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Boots on the ground must support scouting technology

The existing technology can detect variation in a field, but not why that variation exists

There’s no shortage of technology available to help researchers, agronomists, and farmers scout their fields.

From satellite imagery and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) to smartphone apps, there are plenty of tools out there. Just don’t expect them to replace boots on the ground any time soon.

The limitation of current remote-sensing technology, such as satellite and aerial imagery, is that it can only detect variability in the field. The cause of that variability still has to be ground truthed using traditional scouting methods such as visual inspections, soil and tissue samples, and still relies heavily on the wisdom and experience of the person doing the scouting.

“The challenge isn’t collecting the data but the interpretation,” said Dr. Ignacio Ciampitti, crop production specialist with Kansas State University during his presentation to the Manitoba Agronomists Conference (MAC) in Winnipeg last week. “We are not removed from the system. All these technologies are tools, but we need people, they are the thinkers who will go back to the field and decide where the problem is coming from.”

Ciampitti showed images of a winter wheat field from a drone flown at low altitude to give a reasonably high-resolution image and create a normalized difference vegetative index (NDVI) map that showed weeds growing outside the rows. “But we can’t identify the weed species – it will need a person to go out in the field to do that,” says Ciampitti.

One of the biggest problems farmers face today is that they have too much information, added Ciampitti.

“We have a responsibility to simplify and integrate the data, and develop that into tools so advisors and farmers can start taking action,” he said.

UAVs are a relatively new technology in agriculture, and because they can fly at low altitudes, they can provide a much higher-resolution image of an area of concern in the field than a satellite can, which is why they are so useful to researchers, who are assessing many potential uses for the technology. Research is being conducted into using UAVs for weed identification, yield estimates, measuring herbicide drift, detecting plant height and crop uniformity, measuring canopy temperature and making replanting decisions, as well as detecting crop stress and pests.

As more of the information that UAVs collect is integrated with the information coming from other sources, such as traditional scouting, soil data, pest-detection networks and forecast maps and provincial databases of insects, weeds and diseases, they will become a better diagnostic tool for producers.

Center Field Solutions, an Alberta company, does a lot of on-farm research using various technologies like yield mapping, and UAVs.

“Our clients are good scouts too,” said Kelly Boles, owner and president of the company, in a panel discussion at MAC.

“They know the history of their fields, they have the expertise, and we are trying to channel a strategy, and work with them and industry to come up with really good solutions in-field,” said Boles, who added the biggest challenge is processing and analysing the huge amount of data they collect to provide an outcome for their clients.

Real-time agronomy

Boles said he believes the most important technological advancement in scouting is connectivity in the field via mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets. “To be able to document and use apps in the field in real time is huge and it’s sped things up for us,” he said. “We can tweet or Google a picture and it’s amazing how quick the interaction is. It’s pretty exciting how we can evolve these tools.”

More and more agronomists are going paperless, using mobile devices to take scouting pictures and correlate zone maps and soil and tissue sample data using apps to create reports for their clients about crop seeding, fertility and spraying decisions.

CropPro Consulting in Saskatchewan has six trucks on the road with specialized mapping equipment including computers, autosteer and a battery powered, in-field soil sampling unit, which uses GPS positioning and an automatic probe to collect soil samples. “We are fully connected in the sense that our agronomists can use our app in the field on any mobile device to do recommendations and scouting,” says Cory Willness, CropPro president. “Within each field we have maps of everything that farmers can load up on their Smartphone – electrical conductivity maps, elevation, flow accumulations, drainage files, anything they want.”

Around 60 per cent of agronomists and close to 50 per cent of Ontario producers are using apps to make management decisions on their farms according to an Ontario-based survey. It’s likely many them are using Pest Manager – a free app launched in 2015 with funding provided by the Grain Farmers of Ontario. Pest Manager helps producers identify weeds, insects and diseases right in the field, and suggests options to manage or control them. Ontario provincial weed specialist, Mike Cowbrough demonstrated the app’s key features to agronomists and advisors attending MAC, including the interactive pest identification key. Users filter according to crop type and choose from menus of different taxonomic traits about the pest or weed species – or the symptoms of diseases – that they are looking at in their field. The app identifies it and offers a menu of control options that can also be filtered by different variables i.e. crop system (GMO, non-GMO or organic), application timing, crop stage and the presence of herbicide-resistant weeds. It contains economic thresholds and also offers information about natural enemies of problem pests that may be present. Pest Manager also has an extensive pest library with Frequently asked questions, which is its most used feature. The app is updated in real time with the latest information about new products or emerging pest issues.

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