WITH DIESEL at its highest rate and fertilizer costs at $400-plus per ton, growers are looking for any way to cut back on inputs. A new “InTime” aerial imagery service is here with help, providing corn and soybean producers with prescriptions for sophisticated, site-specific variable-rate applications.

InTime Inc. has proven its usefulness to cotton producers and other growers in the South and Southwest. Now corn and soybean growers in parts of the Corn Belt are seeing the advantages of knowing exactly how much fertilizer or other chemicals are needed in all or parts of their fields.

Kenneth Hood, a Northern Delta soybean and cotton producer, formed InTime, headquartered in Cleveland, MS. He saw the potential for using data derived from NASA and research at Mississippi State University to enhance crop production. Now in its fourth year of operation, InTime uses high-resolution aerial photography to manage crop inputs to reduce chemical use and overall costs.

The recently patented program uses data collected from individual fields to provide its clients with prescription maps that enable them to ultimately make variable application of agricultural chemicals to their fields. Corn and soybean growers in parts of Missouri are seeing the same results that southern and western producers have enjoyed. “We are seeing some real advantages of using this service in southern Missouri,” says Derek Emerine, Benton, MO, an InTime consultant who works with growers and crop consultants in the region.

“There are about 5,000 acres of corn in the program, along with some soybean acres,” he says. “Growers are able to improve their fertilizer usage, increase overall data on their fields and have additional information to determine the nutritional needs of the following year's crop.”

Zone maps

In the InTime program, a grower contracts with the company to take aerial images of his fields and, ultimately, develop a prescription for chemical application. “Aerial images are taken from our [contracted] planes at about 12,000 ft.,” says Jake Easley, a marketing spokesperson for the company in Cleveland. “Once the pilot gets the digital pictures, they are returned to our lab for processing.”

Once processed, the images are used to produce crop biomass intensity maps that are then classified by the vigor of the crop. These images are color coded to represent up to 10 different classes of plant vigor and are output as digital “scout maps.”

Within 12 to 24 hours, the images are posted on the InTime Web site www.gointime.com where the grower or his consultant can access them via a user name and password. Images range from brown to dark green in color. These are called “zones.” “The greener it is, the healthier the field,” Emerine explains.

Zone 1 would be the most brown portions of a field or areas that could be stressed due to pressure from weeds, insects or poor soil fertility. Once a grower or his consultant has a zone map of a field, he can use handheld computers to determine which areas require treatment and the rate of the treatment.

When the rate is assigned, InTime employees go back to the Web site and create a prescription map for a particular field. They enter the input via a site drop-down menu, then download the information onto a prescription card for use inside a sprayer cab.

Emerine says the ability to reduce fertilizer inputs, and thus costs, is the popular feature of InTime among corn producers in parts of Missouri. “Typically, growers put out their preseason nitrogen, then more N is side-dressed on, before additional N is flown on a week or two before the tassel stage,” he says. “With the InTime program, growers are looking to cut the N rate back by about 40 lbs.”

In this process, aerial images are taken of fields two to three weeks before tassel to determine if certain areas require additional nitrogen. The grower examines the zone level. If there is an nitrogen deficiency present, more urea may be aerial applied on those specific areas.

Other applications

In a typical corn and soybean rotation, aerial imagery could be used to determine the needs of nitrogen on corn following soybeans. Emerine says in one situation, a grower found that there was variation in the amount of nitrogen fixed by a previous year's soybean crop. “Obtaining an image of the soybean crop could delineate soybean growth patterns and be used to use directed soil sampling to determine soil nitrogen levels present for the following corn crop,” he says. “The resulting information could be used to save money on nitrogen costs. That program could be very readily adopted in the upper Corn Belt.”

Aerial imagery will also identify herbicide drift, particularly from Roundup Ready soybeans or other crops onto conventional crops. “If the drift was severe, you could identify the exact acreage involved,” Emerine says.

Easley says the imagery also could be used to determine variable-rate preharvest herbicide treatments for soybeans. Bare soil images can also be used in zone soil sampling to help growers identify differences in soil textures, such as clay or sand content.

Price

Cost will vary, depending on the degree of usage. In normal cases, there is a 500-acre minimum, with a $1.50/acre charge on three separate image sessions. That is about $4.50/acre total. A one-image run can be purchased for $2.00/acre.

“Growers are finding that it is easily worth the cost,” Emerine says. “In the case of the savings of that extra 40 units of nitrogen, the $1.50 charge is easily covered.” In the case of bare soil imagery, the $1.50/acre charge compares to $4.00 to $5.00/acre for other bare soil sampling, he says.

For more information about InTime, send an e-mail to info@gointime.com or visit www.gointime