University-developed apps aid Arizona cotton farmers

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AppUniversity of ArizaonKey indicators, such as the nitrate-nitrogen content of cotton petioles and height-to-node radio, are employed by Mobile Cotton and can help growers decide where to apply fertilizer or plant growth regulator. Mobile and Web apps aren't just for tweeting your thoughts or posting your status. The University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has created high-tech mobile and Web applications to help cotton farmers manage their crops.

Arizona growers can now use a smartphone or tablet anywhere – in the field, at home or on the other side of the world – to manage everything from plant growth and irrigation scheduling to disease control.

Mobile Cotton went live this spring, providing cotton growers and crop consultants with the ability to make decisions based on scientific data provided by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

A second app, Differentiating Diseases of Early Season Cotton, helps growers identify and treat diseases, with the goal of preventing new diseases from taking hold in the state. Both apps are free and appear to be the first of their kind specific to Arizona cotton.

They were developed by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Communications and Technologies team, or CCT, in partnership with faculty and UA Cooperative Extension specialists.

"We noticed our stakeholders – our growers – were using mobile devices," said Pedro Andrade-Sánchez, an assistant specialist in agricultural and biosystems engineering who is based at the Maricopa Agricultural Center.

"That is when the idea came – why not create this tool that can be accessed through your mobile device so growers can make decisions about their crops based on their own measurements and on models that were developed by UA scientists," he said.

He worked with other UA experts to develop a Web app that would provide vital information and be simple to use. Among the collaborators was Randy Norton, resident director of the Safford Agricultural Center and associate regional specialist with the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science.

"Growers can now run a good part of their business from their phone or their tablet," Norton said.

Mobile Cotton uses cotton growth models developed by Norton and Jeff Silvertooth, professor of soil, water and environmental science and director of UA Cooperative Extension. Using a system of heat units, cotton growth can be predicted based on temperature over a period of time. Growers can compare the development of their crops to what would be expected.

Much of the data used in the app's Cotton Calculator comes from the UA's Arizona Meteorological Network, or AZMET. Paul Brown, a specialist in the UA Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science, carefully operates and maintains AZMET to provide meteorological data to agricultural and horticultural interests across Arizona.

The goal of the CALS Communications and Technologies team was to create an application that would provide information in real time. Growers and crop consultants currently use spreadsheets to calculate the development of their crops.

"That workflow required the grower to collect crop measurements in their field by pen and paper and deliver that information to a crop consultant. Then the crop consultant would have to get to a computer, enter the measurements into a spreadsheet, print out the results and deliver them back to the grower, usually with an explanation," said Matt Rahr, program director for the CCT Programming and Web Development group. "There was too much lag time."

"By being able to do this all in real time in the field, you shorten that gap," he said.

Using the Cotton Calculator, a grower in Marana, for instance – after a few simple plant measurements – can determine through the Web app just how his or her crops are faring compared to what would be expected in the area.

If a crop is slow to grow, increased fertilizer or irrigation might be advised. If the crop is experiencing fast growth with lower than average levels of fruit retention, a plant growth regulator application might be required.

"This app will allow growers to collect data, visualize it on their phone and determine if something needs to be addressed with that crop," Andrade-Sánchez said. "Growers can make decisions based on very accurate information and very solid science."

Norton said the technology is useful to growers large and small. "We are trying to help growers become more efficient with the resources they have and improve their bottom line."

Andrade-Sánchez said Mobile Cotton is "ready for prime-time," and the college is spreading the word to growers and crop consultants about it. The app was developed through initial funding from Cotton Incorporated.

Mary Olsen, plant pathology specialist in the UA School of Plant Sciences, designed the Differentiating Diseases of Early Season Cotton Web application working with the CALS Programming and Web Development group, part of CALS Communications and Technologies.

"There is a new disease of cotton in California that prompted me to want to get more information out about how to differentiate diseases," Olsen said. "There is some concern we might find this disease in Arizona."

The disease—caused by a fungus—is called Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. vasinfectum race 4. Symptoms may be similar to other Arizona cotton disease. If it were to spread to the state, Olsen hopes the app would alert growers.

The Web app provides information on treating disease, and users can send photos of plants with suspected disease to Olsen with a few simple touches.

The app is funded by the Arizona Crop Improvement Association and Cooperative Extension. CCT plans to make it downloadable as an iOS mobile app from Apple iTunes App Store.

Yuta Torrey, lead developer for the Mobile Cotton app, said the challenge was to "put as much information on one little screen with as few thumb presses and scrolls as possible."

J.D. Gibbs is lead developer for the Differentiating Diseases of Early Season Cotton app. He said once the app is on your phone or tablet, you can use it wherever you are, even if Internet is not available.

Both apps will evolve as technology improves, Rahr added.

"Cotton is the most important agronomic crop in Arizona," Olsen said. "Our goal is to give growers information they need to make the best decisions they can."

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