Drone Mapping Helps Catch a Major Aphid Infestation

A Sugar Beet Grower in Idaho Uses DroneDeploy to Detect Pests, Prevent Lost Revenue

Aphids may be tiny, but for sugar beet farmers, they have the potential to cause very big, very costly problems. Roughly the size of a pinhead, these small-but-mighty pests suck the chlorophyll out of beet leaves, causing them to shrivel. Instead of producing sugar, the plant is forced to concentrate all its energy on growing new leaves. Growers get paid based on the sugar percentage in their beet crop, so this loss of sugar can spell a major loss of revenue. Drone mapping helps growers detect aphids and other pests early, easily evaluate the extent of the damage, and make more informed decisions about treatment.

Dusty Wilkins has been growing sugar beets, and malt barley and alfalfa in southern Idaho for thirteen years. This past season, he began using drone mapping to regularly scout his fields for signs of plant stress. He recently told us about a map that helped him catch a major aphid infestation on his sugar beet crop.

Watch a video of Dusty Wilkins’ sugar beet harvest

Plant Health Map Helps Grower Quickly Assess Fields for Stress

When he bought a Phantom 3 Pro a little over a year ago, Dusty justified it by saying he was going to use it on the farm. “But really, I wanted more of a toy,” he admits. When he’s not farming, he enjoys using the drone to photograph waterfalls.

But this growing season, after doing a fair amount of research and getting a recommendation from a contact at Ag Scout, Dusty began using DroneDeploy to map his fields as well. He soon realized just how useful this “toy” can be. “It’s amazing what you can do with it once you start using it,” he says.

“I tell other farmers who have drones to get good software like DroneDeploy, so you can actually process the information you’re getting. A lot of people have drones and they go take a picture from 400 feet up and they have no idea what the picture means.” — Dusty Wilkins.

This year, Dusty grew 185 acres of sugar beets, 200 acres of malt barley and 150 acres of alfalfa. During the summer season, he flew his crops weekly and processed the maps in DroneDeploy. Using the software’s plant health tools, he applied the NDVI algorithm to each field’s map, which allowed him to pinpoint any signs of crop stress that warranted further ground scouting to check for pest infestations, water stress or other issues.

Grower Catches Infestation Early, Prevents Lost Revenue

One day, shortly after he harvested his barley, Dusty conducted a routine flight of the beet fields. Aphids live harmlessly in barley fields, but when the barley is harvested, then tend to migrate to surrounding green fields, so he knew it was especially important to keep an eye on his beets at this point in the season.

Overnight, he uploaded images from the first of the beet fields, a 26-acre plot that took just under twelve minutes to fly at 190 feet altitude. When he woke up in the morning, he was shocked by what he saw.

Map of 26-acre sugar beet field. Yellow and red areas indicate aphids covering the plants. Green sections indicate sprinkler lines.

When Dusty looked at the map of his field, nearly the entire surface was either yellow or red. Knowing that this likely meant trouble, he set right out to walk the field, only to discover the worst aphid infestation he had ever experienced. The plants were so completely covered with aphids, they were practically black. A walk of his other beet fields revealed similar infestations.

Without the use of drone mapping, Dusty would have relied primarily on his fertilizer agronomist to scout for pests. “At this point in the season, we had full leaf row closure,” he points out, “so walking through the field to scout is time consuming and difficult.” The agronomist conducts weekly insect sweeps with nets, collecting samples of any pests. The agronomist, however, wasn’t scheduled to come out again for another four days.

Those four days made all the difference. By flying his fields in the interim between insect sweeps, Dusty detected the pests early. In fact, the plant health map picked up not on stress in the plants themselves, which were not yet significantly affected by the infestation, but on the aphids themselves, which are shown in the map to be covering the plants. Because he caught the infestation before any real damage was done, Dusty got a head start on treatment and prevented any significant loss of sugar content to his beets.

By his estimation, Dusty says that if he hadn’t caught the aphids when he did, he likely would have seen a major loss of revenue. A typical aphid infestation can cause up to a one-percent loss in the sugar content of the beets, which amounts to a four-ton loss per acre. He figures with the exceptionally bad infestation he saw this year, he could easily have seen twice the amount of lost tonnage per acre if it weren’t for the fact that he detected the infestation so early. At $40 per ton, multiplied over 185 acres of beets, this could have meant over $59,000 in lost revenue.

By catching an aphid infestation early, Dusty prevented nearly $60,000 in lost revenue over 185 acres of sugar beet crop. [click-to-tweet]

Aerial Imagery Helps Grower Make Informed Treatment Choices

Not only did Dusty catch the aphids earlier thanks to drone mapping, but because he had a comprehensive picture of the infestation, he was able to make a more informed decision about treatment. Without a drone map, he would have relied on ground scouting to assess the level of the infestation. This ground scouting would most likely have taken place near the irrigation lines. However, as can be seen in the picture below, the aphids were hiding from the water near the irrigation lines. With a good amount of the aphids hiding right near where he scouted, he says he would have thought the infestation was relatively mild and treated with a less expensive, but less effective, option.

Green sections on map are where sprinkler lines are active and aphids are hiding from the water.

“Without the drone map, I would have said it wasn’t that bad of an infestation and used the less expensive treatment. I probably would have ended up having to spray more than once.” — Dusty Wilkins

Because his drone map provided a comprehensive view of his fields, Dusty saw that, in reality, the infestation was widespread across the entire field. This knowledge was critical, helping him choose an aggressive treatment option that thoroughly wiped out the infestation. Thanks to drone mapping, Dusty caught the infestation early, treated it correctly, and ended the growing season with no significant damage to his sugar beets.

Where to learn more

Thinking about bringing drone mapping to your farm? Be sure to read Seven Common Questions about Drones in Agriculture and also our Onboarding for Agriculture.

To learn more about some of the tools available for agriculture, take a look at our support documentation, including:

Get Started with DroneDeploy

Want to learn how DroneDeploy can help your business? Visit www.dronedeploy.com to start your free trial or request a consultation with one of our team members. The DroneDeploy mobile application is available for free download for both iOS and Android devices.

DroneDeploy's Blog

DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Learn more at www.dronedeploy.com


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DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones.

DroneDeploy's Blog

DroneDeploy is the leading cloud software platform for commercial drones. Learn more at www.dronedeploy.com

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