Precision farming technology may benefit insect control

What precision farming has done for other aspects of agriculture, it might also do for insect control.

Precision farming, a marriage literally made in heaven between space age technology and personal and pocket computers, enables farmers to download a wide array of information from orbiting satellites to guide fertilizer and chemical applications — a technique that has resulted in tremendous cost savings.

Insect experts such as Kathy Flanders believe the technology also could be adapted to insect scouting, a tedious process that, in some cases, may involve turning over virtually every leaf in a field or pasture to detect the presence of pests — an equally daunting task when soilborne pests are involved.

That's why Flanders, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist and Auburn University associate professor of entomology and plant pathology, finds precision farming technology so promising.

She and other entomologists already are using the GPS mapping techniques to log exactly where an insect sample comes from and to develop highly accurate maps of an area's topography. They're also using soil conductivity measurements provided by the technology to identify the areas with the highest levels of moisture-holding capacity — part of an overall strategy to construct a clearer picture.

“If the insects turn up in the same place year after year, it leads you to ask what it is about that spot that makes it so ideally suited to the pests,” Flanders says. “So, if you can figure out what the insects like, you know where to start looking.”

“The ultimate goal is to become better able to predict where insects — in this case, ground-based insects — are most likely to be found," Flanders says. "We will never be rid of scouting altogether, but we may be able to use the techniques as predictive tools to determine where our scouting should be directed.

“Once we can begin predicting with a reasonable degree of accuracy where the insects will show up year after year, half the battle is won leading to insect control strategies that are far more effective but far less expensive.”

Flanders is especially interested in using the technology to predict where white grubs — larvae associated with several species of beetles — are most likely to cluster in pasturelands.

Scientists already know, for instance, that some beetles prefer laying eggs in areas of heavy organic matter, a fact confirmed in a study Flanders and one of her graduate students conducted at Auburn University's Upper Coastal Plain Agricultural Research Center near Winfield. Maps of one research paddock, for example, confirmed that the beetle populations were heavily concentrated in the areas where the boiler litter was applied.

“It was a difference of night and day,” she recalls.

Flanders is especially enthusiastic over the role this technology ultimately will play in helping her and other scientists control populations of soil borne pests for which effective chemical control measures currently aren't available.

“We currently don't have products labeled that are effective in soil against these types of pests," she says. “So, learning as much as we can about these pests may help us identify biological control methods or to alter the physical environment in ways to reduce their numbers.”

Fire ant control is one area where precision farming techniques may prove especially effective, she says. Fire ant mounds often can be mapped so that baits can be applied more selectively.

High-accuracy mapping provided through precision farming ultimately may enable farmers and others to keep better track of how well control measures worked or didn't work, Flanders says.

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