There are two reasons why a new Internet-based, precision agriculture venture is finding a niche in Mid-South cotton fields — it saves farmers money, and it doesn't require a lot of computer savvy on the part of the grower.
Last year, over 60,000 acres of cotton were enrolled in the venture, called In-Time, Inc., based in Cleveland, Miss.
The founder and chairman of the business is Kenneth Hood, Perthshire, Miss., cotton producer and ginner. Hood, the Institute for Technology Development, and a team of researchers and consultants have spent the last seven years trying to make precision agriculture a reality for cotton producers, using Hood's farm to explore the possibilities.
In Time, Inc., has been set up to be a full-service precision farming provider, Hood noted. “To date, there is no company out there that takes it this far.”
During the growing season, In Time will fly over fields every seven to 10 days to map areas of crop variability within a field. These maps are converted to a variable rate prescription that can be applied by any chemical applicator.
According to Kelly Dupont, In Time sales and marketing manager, “the premise of VRT (variable rate technology) is that fields, in general, are not uniform in their growth patterns and should not be managed as such.
According to Coahoma County, Miss., Extension agent Ann Ruscoe, “We see some promise (in VRT) for producers in Pix and defoliation applications and, generally, it can help farmer be more knowledgeable about what's out there. And that in itself is valuable.”
Sixty-three cotton producers were enrolled in the In Time program in 2003, according to Hood. This year, he hopes for a large increase in farmer participation.
“Our first priority is to develop the technology in the United States,” Hood said. “In three years, we're aiming for 10 to 15 percent of the total U.S. acreage. We're ramping up for over a million acres in a very short period of time.”
Clarksdale, Miss., cotton producer Tripp Hayes enrolled about 1,000 acres in the In-Time program in 2003, but began working with Hood on variable-rate technology in 2002.
“In-Time generates aerial imagery of the field and essentially, you get a measurement of biomass from that infrared photo,” Hayes said.
Hayes' consultant, Joe Townsend, Clarksdale, “puts the image (which is divided into seven so-called management zones) on a hand-held GPS. He goes to the lushest area of the field to see what's out there, and then goes to the other areas. Then he writes prescriptions for variable-rate applications.”
Insecticides aren't varied within the seven zones, noted Hayes. “It's pretty much on and off. If we're making a Pix application by itself, we'll vary the rates. We haven't done any variable-rate seeding.”
Hood says that increased profit margins are possible using precision agriculture techniques. Hood's research on his own farm put the value of VRT at $68.17 per acre.
Variable-rate applications can be made with just about any input, according to Hood.
For example, VRT allowed Hood to eliminate spraying for insects on 779 acres of 1,825 acres that otherwise would have received a blanket application. “That's a 43 percent total chemical reduction. I saved $4,120 on just one application. I'm not only more efficient, but I'm also so much more environmentally friendly.”
Variable-rate applications on insects is based on the premise that certain insects prefer more vigorously growing parts of a cotton field while others like the more stressed areas. “We're learning a lot about insect control so we can go in and spray the areas we know have plant bugs and not spray these other areas.”
Computer enhancements of airplane imagery (called NDVI images) separate Hood's fields into three management zones for PGR applications and a much more effective use of the product. In fact, variable-rate applications of PGRs offer the most potential cost savings for most farmers, according to Hood.
After harvest, VRT can be used to economically control other troublesome weeds, like redvines, according to Hood. “Some products cost $35 per acre. If you have a 100-acre field, you can't spend $35 an acre spraying for redvines. But if I can spray 10 acres out there where the redvines are, then it's $350 instead of $3,500.”
VRT technology is now available for aerial applicators, noted Hood, and is very effective. “That was a missing link,” he said. “If it rained, I couldn't use my ground rig, I had to have an aircraft.”
While precision agriculture is still in its infancy, its premise is rooted in a basic farmer instinct to cut costs any way he can, according to Hood.
“We've had four consecutive years of low prices. We've had increasing costs and decreasing returns. We've also had more demand for quality and it costs you money to do that. When you're in survival mode, you look for what valves you can open up and what valves you can close down a little bit and which ones you can completely shut down and save money.”
A farmer can set his sprayer up with VRT for less than $6,000, according to Hood. In Time charges $9 an acre for its service. The farmer owns all the data associated with his farm and has 24-hour access to it.
To generate a prescription, the farmer accesses an Internet Web site and supplies information on the number of management zones he desires (from three to 15), and the chemical rate he wants to apply in each one. In less than three minutes, he'll receive the VRT prescription, via the Internet.
In Time satellite offices have been established in Courtland, Ala., and are being set up in California and Texas. “We're also working on bringing the technology to other crops,” Hood said. “We put all our emphasis on cotton early on. But we are doing work on rice.”