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Aerial application melding with precision agriculture

Aerial applications are showing signs of melding with variable rate application technology.  According to this story from the US, newer precision systems are leading the trend in a growing reliance on aerial applications.  

August 5, 2008  By Delta Farm Press

July 29, 2008

Mark Kimmel is convinced a new era in aerial application is set to dramatically reduce costs for American farmers. His zeal is infectious, and his declarations are bold. However, Kimmel is no passing preacher of change —he is well-positioned to make pronouncements about what lies on ag’s horizon.

Specifically, Kimmel’s excitement is directed toward technology that allows for either liquid or dry aerial application at a variable rate, is distinctly cost-effective, and has demonstrated success in the field.


As co-owner of Itta Bena Plantation, Itta Bena, Miss., and owner of Dixie Dusters, Inc., an aerial applicator outfit in Itta Bena, Kimmel maintains a close vigil on the crests and hollows of precision ag. Quite simply, Kimmel has latched on to an innovation he believes works — and he wants farmers to hear the story.

Kimmel, along with Pete Jones, owner of Air Repair, Inc., Cleveland, Miss., is drawing particular attention to precision rate aerial dry fertilizer applications. According to Kimmel, the delivery system (designed by Jones) has already shown itself capable of producing tremendous savings for growers.

"We invested in it, and Pete put it on my plane. We used it one complete season, a fall and a spring, putting out phosphate and potash — dry fertilizers. It has just taken off. With the price of fertilizer so high now — it’s probably at least four times what it was … it’s just astronomical.

"The dry applications have shown the savings, and I’m doing it for a lot of farmers. It works — this thing works. Not only does it work mechanically, but it saves the grower money.

"Just this year on what I did with phosphate and potash — right at 1,400 acres — the savings in material was $14,573."

Kimmel has the numbers and data to bolster his findings, noting his fertilizer savings to the cent. Even more telling, his confidence in precision rate dry aerial application has spurred him to shift the rest of his farm toward the same treatment, and maximize his savings potential.

"Next year I will have two-thirds of my place ready for variable rate. This is only on a third of my farm, and I saved almost $15,000. That’s where the farmers raise their ears. It’s not that it works sometimes, or halfway works — it works every time."

Jones believes the breakthrough system he engineered, called Accu-Rate, is the front-runner of a "new era of precision application." Technically, Accu-Rate is a precision hydraulic dispersal control system, capable of liquid or dry application.

Jones and Air Repair have been in the GPS business since the introduction of GPS technology to aerial application; Accu-Rate is an outgrowth of that initial association. For years, Jones heard aerial applicators and producers asking,

"If only you had something to do the dry fertilizer application with." Jones began working on dry application, and the process entailed a massive effort from a variety of sources.

When the working model was finished, Jones sought out key operators to perform the field testing. Emerging from those initial tests was a cooperative relationship between Jones, Kimmel, and Matt Peterson, director of operations, InTime, Inc., Cleveland, Miss.

Filip To, ag engineer, Mississippi State University, became the "final piece of the puzzle," working on technical aspects of the physical components — particularly measuring the flow of dry material through the release gate and interfacing that information with the GPS system.

Jones shares Kimmel’s confidence regarding Accu-Rate. "A number of years ago, ground machines were the only means to do any kind of precision ag application based on grid sampling and such — now the airplane can do it, wet or dry. We’ve filled that gap as far as aerial application equipment goes. What we are trying to do is let the applicator and the grower know what is available.

"Early on, the term ‘variable rate’ got a lot of attention. Over the last year, I’ve been more cautious about using ‘variable rate.’ We like ‘precision application’ now because that’s what it really is."

According to Jones, it doesn’t matter if a grower uses a prescription approach or not, the minimum he should expect from his aerial applicator is a true constant rate, "the same rate upwind, downwind, loaded, unloaded, whatever the flight condition, whatever the aircraft speed there should be an even application. That’s the current state-of-the-art, and if you can do wet or dry constant rate, you just put in a prescription card and you can accommodate your variable rate customers."

Peterson, specializing in aerial imagery with InTime, says the adoption rate of precision ag technologies has often been slow — mainly because of difficulties in practical application for farmers.

