Peanut farmers can improve production efficiency with judicious use of precision ag technology, which can give them the ability to manage at a smaller scale without sacrificing the capacity of large equipment.

“It’s not much different for peanuts than for other crops,” says Oklahoma State University agricultural engineer Randy Taylor, who works from the Stillwater campus. “During the last century, farmers replaced labor with equipment — now, with technology, we can manage large equipment on a smaller scale.”

Most of Taylor’s work has been with cotton, but he says the same philosophy that works in cotton will be useful in peanut production. Precision technology for peanuts includes zone management, remote sensing, and yield mapping.

“Zone management breaks fields into smaller units,” he says. “Growers manage those zones independently.”

He recommends that growers do a little homework on peanut fields where they intend to incorporate precision. He suggests looking at field history, electroconductivity (EC) rates, landscape positioning and remote imagery data to learn more about the field.

“Most farmers know where their worst and best spots in a field are — they shouldn’t manage those areas the same way.”

Precision ag technology allows them to use a more prescription-based management program to provide proper fertility, water and other resources to specific areas of the field.

“Look for areas that are the same and for areas that are different,” Taylor recommends. Minimize variability within the zones and maximize differences between the zones.”

Oklahoma State Extension Agronomist Chad Godsey and Weed Specialist Joe Armstrong agree that precision ag technology will play an increasingly important role in peanut management decisions.

“I think there is a lot of potential for precision ag technologies in peanuts because of the input costs associated with production,” Godsey says. “As far as management goes, I see a few areas I think may have potential, but precision ag research with peanuts is relatively new compared to other crops.”

He says variable rate application of fungicide to control sclerotinia may be a good option for precision ag.

“This is a project Randy, John, and I started last year and I think it shows promise. Yield maps, aerial photographs from previous seasons, and producer experience could help identify high disease areas and target applications. In-season remote sensing will be tough because you want to be proactive instead of reactive to disease infestation.

“I see potential for variable rate leaf spot control late in the season with an active sensor. A producer could see no leaf spot present in a particular area and forgo the last leaf spot fungicide application as long as it is close to harvest.”

He says yield mapping will be important for planning. “Building a yield history is a powerful management tool to use to base future management decisions. A small investment in yield monitoring equipment may pay big dividends later.” He says variable rate seeding and fertilizer application are also possibilities.

Armstrong says precision ag technology has applications for weed control as well.

“Precision management is relatively new to peanuts, as compared to corn, soybeans, wheat, or other high value crops (for example, potatoes),” he says.

“But one possible application for precision management in peanuts would be to use a sensor or high-resolution aerial images to make weed maps. This information could be used when spraying to apply material only to areas that have weeds present. In previous research, this technology has been shown to reduce overall herbicide use; but in practice, most producers are risk-averse and would rather treat the entire field to be sure they control all weeds, instead of saving money on herbicides and leaving a few escapes in the field, especially with concern for herbicide-resistant weeds.”

Armstrong says producers may ramp up the technology to use variable rates and multiple herbicides at different rates.

“If the sensor or images are able to identify weed density or even species accurately, the sprayer could kick up the rates or begin applying an additional herbicide to account for the higher population or different weed species. As Chad mentioned in regard to disease management, this is a reactive approach to weed management and may not be the most effective.”

He says weed maps may provide useful planning information.

“If a producer mapped weed populations in his fields, through ground-based sensors, aerial imagery, or simple scouting and observation, he could design application maps and herbicide programs to target those areas in subsequent years with specific herbicide treatments. Often, the best way to manage a weed problem in one crop is to tackle it in another.

“Combining information is also going to be important. If a producer can collect weed, disease, and plant health information with the same tool all at once, the value of precision management will be much greater than collecting and implementing each piece of information alone.”

Taylor says producers can collect a lot of information from sensors. A normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI), for instance, shows high yield potential areas. “NDVI predicts biomass and biomass predicts yield. NDVI is equivalent to a plant physical examination,” he says, and correlates with plant biomass, crop yield, plant nitrogen, plant chlorophyll, water stress, plant diseases, and insect damage.”

Widespread sensor use is still a ways off, however. “Several years ago folks thought remote sensing would be the savior of precision ag technology,” he says. “There have been some niche applications, but widespread adoption has not occurred.”

He believes remote sensing has a lot of promise, but producers need to be patient with the process. “Often, by the time we get information on a crop it’s too late to change (in-season), but we can change management practices for the next crop.”

He says sensors offer numerous advantages but believes they could be better. “Industry alliances should improve these systems. Currently, options are limited and similar.”

He hopes research will provide more options. Researchers are studying peanut yield monitors, including a PYMS system based on a weighing basket. Taylor says the unit is highly accurate. “Several are in use.”

Other options include a load cell based yield monitor and an optical peanut yield monitor.

Yield monitors, he says, give growers an “opportunity to learn what they already know,” and allows them to diagnose field problems, such as water issues. “Yield maps are something like an autopsy report,” Taylor says. “But multi-year histories allow producers to identify spots that yield consistently low or consistently high.”

He says on-farm research with yield monitors and other sensing devices permits farmers to expand knowledge about individual farms by comparing varieties, tillage practices, fertility rates, etc.

“It’s not as easy as it may seem, but it’s not that difficult if the commitment exists. Just consider: What do you want to know? Why do you want to know it? How important is it to you?

“Precision agriculture has “a bright future,” Taylor says. “Incorporation of electronics and control systems will be one of the next major achievements in agricultural equipment.”

e-mail: rsmith@farmpress.com