Drones find niche with seeding cover crops in Ohio

By John Fulton and Alex Thomas

Cover crops are crucial in sustainable agriculture by improving soil health, preventing erosion, and enhancing nutrient cycling. However, timing and logistics can be challenging when seeding cover crops. Traditionally, cover crops have been seeded using conventional drills once a crop is harvested, using high clearance machines retrofitted to apply cover crops or aerially. The challenge has been seeding cover crops in the early fall providing time for emergence and biomass growth before the first frost. Enter the drone — a versatile tool finding its niche in cover crop applications across Ohio. In fact, 2024 will serve as the third year for using drones here in Ohio as a popular option to spread cover crops.

Drones, also known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), have gained popularity across various industries, including agriculture. Their ability to fly autonomously, capture high-resolution imagery, apply crop protection products, and precisely distribute seeds makes them an ideal tool for cover crop seeding. A majority of spray drones sold today come with a dry spreader or as an option.

Here are some advantages of drone seeding:

  1. Timely seeding: Cover crops need to be seeded at specific times to maximize their benefits. Drones allow farmers to seed cover crops during critical windows, such as post-harvest or pre-winter.
  2. Flexibility: The use of drones allows farmers to seed cover crops into standing corn and soybeans preharvest, typically from early August through early October here in Ohio. Drones can also apply when ground conditions are unfit like after a rain. This flexibility ensures optimal growth and soil protection.
  3. Accessibility: Drones can reach places in fields that are otherwise challenging to access with other application equipment. They can fly over terraces, grass waterways, and wetlands, providing precise seeding even in complex terrain.
  4. Transportability: Drones are easily transported and used by a wide customer base. Crop dusters, on the other hand, prefer large acreage farms and fields, making them less suitable for smaller areas.
  5. Environmental benefits: Drones minimize soil compaction since they don’t require heavy machinery to traverse fields. Additionally, precise seed placement reduces seed waste and promotes efficient resource utilization.

While drone seeding offers significant advantages, there are challenges to address:

  1. Regulations: One must comply with local regulations governing drone use. Licensing, airspace restrictions, and safety protocols are essential considerations.
  2. Seed payload capacity: Drones have limited payload capacities. Fields, especially large ones, will require multiple flights.
  3. Battery life and flight time: Current drones are powered by batteries, which have limited capacities and flight times. When applying cover crops, frequent battery changes and recharges will be required.
  4. Seed type and size: Different cover crop species have varying seed sizes and shapes, which impact the metering and distribution uniformity. We have found in our research that different spreader setups and gates are needed depending on the seed size. One setup does not work for all cover crops which can create a challenge when applying mixes.
  5. Flight planning and navigation: Effective drone operation requires careful flight planning and navigation to avoid obstacles, maintain safe distances from structures and power lines, and adhere to airspace regulations. Complex field layouts or areas with dense vegetation can at times present additional navigation challenges for drones.

We continue to conduct research on using drones to apply cover crops. Our intent is to provide information on setups to uniformly apply different cover crops. Our Fall 2023 work found that drones can effectively spread cover crops into standing corn and soybeans in late August and early October. The cover crops had good emergence. The measured spread uniformity (coefficient of variation; CV) ranges from 18% up to 31%. Our research is working to help reduce this variability of spread and understand spread width limitations based on the species and mix of the cover crop. These results can be reviewed on pages 202-203 of the 2023 eFields Report.

In summary, drones are changing the game for cover crop seeding and other agricultural practices. The use of drones for cover crop application represents a new tool for Ohio farmers, offering a cost-effective and environmentally friendly solution. Their ability to access challenging areas, transportability, and safety benefits make them valuable tools for Ohio farmers. As technology continues to evolve, we can expect even more innovative solutions to enhance sustainable farming practices.

For more information about drone use and other precision agriculture technologies, visit  or learn more by following the OSU Precision Ag research on X and Facebook at @OhioStatePA.

Dr. John Fulton is a Professor in the Food, Agriculture and Biological Engineering Department at Ohio State University and can be reached at fulton.20@osu.edu. Alex Thomas is a graduate student in the Food, Agriculture and Biological Engineering Department at Ohio State University and can be reached at thomas.5083@osu.edu.

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