Drone offers new technique to reduce nitrates

Steve Sharratt comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on September 14, 2015

4R Nutrient Stewardship program identifies – right strategy, right product, right rate, right time for crop chemistry

ROLLO BAY – A new technique to develop healthier crops and reduce the amount of nitrates in the environment is up in the air.

It circles the field taking high-resolution photographs and can tell a farmer exactly what is needed or missing to produce a good crop and a good yield. And the drone plane that fits into a pickup truck has the eyes of an eagle.

“It can pretty well see everything," offers Brennan Gaudet of Paradigm Precision as he operates the controls during a trial demonstration.

The drone has enough zoom power to count the moles on a sunbather and can easily detect the nutrient deficiencies in a field.

“It’s all part of our best management practices program for growing crops,’’ says potato expert Steve Watts. “The idea is to improve the yield and lessen the environmental impact.”

Watts is a consultant who runs Genesis Crop Systems and oversees the 4R Nutrient Stewardship program that identifies the 4 Rs – the right strategy, the right product, the right rate and the right time to apply fertilizers and chemistry to a crop.

Sponsored by the province, the P.E.I. Potato Board and Fertilizer Canada, the 4R program is in its third year and has already helped to reduce nitrates leaching into the groundwater. Such concerns prompted numerous government commissions in the past decade to call for action against nitrate contamination.

“We’ve already seen a reduction in nitrates in the soil using this 4R system,’’ said Watts. “And this will only continue to improve, I would imagine.”

Out standing in a field in the early evening sunset are a number of growers participating in the demonstration at fields owned by Rollo Bay Holdings partners Alvin and Ray Keenan.

“The aerial shots we get from the drone provide us with a colour spectrum of the field,’’ says Alvin, past president of the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture. “From that we can determine which areas might need attention.”

It means making adjustments by providing fertilizer applications when needed, rather than a blanket spread at the start of the season and more throughout.

The drone images can identify issues such as nutrient excess or privation or soil compaction and disease in an effort to find balance.

“It’s important to find a comfort zone and feed out potatoes properly,” says Keenan.

And to make the drone mapping even more important – the unit may also be able to “red flag” diseases such a late blight.

“It’s really quite remarkable,’’ says Watts. “By the time late blight is usually discovered, it’s been in the field more than a week. So imagine being able to nab it almost immediately.”

Late blight can spread like fire through a potato field and will kill the plant, thus reducing yields. It was also responsible for the Irish famine.

“We’re in the infancy stage with the drone right now on P.E.I.,’’ says Watts. “Give it a few more years and we could see regular fly-overs to help our farmers.”

ssharratt@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/GuardianSteve

Brennan Gaudet prepares to launch his drone at a demonstration over potato fields grown by Ray Kennan, left, of Rollo Bay Holdings.

©STEVE SHARRATT/THE GUARDIAN

4R nutrient program can grow a more uniform size potato for the table stock market and identify late blight in infancy stages.