Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Corrections & clarifications for the recent article "FAA-Approved Ag Drones Will Soon Hover Over Upstate New York Farms"

Mr. Holt,

I recently read your article posted on October 10th, 2014 on and I see that you referenced an article that appeared in the Figure Lakes Times for which I spoke with the author prior to its publication. I am more than willing to discuss our current and planned UAS work so that all members of the media can tell a story that is well-grounded in fact.

While many parts of your story are true to the reality of the situation, your article unfortunately contains a number of misleading/false statements so I wanted to call them to your attention. I request that you make the necessary corrections to your article.
1)      The term UAS is never used is this article.
While most people know (or think they know) what a “drone” is, that is not the proper term to describe unmanned aerial systems (UAS). UAS are not just platforms as the term “drone” implies. Rather they are platforms, sensors, ground control stations, pilots & observers, and many other components. My standard procedure is to mention the term “drone” once and then use UAS to more accurately describe these tools when writing for the general public. UAS is the term used by the FAA.
2)      Is the future of farming a quadcopter?
We are not using a quadcopter. We are using a fixed wing UAS from Precision Hawk the closely resembles a radio controlled aircraft. Quadcopters have a very short battery life which doesn’t allow them to cover very many acres per flight. In the long-term they will likely not be the most common agricultural UAS even though there are currently many people trying to use them for farming purposes.
3)      A farmer needs to check on her crops—making sure they’re coming up free of pests and weeds and ensuring the health of the soil. Instead of grabbing a pair boots to venture into the fields on foot, the farmer grabs a joystick and kicks back on the couch. The low hum of an unmanned aerial vehicle—a drone—flying over the farm replaces the crunch of soil beneath the farmer’s feet. As the farmer navigates the drone, visual, thermal, and multispectral cameras send vital information about the crops back to a nearby computer. More pesticide here, less irrigation there; the harvest will start in this block and wrap up in that one. All that information and more is gathered by drone, without the farmer needing to step outside.
This is not a realistic expectation. We (a pilot and a visual observer) are required by the FAA to be within line of site during all UAS operations in order to monitor the safety of our UAS flights and be in direct contact with air traffic control in case of an emergency. Also ‘boots on the ground’ (either the farmer’s or a crop consulting company’s) will always be needed on some level to ground-truth the UAS imagery. Furthermore the complexity of processing the images to a usable form, figuring out what management decisions can or should be made (if any), and those decisions actually being put into use by farmers are still in the very early research stages. Any “farmer” who thinks they can or will be able to sit on the couch and farm by remote control won’t be farming long. I realize you are trying to put an impactful image into people’s minds to catch and keep their interest, but this is nowhere near the reality representing UAS current or future use. Like most tasks in farming it’s going to take a lot of work and attention to detail to do it safely and effectively.
4)      The two Cornell Cooperative Extension field-crops specialists, Bill Verbeten and Mike Stanyard, will begin flying their Precision Hawk UAV over fields in Genesee County, and they hope to gain clearance to use it across 10 counties next year.

We have authorization for a small set of farm fields at a single location in Genesee County, not the entire county. All of our applications are for very specific locations and we are working very closely with those farms. This issue comes up again later in the article.

5)      “At the end of the day, we hope to learn if we can replace some of our tasks that take a lot of time on the ground,” said Verbeten, who works with both the Niagara County CCE and the Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops Team. 

