Crop Scouting: Your Best Investment

Posted in: Farming     

Emerging crops have a story to tell, but you have to be willing to listen. Catching early signs of a disease or infestation before it levels a crop is well worth the cost of good scouting services. That’s why more and more growers view scouting as an investment in risk management — and one that can significantly pay off.

When Markus Braaten first became an Agri-Trend Agri-Coach, his clients typically seeded, came back once to spray and returned to combine the field. Other than that, they weren’t spending much time during the growing season walking through the crop.
“That was the way it was back then,” recalls Braaten, U.S. Director of the Knowledge Team based out of Kalispell, MT. “We stood a bit removed from what happened during the growing season.”
Those days are over. Now, it’s not unusual for Braaten to scout fields after dark by headlamp, knowing that Orange Wheat Blossom Midge doesn’t start actively flying until it cools down in the evening. “If you rolled into that field in the middle of a hot day, you won’t see a single one. If I come back at dusk I might find levels that warrant a treatment.”

This trend is part of a new paradigm that has been developing around crop scouting. Where once it was seen as another cost, growers and their crop consultants are now spending more time sleuthing through fields, hoping to catch and treat problems before they wreak havoc on the crop, and the grower’s bottom line.
“It’s gone from passive to active — we keep a finger on the pulse of the crop now,” says Braaten. “More knowledge leads to more understanding and better decisions, so what we’re seeing is a whole new level of intensity with scouting.”
In this new paradigm, scouting is viewed as an important means of protecting a significant investment, in the same way people get their vehicles serviced regularly in order to prevent major problems down the road.
Agri-Coaches and crop consultants can play an important role in this as a second set of eyes, says Braaten. Also, the more crops a farmer is growing, the more expertise is needed, at which point an outside expert is useful. “We can help growers make decisions around the science by stepping back and taking more of a clinical view of what’s happening in the field.”

That extra set of eyes can come in very handy for issues where time is of the essence. “Often you don’t have days or weeks to make these decisions, they need to be made quickly. If you miss it, the damage may be done.”
In the case of Orange Midge Blossom Midge, damage occurs when midge lay eggs around the kernel — but the extent of damage varies, based on the growth stage of the wheat. “If we are coming into peak vulnerability and that head is just starting to form as the midge numbers are ramping up, they will coincide,” notes Braaten. “Five days later the eggs will be laid, larvae hatched and it’s done.”

Scouting is Key During Downturns

As commodity prices wane and the farm economy continues to struggle, one might expect growers to cut back on spending wherever possible. Crop scouting may be among the first line items to go.
However, that should not be the case, says Robert Battel, a field crops educator with Michigan State University. Indeed, scouting may be more valuable than ever.
“Actually, with a slower agricultural economy scouting becomes even more important than it was when prices were higher two years ago,” Battel explains. “When commodity prices were high, people could afford to use products when they weren’t sure of the pest pressure out there. For example, if they were spraying for weeds with a herbicide treatment, they might add an insecticide treatment as well. It didn’t cost a lot relative to the cost of the commodity.”

This is no longer the case. “Now I recommend to growers that they want to be sure that they are spraying for a pest that is causing economic damage. If it costs $4 an acre to spray they might have include that insecticide, but margins are much thinner now.”
He says most large growers in his area work with an independent crop consultant or a trusted supplier to scout fields.
“Part of the reason is that it is a science and you need to know what you’re identifying,” says Battel. “Also, bigger acreages demand more time and often require expert eyes, and the grower is busy doing the day-to-day. Their attention is pretty spread out, but if you hire it out to a trusted advisor you know it will get done.”
In his area of Michigan, growers are much more likely to hire out scouting of the higher value crops such as sugar beets and dry edible beans. “There may not be the same importance in scouting corn, soybeans and wheat — or they might be a little more targeted about scouting for a specific pest, say, at a specific time.”

Scouting: Seasonal or Year Round?

Often people think of scouting in terms of a season, i.e. from the seedling to the reproductive stages of crop. At this time, growers and agronomists typically scout for insects, diseases and weeds. “Most of it is done post-emergence but not all of it,” says Battel. “At different times, you are looking for different things.”
However, some crop advisors start scouting six months to a year before a crop is even planted. This reflects a broader trend toward proactive, rather than reactive, scouting. In this approach, one isn’t simply reacting to problems after seeing a symptom in the field. Rather, it’s a year-round endeavour that includes planning, researching and preparing during what’s typically viewed as ‘off season’ crop scouting.
“When we look at crop scouting, we’re really just adding another piece of the puzzle in terms of creating the whole management plan for next season’s crop,” explains Tom Gehring, an Agri-Coach and owner of Crop Wise Consulting, who works with about 15 growers in Idaho and as far north as Spokane, Washington. “That may start with knowing prior history, i.e. weed and disease problems that could carry over. And then, at least in my area, knowing if we have a winter annual grass that is going to be a problem in the spring — because if you wait until the spring to determine that, you have already missed the boat.”

