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Digital Imagery Makes Row-By-Row Analysis, Assistance a Reality

Ever notice in a cornfield that one row of plants mimics a gym-muscled Olympic athlete with bulging ears and a deep green color? Meanwhile, the plants in the adjacent row resemble a 98-pound water boy with wimpy ears that threaten to snap an even weaker stalk.

Ever wish you could fix that? Maybe you can with another small-ball tool: digital imagery. 

“There’s always a tendency to notice this and think, ‘Heck, this whole field went 210 bushels per acre, so who cares?’” says ISU’s Matt Darr. “The reality is, the field average is being dragged down by those unhealthy rows. If you could fix those rows, you may be able to lift up the field average to yields of those healthy rows that may be tallying 250 bushels per acre,” he says.

Developments in high-resolution imagery may make this reality, says Darr. 

Here’s where imagery stands today: 

 Satellite-Delivered Imagery. This features 5-meter resolution, says Darr. Currently, imagery timing is limited, but more options may be available. 

• Contracted Flight. Resolution is higher at 1 meter. Typically, pilots fly planes and can schedule images within a three-day window of the target date. This technology is becoming more farmer-friendly, Darr says, with no acreage minimums and cost coming down. Typically, this costs around $2 per acre.

• Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Also referred to as drones, this imagery has the highest resolution at 3 to 10 centimeters. 

There’s a catch, though. Right now, UAS aren’t legal. They hold great potential, though, as they can quickly assess a field. “If weather permits, they can be scheduled within a few hours of target time,” says Darr. 

Resolution may even go higher, says OSU’s Scott Shearer. He says Woolpert, a Beavercreek, Ohio, firm, has worked in a project providing 2-centimeter resolution photos from 2014 manned flights. This simulates what might be expected from UAS in the future, he says.  

Higher resolution may enable farmers to check in-season emergence right down to individual plants. That’s key, because uneven emergence can curtail yields. 

Shearer cites a project coordinated with Beck’s Hybrids experiment where a time-lapse camera followed plants that emerged 24 to 72 hours later than others. For the rest of the growing season, these plants mimicked weeds.

“The corn plants that emerged on time had bigger ears, but they did not compensate for the smaller ones with delayed emergence,” says Shearer. “I’m convinced that focusing on even emergence is heading down the right road. It’s good that 95% of plants emerge, but the 5% that don’t emerge or emerge late might be your profit margin in the future.”

All this opens up an interesting dilemma in your favor if you work with companies that promise even emergence and optimal seed spacing.

“This will enable you to know which plants came up and which ones didn’t,” says Shearer. Thus, this technology may be used to differentiate prouducts provided by seed, genetics, and technology firms. It could ensure farmers receive a favorable return on investment, he says.

Imagery Reveals Compaction Costs

Compaction costs. Still, it’s tough to detect. Is it compaction, corn nematodes, or a plethora of other maladies?

In one recent instance, ISU’s Matt Darr worked with a farmer who used satellite imagery to pinpoint compaction linked to where manure-hauling equipment had traveled.

The yield loss over 120 acres that were 70% compacted tallied 15 bushels per acre. Even with $3.50 corn, the 1,260 bushels that were lost tallied $4,400 annually.

The cost of the imagery that revealed the problem? The small-ball price was $240.

Detection is one thing. The next step is solving it. 

“You don’t stop applying manure,” Darr says, “but you become more selective about conditions to apply it. If it is a matter of pumping it to another field in which soils are less wet, it pays to do it.”

This story is a segment of "Playing Small Data = Agronomic Success." Click the link to see full story and other related content.

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