Drones: My Current Practical Use For Them

My current practical take on drones in Ag (Q1-2018)

Drones have been rapidly evolving over the past few years and it has been pretty exciting, to say the least. They can be adapted to so many industries and they can make an impact large or small. I have had the privilege to own a DJI Phantom 4 Pro now for almost a year and I have learned a lot. Here is my take on the current affordable drone tech and it’s practical uses on the farm.

At first, like most first-time drone users, I had planned on flying all of our fields multiple times a year and making all kinds of maps and data points to make sense of everything happening in the field. Then reality set in and that is simply unrealistic with today’s drones that are affordable like the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. It can be done but you need a lot of time, a very expensive drone, and some very serious computing power. No farmer has the time or money for that.

If you want to map the way to go is to use DroneDeploy for sure. DroneDeploy (DD) has a very easy user interface that anyone can use and if you have a DJI Phantom you can plan your missions right in the app or you can preplan using their website before heading out to the field. DD isn’t just limited to Ag, with your subscription you have access to all kinds of other professional features. One of the pain points of mapping is actually creating the map and DD is cloud base and can handle the task pretty efficiently but a major pinch point for us rural folk is our internet speed. It can take a long time if you have a lot of pictures to upload. Good thing that DD recognizes that and has created a solution called Live Map. Live Map can create maps real-time and with false NDVI. It’s not perfect but it does a pretty damn good job of building it real time right on the iPad.

Another great use for DD, when mapping, is the use of elevation data. For example, this past spring we had a couple big rains early on so I took advantage of this for later use. I flew the drone over the areas with standing water for 1 to build a map of water damage for replanting/insurance evidence and for 2 to use the elevation map to help plan out where/how to install tile. Using the map for tiling alone pays for the cost of the drone/DD from increasing the productivity of the areas that are prone to water damage.

Drones are truly great aides for mid to late season scouting of corn to gain a different visual and perspective. Now, I’m not talking about putting the drone up for every field that you scout but let me give a few examples from this past year. A hand full of our fields in a particular area had some big gust of wind come through and damaged some neighboring pivots and caused some green snap. After doing some initial green snap damage counts I put the drone up in the air and discovered that other areas received more damage in the field. I snapped a few pictures and then directed the insurance adjuster to the best areas to get the most accurate claim possible. The next example is a long-standing battle with a relentless and nasty weed call bur-cucumber. We get this nasty weed in the same fields every year and on occasion, it might pop up in a new one. Roundup smokes this weed easily but the issue is it will germinate and grow even when the corn is 5-6 feet tall. If you don’t kill it, it will grow up the corn and pull it down flat to the ground making the corn unharvestable. So we have to call a helicopter in every year to spray a herbicide which is a very expensive application cost. This is where the drone comes into play. I will put the drone up to scout and take pictures of the bur-cucumber to see where and when it reaches the canopy in order to be the most efficient with our helicopter application to keep our cost as low as possible. We didn’t miss any weeds and it saved us a lot of money.

Drones, like the phantom, have great cameras on them which make them great for taking pictures or video around the farm for fun. I kept the drone in the truck with me while tendering fertilizer or scouting and would put the drone up to get some field action shots. Check out my youtube channel¬†for some videos I made, I am currently editing two new ones now and they might be up when this gets posted. I am definitely an amateur at videography and editing but I’m getting better at it. Drones are also handy for other odd jobs like inspecting a grain leg or flying ditches to check for beaver dams.

Some companies that I am keeping my eye on future drone tech are American Robotics, DJI, Yuneec, Sentera, and Drone Deploy. I am really interested in the drone autonomy company American Robotics, their platform would solve the time requirement issue but I’m sure it comes at a high cost. I believe their platform could turn into something much greater and I have a few ideas of my own on where it could go.

So if you are wondering if a drone is worth the investment for the farm, in my opinion, they are. But, like most things, it is only going to if you put in the effort and make something of it.



The Past

Why do we get so caught up in the past? or even the last 5-10 years? Particularly in agriculture, we romanticise about the past or how “we have always done it this way” probably more than most of the other industries. This stems from farms being in families for many generations, which is awesome and we should be proud of that. Ag is unique in that way but let’s just cherish the past and the present and not let it blind us of the future. This goes for Agriculture Universities as well, there are some great studies and info that gets put out but for the most part, it is stagnant and they are not challenging what we know today as “textbook agronomy”. Everything evolves over time and being proud or romantic about the past or today blinds us from looking to the future and evolving. When things work we get comfortable and its very uncomfortable when we think about doing things differently because of the unknown and uncertainty. This leads to the adoption rate in Ag to be very slow and that doesn’t get companies excited about putting money into new product development or R&D which in return slows the innovation rate. You have heard it over and over again that a farmer only has 40 seasons to plant a crop but you can try more than one new thing a season to see what will fit and stick on your farm. Having a big network to be able to leverage it to find out what is working or not working in other parts of the country will also help weed through what to try on your operation. What if 4-5 years ago, when farms were already making really good money with a standard practice, we tried something completely new or different that made more ROI and would put us in the black today? Don’t romanticize about today or the past so much where it blinds you of the future.

Diversify your farm

Diversify your farm……. now you might be thinking that this is another blog post talking about raising alternative crops, which is a great idea. If you are interested in that Dr. Curt Livesay is a great resource for that kind of info ( www.dynamiteag.com or on Twitter @dynamiteag ). But! I’m talking about diversifying your farm with professionals and your network. Not too long ago the main source of information came from the retailer and land grant extension agent. Thanks to Justin Smith Morrill for getting the land-grant bill passed. This was a huge improvement to ag and was instrumental to get information and solutions out to farmers to help them. This was a great system and pretty much a one-stop shop for farmers. But farming has increased in complexity, margins are super tight, a lot of money is on the line and the access to the information highway (internet) has greatly changed communication.

It’s time to diversify your farm. The operation that I work for we seek out different professionals for seed, chem, fertilizer, biologicals, marketing, consulting and etc. I would much rather talk to 6 or 8 different people than just 1 or 2 for the information that affects how the farm is managed. One or two salesmen or consultants don’t have the time required to focus enough attention on one farm and be able to successfully service a farm’s needs and situations. They have 20, 30 or more clients and there simply isn’t enough time and I am speaking from experience because I use to work for a retailer myself. It’s not their fault by any means, it just takes a lot of time to fully service a farm’s needs in any given area. One example is for soil testing, we use Encirca and our CSA gives probably 4x the amount of time on fertility than any other retailer has. It’s because she doesn’t have to worry about chemicals or how to market your grain or where the spread trucks are, they just have to worry about doing the very best job possible with soil testing and fertility recs.

There is another great reason to have multiple professionals on your farm and that is for the network. It’s your network that is so incredibly valuable for your self and your farm. There is a reason why the phrase “it’s not what you know but who you know” exists, not just for farming but almost everything in your life. You can’t be an expert in everything and one way to mitigate that is to surround yourself with the best people possible. Doing that will make your self and your farm the best as it possibly can. There are many ways to increase your network and I’ll share a few ways that I do so. One way that I increase my network is to attend conferences. Now, learning from speakers at a conference, of course, is always great but being able to interact and meet new folks is just as valuable as paying for the conference its self. Another valuable resource for networking is Twitter, yes that social media thing, where one can learn and reach out to anyone. As @TheChadColby calls it Twitter is the new “coffee shop for farmers”. So get out to conferences and start interacting on Twitter and you will be amazed on how you can build your network.

It’s time to diversify your farm with experts if you’re not already doing so. This can be of great benefit so welcome new folks to the farm, get out to conferences, join a peer group and get active on Twitter.