Evan Delk with Integrated Ag Services is seeing increasing value from drone scouting on farms.

Fly-by scouting taking off

By Matt Reese

It is hot, tiresome and, in some cases, physically impossible to properly scout every acre of cropland to collect the necessary, timely information to make very expensive decisions in the high stakes pursuit of agricultural profitability. Especially as farms increase in size, it is simply not feasible to scout every acre in a timely fashion.

With this in mind, Molly Caren Ag Center (the home of the Farm Science Review) has teamed up with Integrated Ag Services to explore the possibilities, applications and, ultimately, the return on investment of Taranis scouting equipment and drone technology combined with artificial intelligence to scout more acres more efficiently. 

“With the drone scouting we are doing multiple passes across some of the fields to look for emergence issues and weeds we need to scout for to make a decision on. We have a 200-acre field here that we have broken up into two different treatments. The normal program for planting herbicides and fungicides is one treatment and the other treatment is the Taranis IPM treatment,” said JD Bethel, an agronomic consultant with Integrated Ag Services. “In that we are taking what we see in the images and the insights we get from Taranis and adjusting the farmer program to account for any changes we need to make. If we find more weeds later in the season, or weeds that are different than expected, we can adjust the treatments. The farmer treatment will not be adjusted. At the end of the season we’ll compare the programs and see if there is a yield increase and, more importantly, the return on investment from the drone flight. Is the IPM approach better than having your program and sticking with it?”

In the research, the field will be flown roughly every 14 days to capture images. The images are processed and available for making on-farm decisions in 24 hours after the drone flights. Integrated Ag Services has been working with Taranis for 3 years and has seen increasing interest from farmers in using the drone scouting, said Evan Delk, Integrated Ag Services CCA and vice president of sales and marketing. 

“This year we have really gained some traction. We are up to 76,000 flight acres and I think that is just the tip of the iceberg of this. I think it is going to catch on in the industry,” Delk said. “We have two drone crews running now and we may add another crew for next year.”

The technology allows for dramatically improved scouting efficiency.

“Instead of taking whole field images, we are taking sample images throughout the entire field, roughly on a 1-acre grid. With emergence we go down to about a half-acre. For late season disease scouting we’ll go to a 2- or 3-acre grid. We are using a high resolution camera to actually get a picture of the crop and the weeds and everything going on,” Delk said. “The secret sauce is really the software with artificial intelligence provided from Taranis. They are able to count the actual plants in plant stands. They can identify and quantify weeds, nutrients and disease. The goal is to have actual information for the grower to act on in season. In years past, we used NDVI imagery and we had a hard time getting actionable information for the growers to use in season to provide value. I refer to this as a digital agronomist. This does not replace the agronomist but it does make agronomists more efficient. We cover thousands of acres and if our agronomists are walking fields all summer long, it is not efficient. With this technology, we can actually identify the problem areas and now maybe the consultant can go to 10% to 15% of the fields. In the end it will make the farmer more efficient and happier and provide more value.”

There was an initial learning curve with the technology.

“In the beginning of this, it was new technology so we wanted to trust, but verify. Once you start to trust the technology and go out and ground truth it, you realize this is really telling you what is going on out there,” Delk said. “As an agronomist then you can quickly learn how to be more efficient. You can scout from your office. You get information back to the grower quicker, which is very important. At the end of the day, the grower wants this report of information and priorities he needs to focus on. We have the information back to growers on their phone in 24 hours on an app.”

Taranis, now based in Indianapolis, started with technology developed by the Israeli military that has continued to evolve to better capture very high resolution images quickly. The drone used for the photography costs around $25,000 and has around a 45-minute battery life, which is a significant improvement over recent years. At the same time, agronomists have been learning how to better use and gather the information.

The drone is flown over fields roughly every 14 days throughout the growing season.

“When we started, we went to the growers and let them determine when they thought they’d need to scout their fields. We quickly found we were missing things. At first we flew, fields were clean. We waited about a month and by the time we came back, there had been a major weed escape. A couple of rains had come through and there was a new flush of weeds. It was too late to make that application,” Delk said. “We learned we needed a systems approach. We want to basically have the drone flying all season long to constantly be scouting for problems. The goal is to not find problems. We generally want that drone flying about 150 GDUs after that crop is planted and then it is coming back every 14 days to do some scouting.”

The technology already paid off in 2021 after some early planting challenges.

“If we can go out in a 100-acre field and get population counts and show the grower that it is not economical to replant, it takes the emotion out of it. They have good data at their finger-tips and to make good decisions,” Delk said. “There were some growers this year who wanted to rip out the entire field and start over. We came in, did the scouting and confirmed they had enough population out there. If you go and look at the corn today those growers would tell you they definitely made the right decision.” 

As farms continue to get larger, and the technology continues to evolve, Delk sees tremendous potential for farms to benefit. 

“This is only going to improve and that will be huge for agricultural uses. I believe we need to get away from blanket applications across everything. We have never had access to this type of information, so it is going to be a change for the grower to go from spraying everything to actually having unbelievable amounts of information to make decisions,” Delk said. “We definitely want to find ways to save money and we can also use this information to best protect and increase yield and drive profitability. I have had large growers tell me they physically cannot get over their acres to monitor their crops. This technology is only going to get more important as operations get larger.”

This screen shot from the app shows the kind of information that can be quickly provided to growers.

The folks at the Farm Science Review have liked what they have seen so far with Taranis.

“We always like to participate, demonstrate and make decisions with everything we have available now with the technology changing all of the time. Integrated Ag Services has worked with us for many years on soil sampling and creating management zones. They have brought to the table this Taranis package. This is the next generation of drone utilization and scouting. They refer to it as HD scouting, which is much like the HD soil sampling we do in the fall — very intensive soil sampling to get a very high resolution map of what is going on in the field,” said Nate Douridas, farm manager at the Farm Science Review. “We have experimented a little bit with the Taranis platform the last couple of years and this year we are whole hearted into it and flying a lot of acres. We are finding value along the way.” 

Douridas said there was great value this spring in confirming stand counts and creating potential replant maps for different zones. 

“Now we are into post-emerge applications we are using it to look for weeds and create weed heat maps and decide what we need to spray and where we need to spray. Sometimes we are just confirming the program we have in place,” Douridas said. “You can tailor your own package. For us, we decided we needed to fly to look at the population stand and the VT fungicide application on corn, which can be a very expensive and emotional decision. This will be timed very well, just ahead of that application need. We’ll confirm where the disease is and what the diseases are and create a map to determine if we need or do not need an application. On the soybean side we are doing multiple flights throughout the growing season. We started 2 weeks after the original planting date. From there, we are flying every 14 to 20 days depending on the growing conditions to see stand establishment, weed control and insects, defoliation and diseases. Those will become very valuable as we move into the reproductive stages. We started this not knowing exactly what we would encounter and we continue to find usefulness in the program as we go through the season.”

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