According to Troy Radtke, an Agri-Coach based out of Gooseneck Implements in North Dakota, he is looking for pests but goes beyond that, for example uncovering residue issues or noticing that the equipment was set up incorrectly and some rows were seeded too deep.
“You are looking for things that are quite subtle but can have an negative impact on yield and profit,” he says.
He concurs with Gehring that crop scouting — which can vary greatly in price depending on services offered — should not be viewed as an additional cost to farmers, but more as a means of protecting an investment. In the end, the cost of scouting could be more than dwarfed by cost of yield and quality losses resulting from issues that were missed.
“For example, flea beetles can really decimate a canola crop and it happens right when crop pops out of ground, when growers are so busy,” Gehring says. “Flea beetles can be bad enough that if it’s ignored the grower may need to re-seed the crop.”

STAGE 1 — Pre-Emergence

Growers need to be thinking in the fall about what products they need to put down in the coming spring, says Gehring. He also likes to spend some time in the winter speaking to his clients about their rotational needs for each crop.
“This way we know what chemicals we can put on that won’t mess up rotation for the next year,” he explains. “We want to be thinking about that even though it may limit the products we use.”
At this time Gehring is also considering herbicide rotations, which require management strategies that consider how to reduce the likelihood of developing resistance, as well as residue management.

STAGE 2 — Post-Emergence

In early spring, as the crop begins to emerge, experienced crop scouts will look at the plant stand to help understand the effectiveness of nutrition applied, as well as examining for any weed pressure.
“If you’re scouting and see a lot of broad leaves but don’t dig down to see if there are grassy weeds that are not quite through yet, you may spray for broad leaves and then a week later have wild oats,” Gehring explains. “You could have done a tank mix of two chemicals that would have taken care of both of them at the same time.”
At this time, he’s also considering fungicide recommendations, especially if there are signs of rust or other diseases in early development. “This often happens later on but those diseases could be present for 10 days before you actually see the disease,” he explains.

Parker Edgington, an Agri-Trend Agri-Coach who works out of Van Wall Equipment in Grinnell, Iowa, has been scouting close to 7,000 acres annually for the past eight seasons for his farm customers.
By the third week of May, when the corn is starting to come up, scouting is in full swing. “On the first scouting trip we’re looking for emergence, making sure the plants came up and are not having any trouble getting through the ground,” he says.
During the second scouting trip, he’s typically monitoring for weeds.
“We want to make sure there’s nothing out there that’s going to be real problem, if there is we may have to add in additional chemical to take care of it.” And, he’s always on the lookout for any signs of disease.
After the crop has emerged, scouts are looking for insect pressure, both above and below ground. “You’ve got to get your knees dirty, get down on the ground, really look around and see what you are facing,” says Gehring. “Once I found a worm that was like a strand of hair and it made a big difference.”
Depending on the crop, at this stage he may be scouting every week to 10 days.
According to Battel, growers need to keep in mind that discovering the presence of insects doesn’t always require a spray treatment.
“Most crops have an economic threshold where the insect level of infestation is below that, we can hold off spraying,” he says. “If it’s above, we’d want pull trigger right away.”
Also, scouting for insects must also include scouting for biological control agents of those insects that may also be present in the crop.
“If we find soybean aphids, for example, we might also find ladybug larvae, which are a big eater of aphids, so sometimes they can do our job for us.”
For Edgington, this stage of crop scouting happens around the time tassels appear in corn. “Insect-wise we could see Japanese beetles, and they chew on the silks and can really hurt the corn yields,” he says.
In the end, Braaten comes back to key piece of wisdom he has always followed when it comes to crop scouting: The most important application we can put on our field as agronomists is our shadow.
“And I would suggest we’re in a period of time where that has never been more important,” he adds. “It’s not just about commodity prices, we need to focus on growing profitable bushels — not maximum bushels, but profitable bushels.”

Will Drones Replace Crop Scouting?

Battel says while drones are gaining popularity as a tool of scouting, they are not a replacement for it. “They will probably never replace human eyes, but then again there was a time 10 years when GPS was in its infancy and now look at it,” says Battel, noting that GPS and smart phones have become key tools that allow scouts to geo-locate problem areas. “We are seeing drones play a particular role when, say, a corn field is too tall to walk through. You can get a snapshot before you go.”
“Companies are trying push scouting more toward the technology side of things, through the use of drones. Not saying that they won’t become more useful but for now I’d rather have boots on the ground and take a good look at the crop rather than just fly over it,” says Edgington.

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