Digital tools help with crops

Agricultural scientists from across Alberta are in Red Deer this week for Agronomy Update 2014.

Agricultural scientists from across Alberta are in Red Deer this week for Agronomy Update 2014.

The annual event, which kicked off Tuesday and continues today, features presentations on soil and crop issues.

About 400 people were on hand for yesterday’s proceedings, which included pest and disease forecasts for 2014, as well as discussions on control measures.

Among Tuesday’s presenters was Kelly Turkington, a plant pathology research scientist at the Lacombe Research Centre. He discussed how digital photography provides a good tool with which to diagnose crop problems.

“You’re in the field, you see an issue, you can act on that,” he said, explaining how a producer can snap a photo with a smartphone and email it to a crop specialist — and possible receive a reply within minutes.

That compares with the old practice of collecting samples, packaging and transporting these, and then waiting for a response. In 2012, said Turkington, he received 40 to 60 emailed photos with requests for feedback.

When he’s uncertain about a problem, he’s able to forward the image to other experts for their opinions.

“In some cases, we’re starting to see these images and requests being posted online on some of the social media sites, like Twitter.

“In that case, you might actually have advice from all over the world.”

Unfortunately, said Turkington, the images he receives are sometimes of poor quality or lack sufficient background information with which to make a diagnosis.

He offered tips for taking usable pictures, including placing plant samples on a flatbed scanner to obtain a magnified digital likeness.

Also speaking on Tuesday was Daniel Itenfisu, a drought modeler and agricultural water management engineer with the provincial government.

He described how Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development has developed a weather station network with which to monitor draught and excessive moisture, among other climatic information.

Itenfisu explained that the province decided to adopt a risk management approach to drought after particularly dry years in 2001 and 2002. But it lacked reliable data with which to do so.

Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development responded by setting up 47 weather stations in 2003 and 2004, and has since added more. Agriculture Financial Services Corp. also contributed more than 100, and with weather stations belonging to Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Alberta Environment and other organizations, the tally is up to about 373.

“So we have now a really reasonably good density of weather stations across the province,” said Itenfisu.

Among the data being collected is temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, precipitation levels and solar radiation. This information is valuable for such applications as irrigation and farm water management, crop insurance, grass fire risk reporting and more.

Because the data can be accessed online at www.agric.gov.ab.ca/acis, farmers can also use it to manage their operations, said Itenfisu.

They can check current and historic conditions at nearby weather stations, he said, and even overlay Environment Canada radar images onto their farms.

Also available are maps that compare current precipitation levels and other weather conditions to historical trends.

Agronomy Update 2014 was organized by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, and the Battle River Research Group.

It’s geared for grain producers, crop advisers and industry representatives.

hrichards@bprda.wpengine.com

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