in canola crops at the moment, but Bills notes there are plans to incorporate other crop and disease combinations in the future.
“The algorithms that we use to incorporate disease models and satellite images have been refined for canola,” he says. “We had some field trials last season on other crops. Some crops and diseases aren’t biomass dependent, whereas with sclerotinia, that’s one of the indicators. There are other crops and disease combinations that we’ll likely be able to utilize zone spray for in the future.”
Bills recommends growers who want to take advantage of Zone Spray set up an account early in the spring and get field boundaries established by tracing them over Google or Bing maps or uploading them from other farm software, although a new user can set up an account as little as five days in advance of a planned spraying date and still get information.
As the season progresses, a series of current biomass images will be made available for the uploaded fields that growers can use to establish spraying zones.
“We’re encouraging growers to get their account set up now and their field boundaries put in, then wait until early June when imagery will start to be pushed into their Digital Farming account,” he says. “As they get closer to spray timing for disease in canola, they would likely use the most recent image. Then they can set the areas of the field they want to spray ‘on’ and the areas they don’t want to spray ‘off’.”
Bills says in field trials growers have seen input reduction costs ranging on average from 10 to 30 per cent.
But he cautions Zone Spray shouldn’t be used to make a generaldecision about whether or not to apply fungicides.
“There’s still a sclerotinia checklist that needs to be followed for the overall risk and presence of the disease in the area,” he explains. “Once a grower decides to commit to spraying, what this tool does is help him commit to the right acres on his farm. So he’s not spending 20 dollars per acre on parts of his field that are only going to yield 20 bushels per acre.”