Incorporating Drones into the Off-Season Workflow
One grower evaluates drainage tile effectiveness by comparing a soil map to yield.
By Kaylee Fagan, Contributing Writer @DroneDeploy
It’s the height of growing season now, but cutting-edge growers like Sam Meeker remind us that drones and DroneDeploy can be used to plan for the next Spring and save money — even during the off season.
Last Fall, Sam Meeker discovered he could use a 2-D map to evaluate the effectiveness of drainage tiles buried beneath a bare field, and came up with some great advice for other farmers looking to use drones during the off season.
“I’ve been farming with my dad my whole life,” Sam said. Sam and his father grow corn and soybeans in Illinois. “I’ve always been on the leading edge of precision agriculture, doing yield mapping, precision soil testing,” he said.
“When a friend introduced me to drones, I saw them as the next step in remote sensing,” he explained.
Sam was surprised to find that some drones were relatively affordable — only about a thousand dollars — but he didn’t know how they could be incorporated into his routine on the farm, until he saw a demo of DroneDeploy.
“I started to get really interested because this is something that’s efficient, quick and easy to operate. You don’t spend a lot of time manipulating the data. You literally just fly the drone and upload the photos.”
Sam then bought two DJI Phantom 3 Pros, and got started in the Fall by mapping more than 1000 acres of bare field.
When Sam saw his first completed map, he was surprised by how much data he could gather from a plot of bare dirt. From a bird’s eye view, he could clearly see color differences in the soil that revealed where drainage tiles were buried throughout the field.
In agriculture, large underground systems of drainage piping — referred to as tiles — are used to drain excess water from field for optimum crop growth.
In the map, the light brown horizontal lines indicate where the tiles are buried (called “tile lines”), and where the water is draining most effectively. By contrast, the darker areas indicate more saturated soil, where there is a gap between two tiles.
“There would be no way you could get this information unless you knew exactly where the tile was on the ground,” said Sam. “From an aerial view I was able to see where any gaps are, and where I might need to put in more tiles. I could even compare this to my yield, and see where to go next. I flew every field that I had for tile lines.”
Looking for Gaps
Once Sam realized that he could see tile lines in his map, he wanted to compare the map to the previous year’s yield map to explore the impact of tiling on his yields, and also investigate whether it would be beneficial to install additional tiles. To do this, Sam first consulted his yield map to determine the profits in tiled areas, and then compared them to the profits seen in areas without tiling. If he found any significant decreases, he could calculate whether the potential income gained by installing additional tiles would outweigh the cost.
For this specific area, yield records showed that the lack of tiling did not significantly decrease yields, presumably because the area had sufficient natural drainage.
But when Sam used the same strategy on a different field that had an older drainage system, the correlation between tile placement and plant health was much more prominent.
A 2-D map allowed Sam to identify an area in the southwestern corner of this field that looked as though it was not being adequately drained. He then followed the same process, and started by comparing with his yield map. This time, he found that his inference had been correct: the corner where no drainage tiles were present was performing relatively poorly compared to the areas with more heavy tiling.
After doing some calculations, Sam decided to have more tiles installed in this section, because he saw that the cost of installing the tiles would be easily outweighed by the profit he would gain when the yield improved.
And just as he suspected, after the new tiles had been added, performance in this section of the field skyrocketed.
The NDVI map on the right was taken weeks after the installation of the new tiles, and clearly demonstrates the drastic improvement in plant health. Although this year’s yield map is not available yet, Sam already can see the benefits of his decision, and can estimate the increase in profit that he should expect to see after harvesting.
Ultimately, Sam was able to evaluate the drainage across multiple fields, and make informed decisions about where it would be most profitable to install more tiles. This experience also empowered Sam to keep an accurate record of where the tiles had been buried, which he could then import into his AgLeader software to keep for future reference.
Moving Into the Growing Season…
Looking forward, Sam is also finding new and innovative ways to incorporate drones onto his farm during the growing season.
“Now that we’ve planted, we can take a look at the different populations and compare that to what we expected and use that to determine what to expect throughout the year.”
He’s also been using DroneDeploy to look at the stand density of cover crops. “One thing I learned is that there was one field where we’d put in some rye, and it really germinated well in the area we didn’t need as much, so a takeaway from that would be to drill in the seed rather than flying it on,” he explained.
Sam had some great advice for other farmers looking to start using drones throughout the year to optimize crop efficiency:
- “Data management is really important,” Sam explained, especially when organizing and archiving data over multiple fields. Simple organizational tricks, like having extra SD-cards before flying, a consistent file naming system, and downloading imagery right away can work wonders when it comes to managing big projects and multiple maps.
- It took two batteries to fly over Sam’s 108-acre field, and he was able to use the “Continue Mission” feature to make one complete map, despite landing the drone to replace the battery mid-flight. Sam says that when this happens, it is best to watch the drone fly overhead, and wait until the opportune moment — when it is closest to home — to interrupt the mission.
As technology becomes more integrated into the world of precision agriculture, drones are quickly becoming a popular choice for monitoring plant health, counting individual crops, and myriad other uses during the growing season. However, as many innovative farmers like Sam have discovered, drones can also play a vital role in helping farmers prepare and strategize, long before the seeds are planted.
“Drones are the next step,” according to Sam, who says he is looking forward to incorporating DroneDeploy into his data gathering and analysis all year-round.
Where to Learn More…
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