Drones could soon be used for agriculture

2014-03-16T00:00:00Z 2014-03-16T00:02:07Z Drones could soon be used for agricultureBy Phil Wieland phil.wieland@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352 nwitimes.com

With all the high-tech equipment available today, Old McDonald probably isn't just farming. He's doing precision agriculture.

"Precision agriculture is a pretty hot piece of equipment farmers are using," said John Leuck, superintendent of the Pinney-Purdue Agricultural Center of Purdue University.

"Ten years ago you could get a tractor that could automatically steer if you asked. Now, it is standard on tractors and combines," Leuck said. "It allows us to make a precision pass down the field and turn around and make an exact return pass next to it."

That doesn't make the farmer unnecessary. It merely makes him more accurate and efficient. When spraying herbicides or fertilizer, the passes don't overlap to apply too much or underlap to apply too little.

"Where that gets important in the future is a weed moving into Indiana from the South called the Palmer amaranth," Leuck said. "It's very vicious. Once it gets to 4 inches, you can only hand pull it, and the plant can produce a million seeds. So it's a weed we really need to control, and precision agriculture is the way to do that."

That same technology is built into the planters so the machine knows how many seeds to plant for each type of soil in the field. The good soil gets more seeds and the poor soil less, saving on seed costs.

"Once you know the field, you can do all kinds of things with the information," Leuck said. "They used to blanket everything. Now they can do it where they get the most bang for their buck. They have TV screens in the tractors that can give you all kinds of information. The difficult part is how you use the information to benefit you most as a farmer to save money. That's kind of the name of the game."

Much has been reported about the use of drones by the military, but are you ready for agricultural drones? Leuck said drones equipped with cameras are used in agricultural research. They fly over a field and record data on the heat of the ground, the chlorophyll and nitrogen levels of the plants and soil and other things.

"You can see what the crops are doing after they are in the field and growing. They are using them in research quite a bit, but it will filter out in the coming years."

To extend the planting season, especially in areas where the season can seem so short and the winters so long like Northwest Indiana, farmers are using what is called a high tunnel. Similar to a greenhouse, a high tunnel uses no supplemental heat, promoting early plant growth with the natural heat in the ground, the heat generated by the vegetation and the sunlight through the plastic roof.

"Even in March when the snow is on the ground you can get tomatoes started in the high tunnel," Leuck said. "So you have produce well ahead of time to market."

As giant irrigation systems proliferate, technology now offers the farmer the opportunity to control the sprinkler machines from a cellphone. Those who can't afford sprinklers can rely on new drought-resistant hybrid seeds.

And Leuck said the next big cash crop could be poplar trees. Not for the timber or the firewood, but as the next source of ethanol now generated from corn and switchgrass. The test crop still has a couple of more years to grow before scientists will know if the trees are viable.

"We're hoping the trees will be a piece of the pie for renewable fuel," he said. "With the pivot irrigation system, it leaves corners of the field uncovered, and we thought the trees would be a good crop for that."

E-I-E-I-Oh, my.

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