Take to the sky for making crop management decisions

Brent Johnson assembles one of the drones his company, Labre Crop Consulting, uses to fly over fields in order to check crop conditions as well as for several other agricultural uses.

MANSON — Labre Crop Consulting, Inc., of Manson, has been offering a birds-eye view of its customer’s fields as another tool for them to use in making crop management decisions.

Brent Johnson, owner/president of Labre Crop Consulting, Inc., said they started learning about drone capabilities in 2012.

“After at least a year of background research, we made the decision in 2013 to actually get started,” he said. “Our company is fairly conservative in the way we do business, so we took one to two years to learn about it ourselves; to make sure we had an understanding on how things worked and then we ended up releasing the service to a couple of customers along the way.”

“It’s just been within the last couple of years that we have started opening up that service a little more broadly. It’s been a slow release for us.”

Services

There is wide array of services that Johnson said they can provide by flying drones over their customer’s fields.

“On the easiest and simplistic side, we can get a different perspective of an aerial view of their farms,” he said. “It can show simple things like machinery errors, planter skips and sprayer issues. We can easily pick those things up, so they can understand they need to calibrate a piece of equipment better or change something like that.”

Another more complex option is flying the drone at different crop stages. This service will alert a producer if their crops are ailing and is also a tool to add to their variable rate nitrogen program.

A variable rate nitrogen program, Johnson said, is “a smart way to apply nitrogen based on where the field needs nitrogen and not where it doesn’t.”

The drone features cameras that will take different images and are basically reading crop reflectants.

“The NDVI can tell crop vigor; if they’re feeling really good or really bad and a different one, the NDRE is basically reading the nitrogen sufficiency out in the corn fields,” Johnson said. “Not only can we tell if the plants aren’t feeling well, we can see if it’s related to nitrogen or not.”

Once a reading is collected from the drone, Johnson said they will go to the field, take tissue samples and then calibrate the image to the nitrogen sufficiency and turn that around for a variable rate sidedress subscription.

Once a treatment is ran, there is an option to fly the field again and measure the difference and see just what kind of nitrogen use efficiencies a producer is getting.

“Eventually, the goal is to maximize the bushels coming out of a pound of nitrogen so that their input costs are as low as possible and they’re not sacrificing yield,” he said. “We’re working in that direction, but it’s extremely easy to say and a little more difficult to explain and really difficult to do. But we are working at it.”

Johnson said they are learning more about sidedressing nitrogen.

“If a producer has the capabilities to variable rate sidedress nitrogen, I really encourage them to reach out,” he said. “I think they can pick up a lot of cost efficiencies in that aspect if they have that capability.”

For those producers that do not have the capability to variable rate their nitrogen, Johnson said utilizing a drone service will help them to monitor and understand what is going on out in their fields early on as well.

“We’re starting to get a little better at estimating crop yield,” he said. “There are different stages of physiological development along the plant’s life that sets different yield perimeters that basically book-end the yield potential.”

For example, even when the corn plant is at the V5 stage –or one to two feet tall — at that time, is setting its maximum kernels on the ear.

“Corn can’t make more kernels once its set its number. It can only shrink numbers,” Johnson said. “So if you have stresses at V5, you pretty much know you need to do a yield check in the field. I can take a picture and find yield estimates and get a better idea of the production that we’re going to see in the fall, so he knows, ‘is this a 120 bushel yield field? Or is this a 200 bushel yield field?’ That kind of thing; so he can do a better job at planning.”

Johnson said they may fly prior to the V5 stage if a producer wants to look for early weed pressure or measuring field properties, but essentially they start at V5 and will fly corn fields until about tassel time.

“Around mid-July is when we start shutting down flying corn,” he said. “The tassels effect the pictures. Tassels aren’t photosynthetic tissue and that starts to disturb the data.”

At that time, Johnson said their focus turns to flying soybeans.

“In August we start to switch over to flying beans,” he said. “Now is when the soybeans determine their yield.”

Using a drone in soybeans can also help to scout for weed pressure and pests, especially soybean aphids.

“If we start getting aphid pressures, this can pick up on the stresses aphids cause,” he said. “Once you verify if that spot is caused by aphids or weeds or whatever, now you have the ability and know where it is and are able to determine if there is a bad spot and if it’s bad enough yet for treatment. If not, you can fly it again next week and see if the spot is worse or better.”

Flying beans will go fairly late into the season.

“When it gets to be September and they start changing colors, we may start shutting that service down,” he said, adding that drone services also can assist producers in times of storms.

“We’ve had several successes with hail storms,” Johnson said. “You get those events that come through and effect your crop in one way or another and you don’t know where it happened or where it’s worse. And when the corn is over your head or the beans are tangled, we can fly and the drone will measure those areas.”

This information will better lead a producer and/or crop adjuster to the damaged part of the field.

Johnson said there are several benefits to using a drone.

“Our main objective is for crop use, but we do have capability of measuring topography,” he said. “So when a field has been worked or it’s bare, we can fly over and make a trained topography map so a producer can do a better job of tile planning or land shaping and we have also picked up some organic matter relationships. We’ve seen a lot of those things.”

“Any of those data layers we can find that helps tweak a recommendation — that helps define the field better — we will do the darndest to incorporate that.”

Success

Personally speaking, Johnson said he has seen successes by using a drone on his own acres, especially in assistance with his variable rate nitrogen applications.

“There has been a lot of planter issues we have found,” he said. “It has changed the way I look at a field. I have been able to identify with both imagery and on yield maps that I have parts of my fields that just don’t produce very well. So why am I trying to push that along?”

It’s those areas, Johnson said he has made the decisions to start minimizing his inputs.

“But on the opposite end of that, I have identified those areas that I have yet to see the ceiling in, so I keep pushing those well-producing areas and I pull back on those poor producing areas,” he said. “All of my input maps are getting diverse. In this day of water quality and all of those issues, I have a tool here that allows me to maximize my production, minimize my costs and I can still have the same environmental conversation with the local NRCS office or whoever’s interested in that as well.”

Although the use of drones in agriculture can be rather confusing, Johnson wants producers to know they are available to help.

“It does get really complicated, really quickly behind the scenes,” he said. “The trick is to make it relatable to the common producer so that they feel they can incorporate some cutting edge technology without having to understand it A to Z.”

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