Free digital aerial imagery is available for many states through the National Agriculture Imagery Program, or NAIP, administered through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency. The geo-referenced photos are taken in late summer and available for downloading from the Internet in November.

Because of the timing, NAIP images can’t be used for in-season management,” says Rosalind Leeck of the Indiana Soybean Alliance, “but you can see things that are helpful” for future management, such as stand issues, drainage problems, compaction and areas that could benefit from conservation structures. For more information, go to http://datagateway.nrcs.usda.gov/.

For more timely images, you can contract with a local pilot to fly your fields and take digital photos. That’s what Hertz Farm Management does in late July and August, says Farm Manager Chad Hertz, Waterloo, IA. “We target where we need investments to improve a farm,” such as drainage tile, eroded hilltops, wet areas, non-uniform fertilizer applications or erosion control.

 “The images aren’t geo-referenced, but you can definitely see what’s going on,” Hertz says. If a group of neighbors go together to hire a pilot to take photos of their fields, the cost is usually quite reasonable, he says.