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Aerial applicators fill more jobs as tech improves

Aerial Application

Robert Klein pulls a plane out of the hanger so it can be loaded with fuel and fungicide for a spraying assignment.

It’s not your imagination. There are more airplanes flying over Midwestern fields in recent years.

Fueled by new technology and a push to apply fungicides and seed cover crops, the nation’s aerial applicators are flying low over more fields than ever, according to industry leaders. A survey of applicators in 2012 showed that about 18.75% of all commercial cropland saw an aerial application. A similar survey in 2019 pushed that figure up to about 28%.

“We have seen growth in the past 10 years,” says Andrew Moore, executive director of the National Agricultural Aviation Association.

The industry is marking its 100th anniversary in 2021, Moore says, and its outlook has never been brighter.

The last century brought almost unimaginable innovation and technological advancement in agriculture, Moore says, and changes in aerial application illustrate that.

The first documented aerial application came on Aug. 3, 1921, according to NAAA records. A U.S. army test pilot, Lt. John Macready, applied lead arsonate dust from a World War I

surplus biplane over a Troy, Ohio, Catalpa grove as part of an experiment by the Ohio Department of Agriculture, which was trying to deal with sphinx moth caterpillars. The test was a success and the trees were saved.

Today there are 1,560 aerial applicators in the country with about 3,300 to 3,400 aircraft. They fly over all types of crops, but corn, wheat and soybeans are probably the biggest in terms of acres sprayed. Pasture land would be fourth on that list.

Pesticides are still sprayed, but in recent years fungicides and seed for cover crops have been added to the list.

“At this point of the season, I think there are some corn fungicides (and possibly insecticides) being applied, but likely the shift has moved over to soybean fungicides (and possibly insecticides),” says Iowa State University Extension agronomist Mark Licht.

In a few weeks the switch will be made to seeding cover crops, mostly cereal rye.

That move toward aerial seeding of cover crops came with an expense for applicators. Instead of using liquid application equipment, they needed to invest in the machinery to apply dry material, Moore says.

Meanwhile, they are constantly working to make liquid applications safer. That means calibration training and work with nozzles and computer equipment. Droplet software technology has helped most applicators to put down the right size droplet to eliminate major drift issues.

But Moore says the two biggest technologies that changed aerial application were turbine aircraft engines and GPS. The turbine engines came on the scene in the 1970s and are more reliable and powerful than previous engines. That allowed applicators to go faster and carry more weight than before, meaning fewer landings, which saved money and improved safety. The GPS technology eliminated the need for flaggers and cut down on over-spraying. It also allowed for variable rate technology.

All of this is important for an industry that has men and women flying just 10 feet above the ground in many cases when applying liquid to a field and perhaps 40 feet above the ground when applying seed.

“They’re very skilled, Moore says of the applicators.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.

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