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Droning on precision ag

By Staff | Feb 28, 2014

RICH FINSTAD, president of Frontier Labs, of Clear Lake, displays an unmanned aerial vehicle during a presentation Feb. 13 at Iowa lakes Community College near Emmetsburg.

EMMETSBURG – Drones were the hot topic on Feb. 13 at the first of a series of new Agriculture, Science and Technology meetings at Iowa Lakes Community College in Emmetsburg.

New on the agricultural horizon are drones-or unmanned aerial vehicles – touted as the “next big thing” in agriculture, helping producers make better use of their farm land, increasing yield and helping them and other ag professionals hit more market highs when selling grain.

According to Rich Finstad, president of Frontier Labs, of Clear Lake, UAVs have an array of applications including determining plant populations, anhydrous application issues, crop loss calculations, crop stress areas (for variable rate applications), creating elevation maps (for crop canopies), tile line effectiveness, creating 3-D data and estimating crop yields.

UAVs are available for producers to use, but companies cannot fly them commercially and cannot make a profit from scouting fields with UAVs because there are no laws regulating them.

The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to have regulations completed sometime in 2015, Finstad said.

Stephanie Bowden, of Labre Crop Consulting, near Manson.

His best guess, he said, based on the cost of commercially-run UAVs, would be $14 per acre to buy the service from a business.

Stephanie Bowden, of Labre Crop Consulting, near Manson, told the group her reasoning for finding UAV data important.

“In 2012, we had a drought and we didn’t know what kind of a crop we’d have,”she said. “We wish we’d have known because we would have sold a lot more $8 corn that year.”

Finstad said the world population has doubled since 1969, and that growing more grain is the answer to feeding a growing world population.

He said hybrid seed came out in the 1930s, but it took 20 years to get 90 percent of farmers to use it, which doubled yields.

RICH FINSTAD, president of Frontier Labs, of Clear Lake.

He said he hopes producers will embrace this technology as they have done with grid sampling, GPS and better monitoring yields.

Currently, Iowa State University is working on developing a program educating students about the construction and benefits of UAVs.


Finstad said cameras attached on the bottom of each UAV would not go active until they are over the assigned field.

Finstad said producers own the images produced by the UAV, and that they are better images than those produced by satellites because they are higher resolution.

He said producers could count the stripes on a corn leaf if they chose to do so, along with measuring plant size to develop yield data.

Another farm tool

Finstad said UAVs are something producers should at least consider as they manage their crop and their marketing.

“Yield maps are often pretty pictures, but don’t always provide useful information,” he said, adding that scenarios such as soybean diseases like aphids and nematodes could be detected earlier.

UAVs could show whether or not lime needs to be in fields. He said it can also determine the amount of rainfall for every 80 acres at a time.

Investing in a UAV might run a producer around $24,000, depending on the brand and model.

Bowden said her findings are that individual farmers like having the pictures, but don’t like the price and that larger farmers are banding together to buy them cooperatively.

Cooperative elevators have also inquired about purchasing UAVs to use on their clients’ fields.

Finstad said he sees the UAV as something necessary to insure market management.

“I see it as useful for $7-bushel-corn,” he said, “and needed at $3-bushel-corn.”

A marketing tool, too

“With technology, it’s easier to sell $7 corn, but with $3 and $4 corn the profit margins are so small, you could really use something like this to help market that grain to hit the highs,” she said. “It’s just the opposite of what you would think. Getting a closer idea of what your yield will be is huge.”

While some expressed concern about the USDA being able to count pods in the field, Finstad said it’s going to be part of something like this.

But, he added, it can work in a producer’s favor, with crop adjustors being able to get a more accurate count of what’s in a field.

The series is sponsored by the college, Iowa Corn Growers Association, Palo Alto County Farm Bureau and Farm Credit Services of America.

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