From the ground to the skies

It may be low flying, but that’s no bird you’ve been seeing coasting through the air. The distant rumble of an engine tells all inquiring minds that what they are seeing is a modern day crop duster!

While agricultural aviation is not new, locally it has been becoming much more commonly used in recent years.

“Growth in aerial application has improved in recent years, because of the demand and effectiveness of fungicides accounting for 80 percent of applications,” said Dustin Ronnebaum, co-owner of Precision Aerial Ag, based out of Seneca.

Nationally, Ronnebaum says the agricultural aviation industry covers about 71 million acres every year — serving many different sectors.

“Citrus, forestry, row crop, mosquito control and fire fighting are a few of the sectors that ag aviation serves on a regular basis,” Ronnebaum said.

Dan Dalinghaus, manager of the Sabetha Ag Partners location, noted alfalfa, soybeans, wheat and corn as major crops utilizing aerial applications of fungicides, insecticides, herbicides, and foliar feed and fertilizers in the northeast Kansas area.

This spring, Ronnebaum said, the main demand he has seen is for insecticide applications for alfalfa weevil in alfalfa.

Dalinghaus said Ag Partners has been coordinating aerial spraying herbicides to kill cover crops in preparation for planting season.

Growing areas in agricultural aviation industry in this area, Ronnebaum said, are sidedressing of dry fertilizer on corn, and seeding of cover crops in the fall.

And, for some of these reasons, even though those crop dusters are out right now, you might see even more later in the year.

Dalinghaus said late summer and early fall tend to be the busiest times in terms of Ag Partners coordination of aerial applications.

Ronnebaum said peak time in aerial application varies year to year based on insect pressure, disease pressure, rainfall and commodity prices.

Why Aerial?

Ronnebaum said there are numerous reasons why a farmer might choose aerial application over traditional ground application.

An aerial application provides even, consistent application, Ronnebaum said, and also can eliminate ground compaction caused by standard equipment, and reduce the amount of crop damage.

“Ground compaction restricts oxygen and water filtration in the soil, making them less available to the plant, and is a more common problem with the size and weight of today’s equipment,” Ronnebaum said.

Bigger reasons in this area, though, Dalinghaus and Ronnebaum agreed, include the ability to treat many acres in a short amount of time, and the ability to spray no matter the ground condition.

“Wet field conditions can impact when a traditional piece of equipment can get out into the field, but an aerial application can still take place,” Dalinghaus said.

“Ag aircraft are generally used because of the small application window many pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers have,” Ronnebaum said. “Proper timing is key. Northeast Kansas has consistent results in boosting yields using fungicides, dry fertilizer and cover crops.”

Just one example of proper timing can be found in the application of fungicides to nearly full grown corn.

“When corn needs fungicide and the stand is eight feet tall, you can’t make that application with a standard sprayer without causing some damage to the crop,” Dalinghaus said.

“Damage to crops can reach up to 5 percent with ground application,” Ronnebaum said.

Dalinghaus estimates that, in this area, more than half of the corn acres will get an aerial application in such a situation, while the other less than half “just roll the dice and hope the yield is not hurt too bad.”

Why Not?

Dalinghaus notes that there are some downfalls to aerial applications — with overall cost being the top.

“It costs on average a third more to spray by plane,” Dalinghaus said.

Also, some chemical mixes don’t mesh well with aerial application, some in terms of aerial approval and others in terms of water-to-chemical mix requirements.

“The biggest challenge we run into is the trend of herbicide treatment going back to a more complex batch of chemicals,” Ronnebaum said. “It can be hard to find all chemicals included in the batch that are aerially approved.”

In terms of water to chemical mix, some require a much higher portion of water than others — meaning a heavier load per acre.

“Some chemicals require so much water per application that it takes more gallons to cover each acre,” Dalinghaus said.

Two gallons per acre is the most common and economical in northeast Kansas, Ronnebaum said, and also the minimum required with most fungicides and insecticides.

Spray tips on aerial aircraft can be adjusted to apply up to 50 gallons of spray per acre, but when the gallons per acre start to increase the price follows, Ronnebaum said, because of more trips to the field.

“In these situations, the economics generally lead farmers back to the ground rigs,” Ronnebaum said.

Amber Deters121 Posts

Amber Deters is Co-Editor of The Sabetha Herald, where she has been on staff since 2005. She specializes in school board, election and legislative reporting, as well as photography and page and advertising design. Amber is a 2005 Kansas State University graduate with a degree in journalism and mass communications, print journalism sequence. She lives in Sabetha with her husband and three children.

1 Comment

  • Dotsy Skarda Reply

    April 26, 2017 at 7:05 am

    Good Article. We can’t live without Ag Pilots. I think this AR journalist must have seen many of them growing up…

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