Isaac Ferrie stands on the edge of an Illinois corn field on a promising June morning, reviewing canopy images from a drone flight. Nothing technologically elaborate and no stitching together of imagery; just a bird’s-eye view of where trouble spots are developing. It’s a simple aerial stress test and another way for Ferrie to harness data to guide field decisions.

What in-season data is most vital to producers? Ferrie and crop consultant Bill Bauer keep a variety of technologies and techniques in their farm data toolboxes. They emphasize the right choice of data technology and proper interpretation, combined with a steady reliance on in-field scouting.

Ferrie, with Crop Tech Consulting, Heyworth, Ill., consistently gathers topography data to identify low-lying areas. Where does water sit and how does it drain? The more water traveling through a particular area of the field, the higher the chance of nitrogen loss. Knowing where those areas are using topography, yield maps and imagery, Ferrie navigates right to the trouble spot and pulls a nitrate sample. 

Soil moisture sensor data is valuable, but for farmers without irrigation the data isn’t actionable. However, for those with pivots, Ferrie says the situation is reversed. “If you have irrigation, or particularly variable-rate irrigation, soil moisture sensors tell you when and where to water,” he says. “That’s the same as how much a crop needs and when it needs it.”

Ferrie says the installation of more tile gates to allow for greater drainage control plays into the relevance of soil moisture sensor data. Moisture sensors reflect the water table and can help ensure plant roots have ample time to drink but guard against oversaturation.

When farmers fire up sidedress bars, how much nitrogen needs to be put on and where? In-season data is the key. If soil types and corresponding productivity are known, nitrogen rates can be adjusted. Ferrie pulls pre-sidedress nitrate tests from different areas of fields based on topography, soil type and yield history. “I have to know in advance where those spots are,” he says. 

Ferrie uses drone, airplane and satellite imagery (infrared and thermal) to judge crop health. The data reveals canopy weak points, which are targeted for soil sampling to determine nitrogen needs. “Timing is important when collecting data. You have to have proper analysis beforehand or it’ll be too late to make actionable decisions this season,” he advises.

Bauer, with B&M Crop Consulting in Coldwater, Mich., uses thermal imagery to go directly to a problem area. “Once a crop is established, it grows so fast you can miss things in vast acreage. Thermal imagery data is a big time saver,” he says.

Many of Bauer’s farmer-clients use iPad apps in the cab to record planting information, seed population and rough conditions. When Bauer scouts, he uses the data to help reveal why problems happen. 

In-season data might improve a crop immediately, but it often has more value for next season. Despite many good data tools, Bauer says scouting and analysis are still crucial. “The market is full of products promising improvements for farming, but none of it is true if it’s not interpreted correctly. It takes a qualified person to make an actionable decision,” he adds.