FARMERS INTERESTED in applying variable rates of crop inputs based on current crop conditions have another service option in 2006, courtesy of John Deere Agri Services' new OptiGro Imaging System.

The OptiGro system, which was test-marketed in 2005, features a proprietary combination of high-tech automated cameras, custom software and the World Wide Web to deliver digital color and near-infrared images. Images are shot from a small airplane; the pilot focuses on flying, since the cameras are automated. The on-board computer helps direct the pilot's flight path and captures differential GPS data, which is imbedded in the images. This allows the imagery to be used as the basis of a variable-rate application map. Using airplanes instead of satellites provides more flexibility to capture images when conditions are right and allows various image resolutions, depending on customer needs.

Quick Turnaround

Growers work with participating local service providers, such as agricultural retailers and crop consultants, who in turn work with John Deere Agri Services, to have the aerial images shot. The goal is to provide both high-quality imagery and the expertise necessary to make good use of the information — in the shortest possible time.

Quick turnaround is an important aspect of the system, notes Terry Brown of John Deere Agri Services, which was formed by John Deere in 2005 to provide knowledge- and technology-based services to the agricultural industry. “Once the plane lands, the aerial images are typically available within 48 hours for use by the retailer or consultant in making recommendations,” he says.

After the consultant or retailer receives the geo-referenced images via the system's Web site, he or she can download them to a GPS-enabled PDA. This simplifies the job of comparing the images with measurements taken in the field. Then it's back to the office, where the consultant or retailer uses the system's Web-based tools to identify management zones to drive a variable-rate application of fertilizer, an insecticide, irrigation water or other crop input, Brown says.

Integrated technology

The OptiGro system is based on technology from GeoVantage, an aerial imagery company recently acquired by John Deere Agri Services. GeoVantage developed the sophisticated four-camera system that simultaneously shoots red, blue, green and near-infrared images, as well as software to analyze imagery and correct for imperfections.

“The OptiGro Imaging System is among the first to integrate the new technologies of digital imaging, computer analysis, GPS, variable-rate systems and the Internet,” Brown says. “Growers will appreciate the ability this innovation offers to reduce plant variability and optimize crop development.”

A set of images using the OptiGro Imaging System is expected to cost about $2.50 to $4.00/acre, depending on service options. For information on the availability of the OptiGro Imaging System in your area, contact John Deere Agri Services at 847/645-8927 or visit www.JohnDeereAgriServices.com.