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Technology adds efficiencies in counting plants and assessing early-stage crops

Calculated soon after plants emerge, stand counts and seedling assessments help producers gain a rough estimate of potential crop losses. New technology from Corteva Agriscience offers an improvement on the traditional process of gathering this information, crucial in determining next steps.

The manual process generally is conducted by measuring 1 ∕1,000 acre based on row width, counting the number of live plants in the measured area, repeating this process multiple times in random locations across a field, and then extrapolating the total losses. It is not only time-consuming but also often inaccurate.

“In an 80-acre field, I will check three to 10 different spots, which can take a significant amount of time,” says Paul Yoder, a Pioneer field agronomist. “Because only a small percentage of a field is scouted, it’s not unusual to miss an area that may be struggling.”

Plants that emerge later than others create havoc for the plants beside them. Normally, growing plants will eventually overshadow late-emerging ones, depriving them of the sunlight necessary to grow properly. While late-emerging plants may not grow as much as the others, they take precious nutrients from the soil.

Producers who find a poor stand must decide if they should intervene and replant or simply live with the losses. “If a producer did replant, it wasn’t uncommon for him to basically replant the whole field,” Yoder says. “It’s a different view from the tractor cab not knowing where you should drop the planter to fill in those thin areas. There was a lot of frustration in not knowing if you were being efficient or cost-effective as you went back and forth in that field.”

Equipped with Corteva’s Stand Assessment technology, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) provides an alternative to the traditional method of scouting fields. Created within Corteva’s digital research and development program, the technology was licensed to DroneDeploy in early 2020. “One of the early lessons I learned in agriculture was that the best fertilizer is a farmer’s footsteps,” says Mike Winn, CEO of DroneDeploy. “We aren’t here to replace him, but we are here to help him put those footsteps in the right locations.”

Off-Line Tool

Performed at the edge of a field, Stand Assessment is an off-line tool that provides a faster, automated, and streamlined workflow designed to determine crop emergence for early-stage fields. The best time to assess corn, Yoder says, is from the V2 and V4 growth stage. It’s about the same stage in soybeans but is more of a gap analysis.

“The technology is going to tell me the amount of bare soil in between plants. If you set your gap analysis at 3 feet within the rows, Purdue University research shows about a 13% yield reduction. At the end of the day, it may not be a perfect stand, but the producer can anticipate that loss based on the field’s average yield,” he says, adding that evaluating stand count on an 80-acre field takes about 10 minutes.

The tool also gives farmers the ability to make replant decisions while they finish planting other fields. “By knowing 16 acres in an 80- acre field has to be replanted, it gives us time to gather the seed because the farmer may not have what he needs,” Yoder says. “If I’m able to help him gain those 16 acres back, the return on investment adds up pretty quickly.”

Of the 10 Illinois Pioneer Seeds representatives Yoder works with, nine have invested in their own drones and six of the nine have invested in the DroneDeploy software. “I feel technology like this draws us closer to the grower because he knows either his seed representative or I can come fly his fields to give him that reassurance,” he says. “The uses for this technology continue to advance. One of my representatives is looking at buying a larger drone to spray fungicide.”

“It’s really about getting additional information and those insights we can understand and act on to continually improve,” says Casey Onstot, U.S. digital leader for Corteva. “There are so many data points we’re trying to capture. It would take days if we scouted every square inch of a field to understand every plant. Utilizing a drone, we can scout an entire field, capture data, gain insights, and then send that information to the producer in a fraction of the time it took to do it manually.”

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