Mike and I work with the Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops Team and our offices are in Wayne County and Niagara County respectively. These counties, and the other eight we officially work in, pay to receive the services of our regional Extension team (and in many cases other regional teams) instead of only having local staff which used to be commonplace. We are employees of Cornell University, not the local counties.
6)      The duo is clearly enthused about drones’ potential to cut man-hours spent inspecting fields while producing highly scientific crop analysis, but not everyone shares their excitement. Elizabeth Henderson, who for 30 years has farmed organic vegetables in Wayne County, N.Y.—one of the counties where the Cornell team hopes to fly drones next year—doesn’t plan on allowing them to fly over her fields. She says a farmer with less than 20 acres doesn’t need a drone, because that farmer “knows the land by being on it and seeing it foot by foot regularly, even daily.” Drones, she believes, will primarily benefit large-scale, industrial agriculture.
We will not be flying Ms. Henderson’s or any other farmers field without their permission in writing. We have and continue to receive widespread support for this work from most of the farming community and we are doing it abiding by every rule and protocol that we can. Again we only have authorization for very defined areas on hand-picked farms that go through a very thorough approval process. A farmer with less than 20 acres will be able to benefit from UAS work once the commercial rules are in place and best management recommendations are established. Provided they meet the criteria the FAA puts in place for commercial UAS rules, small farms will be able to use UAS for many task including:
·         Taking promotional videos/photos to interact with customs online.
·         Potentially detecting diseases, insect, & weed pressure along with crop nutrient status in high value crops grown on small acreage such as hops, grapes, & fruit trees (in addition to vegetable & traditional field crops).
·         Monitoring livestock health and behavior.
There is value to walking the land (and there will continue to be for larger farms as well), but the human eye can’t see thermal images, NDVI (from a multispectral scanner), or even the resolution of a visual scan, much less analyze the data. The technological innovations that led to small UAS creation in the first place actually levels the playing field across farms of all sizes.
7)      “Use of drones will help consolidate control of farming inputs in the hands of the largest corporations and complete the total information in the hands of the government about what we farmers are doing on our land,” says Henderson, who has been on the board of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York since 1989. “The footstep of the farmer is the best fertilizer.”
We are not (nor are others in agriculture) giving information obtained by UAS scans from farmer fields away to the government. We will be working with many parties within Cornell University to evaluate their data and the potential to use it to improve farming practices. We fully respect the farmer’s privacy and this is a conspiracy theory without ground to stand on.
 Farmer scouting and monitoring of fields is not fertility management. Those processes are governed by chemistry, biology, and physics on all farms (regardless of philosophical differences) and the statement is blatantly misleading and false. Plants can only use what is available to them and unless a farmer applies fertilizer in some form (including manures, composts, commercial fertilizers, etc.) or a given essential plant nutrient happens to already be in the soil it doesn’t matter how often a farmer looks at/walks a field.
8)      Drones, she says, will consolidate control among large-scale agriculture by calibrating more precisely the amount of fertilizer or herbicides needed—a problem she and her fellow small-scale, organic farmers don’t have.
Again this statement is untrue on a number of levels. Many market forces are part of the consolidation phenomenon that occurs in all industries over time, it’s simply part of the natural cycle of markets. UAS imagery has a long way to go before being able to be consistently useful at the farm level and will almost certainly not be a factor that trumps current market forces in agriculture leading to consolidation of farms.
We work with a number of organic farms that are very interested in calibrating their fertilizer levels and have a strong interest in evaluating/eventually using UAS to better manage their crops. Even at a small scale, organic farms will have many reasons to operate UAS use as described above under item 5. Also these statements (5,6,& 7) falsely give the impression that we are not working with organic farms—nothing could be further from the truth. We are trying to evaluate UAS across many farm types throughout our region in order to effectively serve our diverse farming community.

If you require further clarification or have additional questions do not hesitate to contact me on this topic.

Have a great day.

Regional Extension Agronomist
NWNY Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Team
Cornell Cooperative Extension
(585)313-4457 cell
Twitter: Bill Verbeten @BillVerbeten

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Online Radio Interview Tonight Discussing Using Drones to Scout Crops

For those you with an interest in agriculture or drones or both be sure to tune in tonight from 7 PM-9 PM Eastern Time on I'm being interviewed on our current work using drones for crop scouting after 8 PM and there are some other folks on air during the earlier part of the show discussing the process more generally for integrating unmanned aerial systems into US airspace.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Evaluating Unmanned Aerial Systems (Drones) for Scouting Field Crops

The FAA recently announced of their approval for the first on-farm evaluations of an unmanned aerial system (UAS), commonly known as a drone, in western NY by Cornell Cooperative Extension. The announcement from the FAA is available here. The announcement from the NUAIR testing site is available here. A short project description is available here on NWNY Dairy, Livestock, and Field Crops Team's website. I hope to begin flying in the coming weeks and to continue our evaluations during the 2015 and 2016 seasons throughout western NY. We are using the Lancaster UAS platform (Figure 1) from Precision Hawk.

Figure 1: UAS Platform Evaluating Field Crops

Source:  Precision Hawk.

This project has received a lot of media attention given that it was the first approved UAS operation for the the New York-Massachusetts testing site. Some of the recent articles are listed below with links if you would like more information on this project. I am still in the early stages of this project and will update this blog post and as appropriate.

Washington Post, authored by the Associated Press, 8-8-14
Farm Progress 8-13-14
Democrat & Chronicle  Rochester, NY, 8-12-14
The Daily News Batavia, NY, 8-12-14
Observer-Dispatch Utica, NY, 8-7-14 
WKTV Rome, NY, 8-7-14
Genesee Sun Livingston & Monroe Counties, 8-7-14
Precision Hawk, 7-17-14 Syracuse, NY, 6-13-14
Livingston County News  Livingston County, 8-14-14
Lancaster Farming, Northeastern US, 9-13-14
New Scientist, United Kingdom, 9-17-14
WKBW Channel 7 ABC News Buffalo, 10-1-14

Friday, March 28, 2014

Crop Alert 3-26-2014

This article was originally written for and distributed to farmers and other members of the agricultural industry in western New York.