"This year we had a wet spring. The ground trucks couldn’t get in and apply. Mid-season you have a lot of people watering their fields; they flood them and you can’t get ground rigs in. So the need for aerial application has always been there, and what this system allows us to do is to offer the farmer, no matter what his current situation is — to go out and apply, using precision ag technologies."

It’s the whole package. The grower has to be able to utilize the technology no matter what his situation in the field is."

Kimmel believes Accu-Rate is a lock to conserve fertilizer expenses for farmers. He has used phosphate and potash on his farm for 25 years — maintaining high levels of both. For Kimmel, aerial application makes much better agricultural sense, with no ground rig damage to crops — and no price increase to farmers.

He emphasizes that Dixie Dusters is on the same price level as ground rig services, thereby benefiting both farmers and aerial applicators. "I have checked what others are charging just for ground rigs to put out variable rate — and I’ve been charging the exact same price as the trucks.

"The farmer is getting a better application — for the same money. It’s a win-win situation."

Four years ago, while Accu-Rate was still in the formative process, Kimmel’s intuition kept his focus on the potential of dry application. For three consecutive years, he called his growers to gauge their attitude toward dry capability and the possibility of using Accu-Rate at Dixie Dusters.

With his growers on the fence, Kimmel’s confidence in dry application remained his trump card. Despite his growers’ hesitation, he believed the savings on fertilizer would pay for the system — based solely on application at his farm, Itta Bena Plantation.

"I knew from the dry capability; I knew from the farming aspect on my part, that I could pay for it with just me using it." Kimmel says his expectations on savings were correct — and his list of participating growers is steadily increasing.

Jones maintains that Accu-Rate is a tremendous step forward in aerial application. He estimates that approximately 60 percent of aerial applicators have liquid flow control — and only 1 percent has any sort of dry flow control.

"First everybody had GPS; then as a natural outgrowth of GPS, spray flow control. And now there is a way to control dry application. So that’s where we’re headed with this thing."

Peterson echoes those same sentiments regarding the level of control and precision now available. "The equipment for the aerial side is out there. The growers really need to demand the same out of their aerial applications as they do from their own ground applications."

Precision ag technology has overtaken the aerial application business, and its progression allows growers to utilize capabilities such as variable rate dry application — if their applicators have the equipment.

Peterson says Accu-Rate does have a learning curve, but conversely, the technology reduces a pilot’s workload.

"Once they get used to it they can just focus on flying the field. They don’t have to worry about moving spray handles, turning sprays on or off, and things of that nature. They just have to fly the field. If he has the flow control, be it liquid or dry, he can go out with a card containing all the soil information, and he just flies — the equipment does the adjusting for him."

Precision ag has made a relic of the old stereotypical crop duster. Jones wants airplanes to remain viable and effective, and notes that pilots will have to evolve along with precision ag. "This is a precision application business now. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you’re going to spend anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million on an airplane, you are not just going to go out there and do a ‘cowboy’ application. You are going to have to do it right. The faster the airplanes, the more they demand precision ag."

What expenses are involved with Accu-Rate?

The system, according to Jones, is perfected and bolstered by a four-year period of in-the-field success. Parts and kits are in stock and available through Air Repair, and Accu-Rate is fully FAA/PMA-approved.

"Cost depends on where you stand in the progression of your equipment. If you started with nothing and you had to have GPS, liquid flow control, a hydraulic system, and spray nozzles — you’d probably spend $60,000."

But our system is developed as a layered-on approach. You get the GPS in the airplane and learn how to use that. You get the liquid flow control and learn it. Then add the spray feature or dry feature with the hydraulic system."

For Kimmel, Jones, and Peterson — the future of aerial dry application is now. Kimmel remains adamant that dry aerial application, directed through precision ag, is set to keep money in the pockets of growers.

"Let’s say we’re going to spray 500 acres of cotton at a cost of $5 per acre. That’s $2,500 the farmer will spend. So they should expect perfection. If you’re going to spend $2,500 in two hours, and tell somebody to go spray your crop — then you want it done right. And that’s just the application; that’s not the chemicals."

This is big bucks and we spend millions raising a crop. It’s important — very important. This story needs to be told to farmers. It’s here now and available."


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