Aerial Application

It’s nearly that time of summer that brightly colored planes and helicopters can be seen buzzing over Iowa fields, dipping low onto the horizon and rising up over the crops again. These agricultural pilots and their amazing machines are important to helping Iowa crops grow healthy and strong. But what are they spraying, and why is it necessary?

Farmers can choose aerial application of pesticides for their crops, and usually do so when the crop is too tall or the soil is too saturated to apply crop protectants with a tractor or self-propelled sprayer. By this time the crop’s dense leaf canopy has mostly closed, preventing weeds from growing, so the majority of crop protectants that are sprayed aerially are fungicides and insecticides. The farmer or agronomist will walk through fields, looking for pests, pest damage, or disease. Once the pest level reaches economic threshold, or the point at which the cost of controlling the pest will be less than the cost of the damage from the pest, most farmers will choose to spray to get rid of pests. Most farmers are looking for corn rootworm beetles chewing on ear silks when scouting corn fields.

The pilots that man these crop protecting aircrafts are highly trained. The average aerial applicator has more than 20 years of experience. They are required to have their Pesticide Applicator’s Licenses and are regulated under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Federal Aviation Administration all play a role in making sure that crop protectants are applied safely.

The planes that aerial applicators use to apply crop protectants are technologically advanced . The planes are equipped with Global Positioning and Global Information Systems as well as precisely calibrated spray equipment to ensure that crops are being sprayed effectively and safely. Precision application equipment allows for less pesticide application over more acres, and reduced drifting of chemicals, in contrast with older aerial application systems. The typical aerial applicator used to be a by-plane or a plane leftover from World War II that was updated to spray, but now companies like Air Tractor specialize in engineering and manufacturing hi-tech aerial applicators.

It may be scary to see chemicals sprayed through the air, but there are actually a lot of benefits to aerial spraying.   Aerial application reduces compaction and erosion of the soil, because the pesticides are being applied without disturbing or running over the soil. There is no damage to the crop in the field, because it is being treated from above instead of within. And, an aerial applicator can cover more acres in an hour than ground equipment (like self-propelled sprayers) can cover in an entire day. This has great advantages, because timing of application of pesticides is crucial to their success .

It’s not just conventional farmers that reap the benefits of aerial application; organic farmers can apply approved organic pesticides, such as Bt, sulfur, and rotenone, to their crops via air. Some organic farmers have these pesticides applied almost daily to prevent and control insects and weed pressure. Aerial applicators are also capable of seeding rice and wheat, fight forest and grassland fires, and defoliate cotton before harvest.

Aerial application is a valuable tool for farmers all across the country. These highly skilled workers contribute a great deal to the success of crops from corn to tomatoes by protecting yields from insects, disease, fungi and weeds. And, it’s pretty neat sight to see!

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