A PDF file of this article is available here.

Bill Verbeten and Mike Stanyard, Regional Agronomists Cornell Cooperative Extension

Reducing Small Grain Nitrogen Losses
Snow continues to fall across northwestern NY, but spring may finally decide to show up in the next couple of weeks. With daytime highs predicted to be between 40-50 °F and nighttime lows in the 20-30 °F range the next couple of weeks many farmers will be starting their first nitrogen applications on small grain fields. However remember that the risk of losing nitrogen is higher with these early applications under saturated and frozen field conditions. Farmers in Kentucky have already had high nitrogen losses this season due to applying nitrogen too soon on their small grains. A number of practices can reduce the chances of losing early season nitrogen. NH3 volatilization is much higher in liquid urea fertilizers than dry urea fertilizers. Adding a urease inhibitor will also reduced NH3 volatilization. Agrotain-treated urea has performed well in recent years in our region. NH3 volatilization will also be worse on the limestone soils of our region  (i.e. the Niagara Escarpment) due to the higher pH of the soil solution. NH3 losses will also be higher on muck and sand soils. Ammonium sulfate (AMS) has lower hygroscopicity (does not absorb water as quickly) as other dry fertilizers and has also been used successfully for earlier nitrogen applications on small grains. There is also a high chance that the small grains will respond to the sulfur since our fields no longer get sulfur for free as a result of pollution from coal fired power plants. Many farmers will throw a handful of Agrotain-treated urea or AMS out on their lawns or a nearby small grain field and wait until that area greens up before getting into their fields. Using a combination of these two dry fertilizers is also common. Small grain fields throughout the region are looking a pretty rough right now, Figure 1.

Figure 1: Small Grain Field with Some WInter Damage

Source: Bill Verbeten

Limit any early nitrogen applications to 25-50 lb./acre of nitrogen as there has not been widespread evaluations of most small grain fields for tiller counts or for winter injury in 2014. Once green-up occurs in small grain fields, applications of liquid nitrogen through stream bars will likely give better results than dry fertilizers. At minimum hold off until the snow melts from these latest storms (more coming Saturday for most folks) before getting nitrogen on small grain fields. Be mindful not to rut up these fields—try to apply nitrogen early in the morning or later in the day when the ground will better support traffic.

Frost Seeding Forages
Farmers will also begin to frost seed forages soon in our region. The temperatures in the forecast for the next couple of weeks will create freeze-thaw cycles that will help establish some crops. This will not occur on sandy soils, since the clay particles in clay and loamy soils are responsible for this action. Red clover is the most common forage frost seeded and it is often very successful even when broadcasting into small grain fields, pastures, or hay fields. When frost seeding other legumes (Ladino & Alsike clover, birdsfoot trefoil, and alfalfa) establishment is more variable when broadcasted and is generally better with a no-till drill. Rolling the soil may also improve seed to soil contact. All grasses should be frost seeded with a no-till drill. If they are not drilled, establishment of grasses will be in small patches instead of uniform rows. Generally orchardgrass and perennial ryegrass will establish better than other grasses when frost seeded. Seeding rates for frost seeding are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Frost Seeding Rates

Replanting/Planting Questions
Many questions are coming in about preparing for possible replant situations if winter small grains or haylage fields have severe winter damage. Be sure to actually evaluate small grain fields and alfalfa stands in the coming weeks prior to purchasing more seed. See the small grain and alfalfa articles on this topic.
Do not plant winter small grains in the spring: Almost all winter small grains (some spelt varieties are the exception) will produce no grain if planted in the spring. They require vernalization (exposure to cold after germination) over the winter in order to produce grain. When planted in the spring, winter small grains will only have vegetative growth and will die within a few months. Planting corn, soybeans, or a spring small grain will be a better option, but be sure to kill the remaining winter small grain plants prior to planting.
Damaged haylage fields: If haylage fields are severely damaged plant oats or another spring small grain as early as possible. Harvesting these silages in late-May to mid-June will have at least 2 ton DM/acre of silage. Forage oats will yield about 25% more silage DM and mature later than grain oat varieties. For more information on spring small grain silage management see this University of Wisconsin factsheet. Once the soil gets to 70 °F BMR sorghums and BMR sorghum-sudangrasses can be planted for one or two harvests after the spring small grain silage harvest. For less damaged haylage stands planting a forage grass prior to May can also make up some of the potential yield losses.
Spring small grain planting delays: Previous work in NY has shown between 1/2 to 1 bu loss in yield for every day spring small grain planting is delayed after April 15th. Long term yields of spring barley and wheat generally are 50-60 bu/acre while oats approach 80 bu/acre in the Cornell variety trials. Be sure to know how many bushels of these spring small grains are needed to cover the costs of putting them in the ground prior to attempting a late planting.
Long season vs. shorter season corn and soybeans: While many farmers are already locked into their corn relative maturities and soybean maturity groups for 2014, it may be worth switching to shorter season varieties if possible on some acres. We will likely have a colder than normal spring due to the Great Lakes having record levels of ice coverage this year.  This may cut our growing season short on the front end by delaying most planting operations and reducing temperatures. Early maturity corn grain, corn silage, and soybean varieties will also have a better chance of drying down sooner than later maturity varieties. Many factors influence crop yield potential and while some general trends exist, growing a shorter season corn or soybean variety does not necessarily mean that there is lower yield potential.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Crop Alert 3-7-2014

