CLEVELAND, Miss. - All systems are go at In-Time, Inc. - fields are being flown for aerial imagery, computers are lined up and ready and phone lines are plugged into the Internet.

According to Kelly Dupont, In Time’s sales and marketing manager, the new, Internet-based, precision agriculture company is set to expand its variable-rate technology service to around 150 cotton producers and 200,000 acres across the Cotton Belt this coming season, compared to 60,000 acres and 63 farmers in 2003.

The Cleveland-based company will fly fields every seven to 10 days this year to map areas of crop variability within fields. These maps are converted to a variable rate prescription that can be applied by any chemical applicator.

Growers can sign up for up to seven images per year, according to Dupont. Most growers enrolled in the program are going with all seven, meaning the company will have generated close to 1.4 million acres of imagery by season’s end.

Dupont said that growers enrolled in the program could use precision agriculture on most farm inputs or just a few. “Some farmers are looking at variably applying Pix, insecticides and defoliation. Others are looking at it for nitrogen, nematodes, even spreading variable-rate chicken litter.”

To generate a prescription for crop application, the farmer accesses an Internet website 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 charges $7 an acre for its service which is for seven images shot during the season. The farmer owns all the data associated with his farm and has 24-hour access to it.

A farmer can set his sprayer up with VRT for less than $6,000, according to Perthshire, Miss., cotton producer Kenneth Hood, In Time’s founder. That investment could be made back quickly, according to research conducted on Hood’s farm.

“Last year, it cost me $452.95 per acre to raise cotton,” Hood said. “At least 57 percent of that cost is not affected by VRT, such as boll weevil eradication fees, management, etc. VRT saved 33 percent of the costs on the remaining 43 percent, $194.76, which put the value of VRT on my farm at $68.17 per acre.”

VRT applications can be made with just about any input, according to Hood. For example the producer used the technology to vary his planting rate from three seeds to five seeds per foot.

“A planting rate of three seeds per foot of row, or 39,000 plants per acre, produced between 2 and 10 percent more cotton yield and saved between 31 percent to 66 percent in seeding costs, when compared to seeding rates of four and five seeds per foot,” Hood said. “I increased my profit margins by 7 to 13 percent using the three seeds per foot seeding rate rather than four.”

Factors used to vary seeding rate include the moisture-holding capacity of the soil and the tendency of the soil to crust under certain conditions.

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.

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,” hesaid. “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 go looking 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.”

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.”

“Our first priority is to develop the technology in the United States,” Hood said. “In three years, we’re aiming for 10-15 percent of the total U.S. acreage. We’re ramping up for over a million acres in a very short period of time.”

For more information on In-Time, call Kelly Dupont, toll free at 866-843-0235.

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com