For those in the dark about precision-agriculture, turn your gaze towards Light. There, in the small, northeast Arkansas town — through a team of pilots, company techs, a professor and his graduate students — Kin-Co Ag Aviation is writing prescriptions and applying dry fertilizer using variable rates. That, as far as those surrounding the project know, is a first and should usher in a new set of application tools for producers and pilots.

“The word is already out a little,” said Casey Couch, a partner with Kin-Co. “We've had some inquiries from other flying services about what we're doing. But we've been pretty tight-lipped about it until now. We wanted to get a handle on it before we started making claims. It wouldn't have been good to talk loud and then not be able to deliver. Now, though, we're able to commit to this and tell folks what we can produce.

“This will help us give customers exactly what they want where they want it. It won't matter whether the plane is upwind or downwind because the gate will compensate. That makes me happy for farmers.”

The start

For the sake of precision agriculture advancement, it was fortuitous that Harvey Songer's daughter, Jennifer, ended up Bill Baker's graduate student. Baker, a professor at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Ark., has worked for years in precision agriculture research and remains genuinely excited by his work.

Last fall, Jennifer began telling Harvey, who owns and operates Kin-Co, about the benefits variable-rate would bring to the flying service and farmers.

“I don't think she thought it was doing much good,” recalled Baker. “But Harvey started asking me questions. It became obvious I should be very careful with my answers because he was serious. Last December, the questions were coming quickly. By January, he'd bought equipment for two planes.”

Baker's interest in Songer's purchases stems from several university research grants involving variable-rate applications on rice. Songer's decision to install the equipment “lined up with where our research needed to be. A plane is what we've needed. We've been doing imagery and scouting on the ground, looking at yield monitors and that type of thing. But we've never been able to write prescriptions because we had no aircraft to work with. Now, we've got two!

“Harvey decided variable-rate fertilizer application was where his business needed to be and dove right in.”

Something new

While not quite “old hat,” Harvey Songer — who, Baker dryly observes, “carries the note” at Kin-Co — claims variable-rate applications of liquids is common. “We're working with liquid, as others are, but putting out fertilizer is a new deal. The computer, or controller, we're using is a Del Norte. Auto Cal is what we use to make gate adjustments on-the-go in the aircraft.”

The Auto Cal, normally installed to keep spray rates constant, raised additional, intriguing possibilities among Kin-Co employees. “Someone asked, ‘The system is already computing and changing things to keep rates constant — why can't we get it to do variable rates?’”

The answer, in large measure, came from getting the Auto Cal and Del Norte to work together. The idea was to make the Auto Cal control the dry gate while linked with the Del Norte, normally tasked with liquid flow control. When contacted by Kin-Co, the two companies realized a joint venture was a good idea.

“The Auto Cal tells the Del Norte controller how many pounds per acre, per grid, is going out the gate as it changes during a prescription,” said Songer. “The Del Norte computes pounds applied and subtracted from the hopper load. Each load is weighed and entered into Del Norte for the total pounds in the hopper.”

“The companies — along with In-Time, who we use for prescriptions — have worked together for about three months to get their software to interact,” said Couch. “They did this specifically for us, when we told them what we were doing. I'm sure what we find out will be sold later, but that's fine. We're the guinea pigs. The folks at In-Time were a big help in getting the prescriptions done.”

Being pioneers means “discovering as we go along,” said Joey Massey, who works closely with Couch. “If we have problems, we call the two companies. They fix the problem and send us the solution. We just keep pushing.”

Prescriptions

On a May 5 test run, “the system finally clicked,” said Howard Gipson, a Kin-Co pilot. “I think everyone was excited about it. Now, it's just a matter of slight calibrations. Most of the heavy lifting has been done.”

Equipment tweaking aside, tests show the hardware works. Questions remain on prescriptions, though, particularly in northeast Arkansas rice country.

“We wanted to know if we could write prescriptions not based on imagery,” said Couch, who, along with Massey, is a former student of Baker. “Imagery is a good thing, but how about the other tools that were being ignored. We want to be able to do work off any document the farmer brings in, whether satellite imagery, a cut-sheet, a scout map or grid samples. From those, we'll write scrips based on a customer's instructions. All we need to know is where the variance needs to be and how much.”

First issue to address: without solid instruction, even equipment capable of variable-rate fertilizing sits idle.

“We can vary the rate of nitrogen, but it has to be based on something,” said Couch. “That's where we are now, building a base of data.”

The duo, utilizing In-Time prescription software, is paying close attention to cut-and-fill portions of fields, where most disease problems are. “Disease is more frequent there because rates are different,” said Massey. “The larger field needs a different rate of product than a cut. We need to be able to do that.”

About the project's focus on rice, Baker said while precision agriculture has become routine in cotton, rice is “another animal — flooding and land-leveling throw all kinds of kinks into the equation. Rice isn't as easy to work with as cotton. For the next year, we'll be learning how to approach rice as a variable-rate crop. We have to come up with a new bag of tricks.”

Odds and ends

To make things work, Kin-Co also had to modify spreaders. “We wanted to find a medium swath width for a rate change from 75 pounds to 135 pounds,” said Couch. “We can do any range within that scale.”

Songer hopes the new capabilities point to a series of precision agriculture advances. “The technology has reached this point at exactly the moment when Asian soybean rust arrived. It just makes sense that, since it's available, we use the technology to better protect our customers from rust. This could play into the rust situation in a big way. Big money could be spent for rust and sheath blight in rice this year.”

With fungicides, said Massey, producers typically spray at an affordable, medium rate. By using variable-rate technology, “you can cut rates where they aren't needed and raise them in the worst-affected areas. That optimizes every penny spent.”

Savings to farmers will depend on the application but are inevitable, said Massey. “In cotton, they say $2 to $3 per acre is saved on a typical $10 to $12 variable-rate application. That's enough to pay for the plane. Harvey and I wrote a fungicide prescription the other day based on biomass in a field. In many places, it cost between $20 and $26 — it cut the amount of fungicide needed by half.”

Claiming amazement at how fast the project progressed, Baker said he's “proud of everyone involved. This is a big deal and it's happening at a special place.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com