By Tom Collins
CHATHAM — While the popularity of drones continues to rise, one Western Ontario precision ag business says there are faster and cheaper ways to scout your fields.
Three years ago, Agris Co-operative shelved its four drones because of the cost, the time involved and the insurance company no longer wanting to insure the machines. With more and more farmers intrigued by drones that can be equipped with scanners to get all sorts of information — from yield estimates to crop scouting — the cost of drones became cheap enough that farmers were able to buy their own. A drone can range from $1,200 to $150,000, although the lower range would be suitable for most farming needs.
“From a commercial standpoint, I don’t know how you would make money with a drone when a farmer can buy the same drone for less than $2,000,” said the co-op’s senior agronomist Dale Cowan.
Now, the co-op uses satellite imagery and an airplane to provide the same service. After calculating the time of two employees to run each drone and the cost and maintenance of the machine, Cowan said it would cost the co-op about $4-$5 an acre to properly scout about 200-300 acres a day. An airplane costs less than 70 cents an acre and can do about 3,000-4,000 acres a day while providing the same quality images.
Cowan also said most drones are only confirming information that a farmer already knows.
“More often than not, I’m telling a farmer ‘That’s a sandy knoll and that’s why the crop burned up there because it hasn’t rained in three weeks.’ I don’t think he needs a drone image to tell him that,” he said.
However, that doesn’t mean that drones are a bad thing to own, said Cowan, adding that almost all of his customers have their own drones.
“If you’re going to get some value from it, if it’s going to make you look at your crops two or three times a week where you otherwise might not get there in a timely basis, then it’s worth it,” he said.
A 2017 University of Guelph survey of 62 precision agriculture providers found that drones were used for 13.1 per cent of custom applied acres to assess fertility or pest levels, and 39 per cent of respondents offered drone imagery.