BALATON, Minn. - Drones may be all the rage, but a South Dakota-based machinery dealer network is counting on human pilots and airplanes to deliver the desired data.
Jeff Buyck (pronounced like the car, "Buick"), 32, a farmer from Balaton, Minn., farms near Garvin, Minn., in Lyon County. He's also the integrated solutions manager for C&B Operations, LLC, based in Gettysburg, S.D. In that capacity, Buyck works out of C&B's Pipestone County Implement store but covers the company's 25 stores in six states from Minnesota to Idaho. He says the quality and efficiency of the airplane data makes it a value-driver for farmers.
Buyck's path toward precision agriculture leadership is typical of the fast-track that involves younger producers these days. He graduated from Tracy (Minn.) Area High School in 2003 and obtained a degree in ag business from South Dakota State University in Brookings in 2007 (and met met his wife, Jenna, in a chemistry lab).
He came home as the fourth generation on a moderate-sized corn and soybean farm. He and Jenna farm with his parents, Steve and Carol.
Initially, Buyck sold some seed corn on the side and the company hired him as a district manager, assisting customers in fine-tuning yield monitors and mapping. He started working for an implement dealer in 2009, and C&B in 2011 hired him for everything related to precision agriculture, including training and data management.
At first, Buyck and C&B looked at unmanned aircraft - drones. They found that drones weren't all that efficient and laden with regulatory uncertainty.
Drones must be transported to the field to do their work, he says. A service-provider sends a worker in a truck, who must do some assembly and pre-flight procedures. The drones fly the field, with batteries with 20- to 60-minute life, depending on headwinds. The drones may need to be landed several times for battery changes.
About five years ago, C&B got connected with Aerial Precision Imagery LLC, a Bloomington, Minn., company that would collect information using airplanes.
More clients are wanting the data in their smartphones.
To help with that, they connected with DroneDeploy, out of San Francisco, a web-based application company that interfaces with apps on their smartphones. DroneDeploy's apps allow customers to run algorithms on the data.
"If you have a lot of soil reflectance they can pull that out of the algorithm and have the data make sense," Buyck says.
Buyck works with Mark Grout, Jr., vice president of API who lives in Mankato, Minn. Grout's Cessna is equipped with a Canon digital single-lens reflex camera. It can be modified to near infrared or the normal red-green-blue spectrum, depending on what the customer wants. The automatic focus function of the camera keeps the camera steady to the ground.
The company flies its planes over fields, collecting images that can indicate crop health at a high resolution (2.25 centimeter per pixel) clarity.
"You can pick up a penny with it," Grout says.
There are two other Minnesota companies offering similar services. All are working to establish themselves for resolution and quality.
Some of the data includes a NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) map for crop health information. University research is tying growing degree units to NDVI values.
Once the images are collected, C&B works with DroneDeploy to stitch them together to be expressed as two- and three-dimensional formats, providing both elevation and plant health.
From the imagery, they see whether crop patterns indicate that a piece of equipment was set up improperly. Data goes into a thumb drive, which quickly can be delivered to entities like MyJohnDeere.com, an open infrastructure but secure hub for John Deere customers.
Grout says pilots are always learning new things to help farmers and equipment dealers fine-tune procedures to at a reasonable cost. He sees the airplane imagery as analogous to satellite imagery, only at a higher resolution.
And it's on-demand. "If you call, within 24 hours I can be out there, get it done and get your data delivered right to your computer, or your provider," he says.
One believer is James Thovson, (pronounced "TUV-son") from Slayton, Minn. Since 2000 Thovson has owned Independent Ag, an agronomy consulting service works with the Buyck farm.
Thovson and his son, Jacob, and colleagues keep tabs on 250 individual farmer-clients in a 60 mile radius of Slayton. Thovson tried drones a couple of years ago and found they were slow and not quite as efficient as planes. Independent Ag is working closely with five to 10 clients to explore how to make the airplane-collected more profitable.
"It's giving us another avenue of information," James says. "It seems to have opened a lot of different windows on stuff that you basically can't see from the ground. You're getting a much better view from overhead."
Later-season information allows the producer to consider future tiling options or when or whether to apply supplemental nitrogen.
Jacob Thovson, 33, says it's getting easier to do that as companies shift to compatible file formats.
"They are talking back and forth between each other more, so as time progresses things are getting a lot easier," he says. "The more widespread it becomes, the faster it's going to progress. The more useful the information, the more the farmer is going to want to rely on that information."
Thovson thinks it will become more widespread and practical in the next three to five years. Nutrient management and disease management for such threats as Goss's wilt disease in corn and soybean, aphids and rootworms are some of the bigger concerns that technology might help.
Jacob is also optimistic about drones. He expects the rules for operating drones to improve in the next five to 10 years, which will will "open up a lot of new doors for that industry." The airplanes can see spots that farmers may want to send their drones to for more detail.
Buyck's father, Steve Buyck, says the information has been very helpful for helping side-dressing of nitrogen.
"My role is to stand back and watch in awe at what they can do," Steve says. "Some are overwhelmed, but some embrace the technology. A landlord once told me, 'We've got to embrace it or it'll run right over you.'"