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Drones for farming? High-tech gadgets could save farmers money and time in tough economy

Jun 25, 2020 at 7:00 am
    People watch as a dry spreader drone lands during a June 16 demonstration of Rantizo drones during a soil health field day at a farm in rural Ainsworth. o (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    AINSWORTH — More than 100 farmers and agricultural retailers from Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and California came last week to Washington County to learn more about soil health.

    The stars of the ag field day were drones that can drop cover crop seeds and spray chemicals with pinpoint precision and without trampling plants already in the field.

    Michael Ott, chief executive officer of Rantizo, the Iowa City company that sells the drone systems, expects he’ll sell a “large number of drones” because of the field day, with most going to ag retailers, who will then offer the drone service to farmers in their areas.

    “We’re working with people who want to optimize their systems,” Ott said. “For a long time it was yield, yield, yield. Now, with leaner times, people are looking to optimize. Can I spend less and get the same amount? That’s where we come in.”

    This year, with still low commodity prices, continuing trade issues, wavering support of biofuels and now COVID-19, farmers may not be able to invest as much money into new equipment, gadgets or computer systems. But they are looking for ways technology can help them improve operations without spending more cash, said Matt Darr, director of Iowa State University’s BioCentury Research Farm and professor and Kinze Manufacturing fellow in the College of Engineering.

    Another change this year is the ease of access to digital information, Darr said. Farmers no longer have to carry a USB drive and have a minor in computer science to use data coming from weather satellites, drones or their smart tractor. Companies have improved data visualization and made it accessible on tablets or phones out in the field.

    “The easier it is to engage with the information and access it locally, the more you can translate that raw information into new practices,” Darr said.

    Spending to save

    Ott said his drone technology can save money.

    With a drone, he can spray fungicide on just the high-producing sections of a field to get maximum yield, as opposed to dousing the whole field. One Rantizo customer with an oddly-shaped field wants chemicals dispensed only on the inner rows, which can be done with a drone.

    “He won’t spray outer three rows of anything because raccoon, deer and beaver eat those,” Ott said. “He said, ‘I’m not going to waste any chemicals.’”

    Drones also make it possible to seed or spray at any time, even when the ground is wet or crops already are growing. Rantizo this week won the AgTech and BioTech Company of the Year award presented by the Technology Association of Iowa, according to a Monday tweet.

    Change on a budget

    Some Iowa farmers at the field day enjoyed seeing the Rantizo drones and a Montag inter-seeder mounted on a rotary hoe. But they don’t expect to be using the technology soon.

    “Not everything they demonstrate here is worth doing,” said Kevin Reed, 47, of Washington County. He noted the aerial application of a cover crop seed mix between rows of corn would require a rain for the seed to germinate. “This will all be for nothing if it doesn’t rain.”

    Reed and Joe Stoddard, who is in his 60s, plan to use their existing equipment to plant cover crops as a way to improve soil health.

    “A thousand years from now, we’ll still need to eat,” Stoddard said. “We need to make the soil more productive.”

    In most cases, farmers plant cover crops not to glean a harvest but to protect soil from erosion, break up compacted soil and absorb nitrate and phosphorus. The cover crop — often rye — is killed off with herbicide before the spring planting of corn and soybeans.

    Iowa had 907,000 acres planted in cover crops over the 2017-2018 winter season, or about 3.9 percent of all farmed acres, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group’s 2017 cover crop study of Iowa, Illinois and Indiana.

    In most states, including Iowa, cover crop growth is heavily subsidized by the state and federal government in the hopes of encouraging farmers to try proven conservation methods.

    Stoddard doesn’t think the government should provide cost share, saying the farmer is the one responsible for his or her field and will reap the benefits of healthier soil that can grow more food.

    Learning new things

    Eric Andersen, 59, drove from Dike to learn how to get better at growing a diverse mix of cover crops including clover, flax, hairy vetch or radishes.

    “Radishes and turnips can break up (soil) compaction,” he said. Efforts to improve soil health “maybe won’t be cost effective next year, but it will bring value year after year.”

    Andersen, who farms the land once farmed by his father and grandfather, acknowledges it’s hard to change gears from the past, when farmers believed tilling improved the soil. New research shows leaving living roots intact throughout the year increases water filtration, boosts healthy bacteria and reduces weeds.

    Field days like this one provide a chance for farmers to see new methods in practice.

    Mitchell Hora, the Washington County farmer and Continnum Ag owner who hosted the field day, was keen to show visitors his cornfields that leave every third row empty so cover crops can be seeded in the gaps.

    “I’m suppressing weeds and keeping the soil,” Hora said, adding that last year the field saw no yield decrease, despite having less corn planted. “It worked pretty slick.”

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