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Eye in the sky

Agriculture.com Staff 05/21/2008 @ 10:53am

Remote sensing has a lot in common with yield monitors. Both technologies enable you to see your fields in an entirely different way. Yet neither of them provide all of the answers about what is going on with your crops. In fact, both technologies often raise questions that are hard to answer.

Tracy Blackmer heads up the Iowa Soybean Association's (ISA) On-Farm Network, which is a research program involving the soybean association and 300 farmers who conduct on-farm research projects. Blackmer started using remote sensing in the program seven years ago.

"We first used aerial imagery to help verify the accuracy of our strip trials," he says. Now, his group uses aerial imagery much more extensively. Last year, they coordinated remote sensing flights on 2,000 fields in Iowa and 700 fields on the East Coast.

Aerial imagery has proven to be beneficial. For example, it helped pinpoint areas in soybean fields where iron chlorosis was a problem because of high pH.

"Grid sampling wasn't accurate enough to map it out, but the imagery caught it," says Blackmer. It also revealed that those high pH levels contributed to anhydrous ammonia losses when corn was grown in those same areas.

"Aerial imagery is kind of like a yield map," says Blackmer. "A yield map tells you more than you knew before, but it still doesn't give you all the answers."

And, according to Blackmer, an aerial image can raise even more questions than a yield monitor because it provides a lot finer detail.

"Yield monitors deal with portions of a field," he explains. "With remote sensing, we can look at a field row by row. If yield monitors raised a certain level of questions, then you have a whole new level of detail with aerial imagery. There are patterns in 20% to 30% of the fields that we just cannot figure out.

"What has really surprised me," adds Blackmer, "is that we haven't found a uniform field yet. And a lot of the variability we see is from management rather than field variation. It is common to see equipment patterns. When you look at the patterns from management as well as the differences in soils, they are a lot more dramatic than you might expect."

Remote sensing has a lot in common with yield monitors. Both technologies enable you to see your fields in an entirely different way. Yet neither of them provide all of the answers about what is going on with your crops. In fact, both technologies often raise questions that are hard to answer.

Remote sensing is a broad classification that includes aerial imagery with airplanes and satellites as well as sensors such as the ones used to detect nitrogen deficiencies. This article deals with aerial imagery taken from airplanes.

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