A LOOK AT TECHNOLOGY THROUGH WEATHER INNOVATIONS
MANAGING HIS CLIENTS’ 300,000 acres is no small feat, but certified crop advisor Dale Cowan of AGRIS Co-operative Ltd. does just that. He admits, though, that he wouldn’t be able to do it as efficiently if he wasn’t working in collaboration with Weather INnovations Consulting LP (WIN), a company that provides weather-based monitoring and modeling solutions for agribusinesses, producer groups, researchers, and government agencies.
PHOTO: IAN NICOLS HOLDS A MULTI-LEVEL SOIL MOISTURE AND TEMPERATURE SENSOR — ONE OF THE SENSORS USED IN IRRIGATION MONITORING IN MULTIPLE CROPS.
Using a wide range of weather monitoring systems, WIN produces programs for its clients for diseases, insects, frost mitigation, soil moisture, and harvest timing. The consulting company also provides a number of online services as well, some of them free. Corn tools, for instance, include the Corn Replant Calculator, a nitrogen calculator, a yield predictor, a growth stage calculator, a dry down calculator, and a corn pest forecasting tool.
“Our aspiration is to serve as many of the advisory needs as possible to Ontario agriculture, benefiting producers primarily, and also assisting our sponsors to help extend their messages to producers,” says Ian Nichols, WIN’s president. “As we continue to study the field, we find that there are more and more applications where producers can use a weather index or driver or model to help make decisions and we see that as part of our mandate and role — to find research results and translate them into information that is readily accessible to farmers.”
Cowan regularly utilizes the corn tools offered by WIN. Using a corn growth model, he and his clients plot a variety of information, including planting date by field and tillage practices. The information is later used to gauge heat units and harvest timing, as well as fungicide and herbicide timing. “It gives us a chance to predict our field applications,” says Cowan. “And enables us to get the resources we need to get things done.”
Cowan also finds SPRAYcast helpful. It’s a tool designed by WIN in collaboration with Environment Canada. By evaluating real-time weather conditions, such as wind speed and direction, SPRAYcast identifies the best time to spray, preventing drift into your buffer zone. Unsprayed buffer zones can act as reservoirs for insects, diseases, and weeds and pose unwanted challenges for the crop. Knowing the best time to spray can reduce drift, and therefore crop damage. “It has been surprisingly accurate on a daily basis for us,” he says.
“It is something that is quite unique,” Nichols says. “You can’t find that advisory in other places. It’s site specific, so you can zoom right into your farm. If you’ve registered fields for any of the pest alerts, you automatically get a SPRAYcast location.”
Gary DeBorger, a grain producer near Forest, uses five weather stations on different farms across 3,000 acres within a 15-mile radius. He uses the technology to monitor rainfall and temperature, and to record planting dates and varietal information. The information he logs can later be used to pinpoint relative maturity at individual locations.
Before using WIN’s weather stations, DeBorger would drive from site to site to manually inspect the fields. He still does this, but only to scout for insect or disease pressure. With one rain event, he says there is as much as a 50 to 60 per cent difference within that 15-mile radius. Driving the fields took two to three hours each day.
“I really like them,” says DeBorger. “Just the fact that I can get up in the morning, grab my coffee, and say you had an overnight rain event, you can pretty well know what happened at all of your locations.”
Knowing what has happened at each location is a real time saver, he says.
“You can change your whole day’s plans based on what you’ve seen when you’re looking over it all with your morning coffee,” he says. “Whereas before you might drive out to a location with a whole crew without realizing that it had rained there.”
Ken Currah, market development agronomist, Pride Seeds, says he uses WIN’s WeatherCentral application to track his test plots. The growth stage calculator helps him to prioritize which fields need attention first. And while he uses the tools himself, he has also been promoting their use to growers for some time now.
In a given season, Currah will host grower events, speaking directly to groups in front of test plots to help fuel the agronomy discussion. “In a year like this where everybody’s wondering if their corn is going to make it, I can basically pull up on my mobile phone my WeatherCentral profile, pull up the plot that I’m standing in and say here’s the planting date this was planted, here’s how many heat units it’s had to date, and here’s when we’re expecting it to black layer,” he says. “So it just fuels the discussion.”
Growers, says Currah, can be slow to engage with new technology, particularly where user log-ins are required. He assures them, though, that not only is the system easy to use, but it is also very informative.
“What I really try to drive home is that if they have 10 fields to plan, they can literally have them entered in 10 minutes. It’s that quick,” he says. “It’s incredibly easy to use and there is some interesting information there. And it’s yet another tool to answer your own questions.”
Launched just this year, BINcast is another tool growers can use to make tough decisions easier. Designed in collaboration with South West Ag, BINcast helps growers maximize storage quality and therefore market value. Essentially, it is a personal online weather- based advisory system that uses site-specific weather forecasting programs to predict any grain’s equilibrium moisture content (EMC) at any time. It is designed to help producers with aeration management and grain conditioning for grains that are stored on the farm.
“BINcast takes the guesswork out of operating an aeration system and will result in improved grain quality, better managed moistures, improved grain marketability, and improved profits,” says Brian Cofell, retail grain manager for South West Ag.
Jim Duffy of Duffy Farms grows 900 acres of corn, soybeans, and winter wheat in southwest Lambton County near Sombra. He has been using BINcast since it first came out.
“We are using it for corn and I found it’s very helpful to know when to start the fans and when to shut them off,” he says. “Most of the time you know, roughly, when to run the fan on your bin, but this gives you the exact hours when it’s best to run it. The service is free; you just have to register on the website.”
Currently, soybean models are in the works, says Nichols, who has seen great interest from growers in the staging of soybeans. WIN plans to roll out four advisories for soybean pests in 2015, including bean leaf beetle, Japanese beetle, seed corn maggot, and leafhoppers. They are also working on a weather-based pressure index for foliage diseases in soybeans.
“It will be a little more of a general index, but you have to start somewhere and you have to get the information rolling out to producers to find out what they like and what they need,” says Nichols.
He hopes to continue improving and adding to WIN’s services as more growers use their tools. “We need the daily data to not only find relationships between weather and crop production, but also to translate that for each season as it unfolds,” says Nichols. “Without monitoring networks, a lot of that discovery can’t be put to work. By combining the ability to do extensive field monitoring with the ability to translate research and build websites and information for producers, we think we’re filling a very valuable need for Ontario grain producers.” •