This article was originally written for and distributed to farmers and other members of the agricultural industry in western New York.

A PDF file of this article is available here.

Bill Verbeten and Mike Stanyard, Regional Agronomists Cornell Cooperative Extension

Evaluating Alfalfa and Small Grains for Winter Injury
The combination of extremely cold weather and bare ground across northwestern NY has many farmers and consultants concerned about winter injury to their alfalfa (Figure 1) and small grain (Figure 2) crops. As the snow melts in the next couple of weeks it will be important to get out into the field and check on these crops. A detailed discussion of the factors that influence the chances of winter injury are available online for alfalfa and small grains.

Figure 1: Winter Damages Alfalfa
 Source: Alfalfa Management Guide, page 15.

Figure 2: Dead, Damaged, & Healthy Crowns of Winter Wheat

Handy Bt Trait Table
Not sure about which insects your Bt trait is rated to control? Have questions about what refuge requirement is appropriate for your Bt corn variety? Wondering what herbicide tolerances are associated with different Bt hybrids? Check out the "Handy Bt Trait Table" authored by Chris DiFonzo of Michigan State University and Eileen Cullen of the University of Wisconsin.

Early Season Small Grain Nitrogen Management
Wheat Early season applications of nitrogen on small grains will begin in the coming weeks across northwestern NY. The amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed for high grain yields depend on tiller counts in wheat fields. Wheat fields with lower tiller counts will require higher nitrogen rates early in the season (Table 1), while fields with higher tiller counts should have more of their nitrogen applied later in the season just prior to the first node appearing at Feekes 5.0-6.0 Figure 3). Fields with higher levels of soil OM, manure applications, and a proceeding crop of soybeans will require less nitrogen. See Mike’s March 2014 Ag Focus article for more information on “Early Season Wheat Management Tips.”

Table 1: Early Wheat Nitrogen Using Tiller Count                

Figure 3: Winter Wheat  Stages for Second Nitrogen Application

Small Grain Silage In 2013 a large scale study of nitrogen rates
on 44 NY farm locations growing small grain (mostly winter triticale) silage found that about 1/3 of the fields did not respond to increasing levels of nitrogen fertilizer. Preliminary analyses indicate that soils with high levels of active organic matter (probably from manure) are increasing soil nitrogen supply. Small grain silage fields with recent manure histories should receive 20-30 lb./acre of nitrogen at green-up to ensure early season nitrogen availability. Just over 40% of the fields had yield responses at high nitrogen rates (~75 to 120 lb./acre) in the 2013 trial. However with the current prices of nitrogen ($0.80 to $1.20 per lb. of N) it will likely not be profitable to apply more than 50-60 lb./acre of nitrogen to small grain silage fields. In the 2013 trial, winter triticale silage crude protein by ~1% for every 18-20 lb./acre of nitrogen applied (Figure 4). Most of the fields tested in the 2013 trial had CP in the ranges depicted by the green lines in Figure 4, with the black line being the overall average. Nitrogen addition can increase crude protein levels to nearly 20% but typically high N fertilizer rates (and high fertilizer costs) are needed to achieve these levels. Agrotain-treated urea performed very well in the 2013 trial and on commercial fields, especially when applied early in the spring.

Figure 4: Response of Winter Triticale Crude Protein to Nitrogen Fertilizer

Malting Barley Apply lower rates of nitrogen (20-60 lb./acre) to malting barley fields to keep the CP 12% and the kernel plumpness high. Use lower rates for varieties that tend to lodge more easily (i.e. Conlon), manured fields, and crops following a legume. Apply nitrogen as early as possible. Typically early season nitrogen increases small grain yields, while later nitrogen increases small grain CP. A one-page growing malting barley fact sheet and a summary of available spring malting barley varieties are available online. For additional information see the Malting Barley page on our website.