Flight of Fertilizer

Using drones for precision application of fertilizer and cover crops

The Western Lake Erie Basin, the Saginaw Bay, and other watersheds of Michigan are areas of concern due to effects of high levels of dissolved nutrients and pesticides in water. Agriculture’s part in this concern is leading to innovation across the industry.     

When farmers and consultants are looking for ways to make practices more sustainable, precision agriculture has become a new path forward.  By applying the right amount of the appropriate chemical where it is needed most, rather than across the entire field, precision agriculture can lead to improvements not only in environmental impacts, but also the bottom line.  

A new way of applying precision agriculture to fields is with drones.  A drone can not only to collect data, but also to apply pesticides, fertilizers, beneficial insects, and cover crops. It can also increase safety for farm workers by reducing chemical exposure in the field. Another advantage is that it allows better access to the field at various times during the growing season.

I recently caught-up with Jay Williams, a farmer in Hillsdale County, to talk about how he is exploring the use of drones for not only trouble shooting, but routine filed work. Jay is licensed to use his drone for cover crop application. It allows him to get cover crops established in his fields before harvest of the crop. By planting before cool weather sets-in the cover crops can become established and prevent loss of nutrients through the winter months. Jay is also using the drone to save money on pesticide application by spot spraying trouble areas. This allows for minimal use of pesticides and more safety for his farm workers and family.

Another clear advantage of working with drones is the reduced traffic on fields.  When field conditions are wet, traffic can lead to compaction of soils. Years of damage control would be needed to re-condition the fields. Drones could be a wonderful solution to get what the crop needs on the field when it needs it without incurring this damage. All of this over and above fuel cost savings.

If you would like to hear more from Jay about drones, conservation, and water quality, listen to “Flight of Fertilizer” on the podcast links below.

Listen to the Michigan Field Crops podcast channel for “In the Weeds”. You will hear from farmers, agribusiness and Michigan State University Extension educators. The podcast is available on SpotifyiTunes and embedded on the Field Crops Team website. New podcasts will be posted every week for this series. To receive notification on podcast posts, please subscribe to our channel: Michigan Field Crops.

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