A new global positioning system (GPS)-driven program for variable-rate chemical applications is saving Tripp Hayes and other growers money and improving their efficiency just “InTime.”

Hayes, who farms with his father Stan near Clarksdale, MS, is able to cut his cotton defoliating trips in half by using a prescription chemical application program offered through InTime, Inc. He hopes to eventually use the program to prescribe variable-rate applications for soybeans, corn, grain sorghum and rice on the Mississippi Delta farm.

Hayes is among a growing percentage of the nation's growers who have adopted at least one precision farming component. For example, according to studies by ag engineers and economists at Ohio State University (OSU), 30% of that state's growers use one or more GPS-oriented tools. That's up from about 22% in 1999, says Marvin Batte, OSU professor and ag economist who headed the study.

The fact is, those new-fangled gizmos, ranging from handheld GPS trackers to yield monitors on combines, are making farming easier and more efficient. Eight or more equipment or software companies offer some sort of auto-steer systems. Many other devices enable growers to travel the road to outer space and back for precise information gathered by orbiting communications satellites on crops, soils, water and even insect readings on farms.

Based in Cleveland, MS, InTime has customers in most southern states, Missouri and California. It basically uses high-resolution digital imagery collected by aircraft to gather precise data about a field's biomass. Digital cameras use special band filters that collect reflected light energy from land surface features.

“Filters specifically detect changes in a plant's chlorophyll production and biomass, both of which are indicators of plant health or vigor,” says Matt Peterson, InTime director of operations.

Hayes first used the service in 2002. “We saw a good opportunity to do a more efficient job of applying growth regulators and defoliants to our cotton,” he says. “We also thought it would be possible to get a better reading on insect damage and make more accurate decisions to spray.”

In a typical InTime program, a local flight service's planes take the digital imagery. Data from the images are then forwarded over the Internet to InTime. The data is used to produce biomass intensity maps that are classified by the vigor of the crop. Images are color-coded to represent up to 10 different levels of plant health or vigor. The images are outputted as “scout maps.” Data is then processed and loaded onto InTime's Web-based server for viewing by the grower and/or his crop consultant.

“I can go to my computer and download the informational scout maps,” says Hayes. “The maps can be printed or loaded onto a hand-held (PDA) computer. I then turn the information over to my crop consultant. We analyze the information, which we can then use to prescribe the application of variable rates of chemicals at selected points.”

The prescription is downloaded to a small computer card, which can be inserted directly into a ground or aerial applicator computer set up to automatically control the amount of chemical applied and where it should be applied. The sprayer automatically records the actual application as it's applied to the field. Hayes then returns this information to InTime for final analysis.

“Everywhere we are able to use it we do,” says Hayes, who subscribes to a seven-image program for identifying various stages of vegetation or other factors in a field. “In our plant regulator program we use the InTime maps to determine where we need to apply PIX. We can apply the chemical in the various zones, depending on how much is needed in a particular area.”

He adds, “In using it in our cotton defoliation program, we're able to get away with a one-time application (of Drop or Prep defoliants) on rank cotton that had always taken two applications in the past. We were able to increase the rate on areas that were more lush in vegetation, and reduce or not even apply a defoliant in areas that didn't really require a treatment.”

In addition to controlling vegetation, the GPS program also helped with pesky plant bugs, a growing problem across much of the Cotton Belt, as well as bollworms. “Not all of our cotton is Bt cotton for bollworm control,” says Hayes. “We have to spray for worms on that cotton.

“With InTime, we were able to identify areas that were the heaviest infested, then write a prescription to spray for bollworms and plant bugs,” he says. “We weren't able to use it every time, but we saved 40-50% on some insecticide applications by having the program.”

Hayes increased the service on more acres for 2004. “For 2004, we increased our usage to photo virtually everything for defoliation. That will save us even more in the long run.”

Cost depends on the number of services to which you subscribe. Hayes spends about $7/acre, plus the purchase of a PDA computer, which runs about $500.

OSU's Batte says the survey of about 2,500 farmers indicates that most growers feel it is worth their expenditures on GPS or other technologically advanced equipment.

“More than half of the respondents believed their overall precision farming system was useful enough to justify the costs,” he says. “Respondents also commented that precision farming components, such as variable-rate application of lime, phosphorus and potassium, geo-referenced soil sampling and satellite field photography, were beneficial to their farming operations.”

Of course, there are more large-scale farms utilizing GPS equipment. “For cash grain farmers in Ohio we are seeing different demand by different types of farmers,” he says. “Larger ones are certainly interested in auto-steer and guidance assistance. The interest drops off for smaller farmers (because of economics involved).

“Overall, precision farming adoption has increased,” says Batte, “and the average adopter uses about four precision farming components.”

Hayes says he realized GPS “was the thing of the future” when he became introduced to InTime in 2002. “And I still do,” he says. “There are too many tools to help a grower be more efficient in applying all types of chemicals. It will benefit agriculture in many ways.”

For further information on InTime, go to www.gointime.com. For more in the Ohio State study, go to fusion.ag.ohiostate.edu/newsarchive.asp.

There are more and more companies offering one form of GPS-guided farming system or another. Along with InTime, others also include AGCO, AgLeader, AutoFarm, Beeline, Case IH, Caterpillar, Cultiva, John Deere, Outback, Raven, Satloc, Spraying Systems (Mid-Tech and TeeJet), Terradox and Trimble.