Cotton Growers: On-The-Go With Precision

Dr. Ed Barnes, director of agricultural research at Cotton Incorporated, says that the big precision agriculture research focus for the organization in 2008 will be on-the-go sensor technology. The equipment, first built by Greenseeker and now also manufactured by CropCircle, is attached to field equipment or carried as a hand-held unit and provides information about the relative vigor of a plant. Unlike aerial imagery, it provides instantaneous data, while using the same type of data output — NDVI, or Normalized Difference Vegetation Index — as aerial images.

Why now? Barnes says that “the technology now is getting pretty mature in that we have a good interface between some of the sensors and the controllers. So from a practical standpoint you can just go and collect data.” But what exactly to do with the data is the big question.

The low-hanging fruit for on-the-go sensors applications of PGRs and defoliants, Barnes explains. “We had some preliminary on-farm trials that showed good promise to use the sensor data for real-time variable-rate PGR and applications.”

Like aerial imagery, the sensors measure vegetation. The PGR algorithm is pretty easy to understand — spray that which is excessively green, turn off the spray when it’s not. “And at the end of the season, you are trying to manage green areas where the plant needs more defoliant, so again it’s not a complicated formula, it’s really a one to one relationship between sensor output and product output,” says Barnes.

He says that on-the-go sensors could be applied in the field immediately if a grower wanted to do it, but Cotton Incorporated is aiming to improve the economic benefit of adopting the technology by getting after a bigger issue: variable-rate nitrogen.

The big stumbling block is that the consequences for getting nitrogen wrong in cotton are dire — too much creates a big plant that calls out to insect pests and too little is a yield robber. To get at the issue, studies are taking place in several states.

Beyond economics, Barnes says the cotton industry’s increasing focus on sustainability is another reason to look at managing nitrogen more effectively. “When we look at the energy footprint to produce cotton, if we are in a production system that uses nitrogen from a synthetic source, then that is the biggest energy use,” he says. “We need to be ready with the tools to manage the input as effectively as possible.”

Guidance Galore

From low end to high end, cotton growers have a wide range of products, accuracies, capabilities, and price points for guidance technology. “Once considered a luxury or just an extra, GPS guidance tools are playing roles with ROI for the grower,” says Jeff Farrar, ground ag marketing manager for Hemisphere GPS. “Input costs are skyrocketing, which puts a great deal of focus on such practices as strip-till (nutrient placement) along with the practice of “hippin,” or building beds for cotton planting for irrigation purposes.”

In-cab technology is getting more and more sophisticated to make the most of the power of GPS. For example, Topcon’s X20 in-cab unit now delivers a wide range of features, including most recently added features such as a mobile weather station capability for weather tracking and logging, the AgCam X20 peripheral camera for monitoring hidden or obscure areas of equipment, and boom leveling control.

Manufacturers are filling out lines to accommodate a grower at any level of accuracy. Recent additions include Raven’s Cruizer, Ag Leader’s GPS 1500, and Topcon’s PCS-100, designed to provide serviceable guidance at an entry level price.

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