Drones can change how farmers detect disease, look for pests and manage water and fertilizer – ultimately allowing them to save money.
“They are pretty amazing toys,” said Steve Miles, as his drone hovered hundreds of feet in the air to the amusement of the crowd gathered for Farm to Field Day at the Old Fort south of Hesperus.
Miles was among several experts and drone pilots who shared novel uses for drones in agriculture and public land management during the event Monday focused on agriculture management, equipment and services.
Drones can save producers time in a variety of ways by helping them see problems earlier than traditional methods, Miles said.
Video footage and photos gathered by flying above a crop can help determine where irrigation systems are not delivering water, where fertilizer has not been spread or where wildlife have damaged the field, said Miles, a member of the advisory board for the High Desert Conservation District in Montezuma County.
For example, when a center-pivot irrigation system is broken, it can leave behind dry patterns that are easily visible in aerial footage but might be time-consuming to detect on foot, he said.
Drones with infrared light and near-infrared light sensors can help farmers detect diseases and pests 10 to 14 days ahead of the naked eye, said Blair Leist, owner of Raptor Visual Imaging, a La Plata County company.
The early detection can allow a producer to address the problem before it can spread, which means it will require less investment to fix, he said.
“This is the bottom line: We want to lower our inputs, we want to increase outputs,” he said.
A drone can also be programmed to fly over every foot of a piece of property, so the images it collects can be stitched together into a single map, he said.
The highly detailed maps of property elevation help farmers plan, such as where to install new irrigation to ensure that water is going to flow properly, he said.
Drones can also help assess the quality of wildlife habitat and to determine how well the removal of invasive species has worked on public land, said Rich Alward, owner of Aridlands Natural Resource Consulting, a Grand Junction company.
Alward said he helped determine how the quantity and species of shrubs and trees covering 28 acres will feed deer using drone technology.
On foot, 28 people were needed to collect the same quality of data, he said.
He expects drones will continue to allow researches to collect far more data over huge areas, he said.
“There’s no longer an excuse to say, ‘We can’t measure that; it cost too much,” he said.