Air, Apparently

Aerial application

Based upon the early returns from market analysts and Extension researchers, 2007 could end up being a blessing and a curse for aerial applicators.

On the plus side of the equation, a substantial increase in the number of corn acres being grown across the country could translate into significantly more business opportunities for aerial applicators.

On the negative side, significantly more corn acres could tax the ability of the aerial applicator network to “get the job done” during the season’s narrow application window.

“It took, at times, a week to 10 days to get a plane to get the job done,” says Robin Schroeder, manager for Wagner Seed and Supply, Jerseyville, IL, of the company’s aerial application experience during the normal paced 2006 season. “The acres being done were overwhelming and I realized then that if we had an aphid, rootworm, or fungicide rush, we were going to be in a world of hurt. It’s not the airplane numbers, it’s the time responding to the need.”

As most retailers know by now, the reason this situation is coming to the forefront in 2007 ties back to the expected uptick in demand for U.S. corn to feed the ethanol trend. Since the U.S. government issued the Renewable Fuel Program of the Energy Policy Act in 2005, the activity surrounding the biofuels market has been steadily increasing. To meet the Act’s goal of alternative fuel usage of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012, some ag economists estimate the nation’s ever-growing number of ethanol plants will be consuming 2.5 billion bushels of corn per year, up from approximately 1 billion bushels today. If this projection is correct, ethanol will utilize more than 30% of the U.S. corn harvest annually over the next five years — double the industry’s current usage figure.

Preparing to meet this anticipated demand, U.S. growers are planting many more acres of corn than at any time in the past 50 years. Although projections vary depending upon their source, most analysts foresee a minimum of 9 million to a maximum of 12 million more corn acres going into American soil by the time spring’s planting season is complete. This increase will put total corn acreage between 80 million and 90 million acres.

The Quest For Higher Yield

As a result of all this activity, the per bushel price for corn has risen from $1.80 in 2006 to more than $4 during the first quarter of 2007. Naturally, this potential “money boom” is encouraging growers to look at any method possible to boost their corn yields to as high a level as possible. According to some research, one of the ways to accomplish this is through the application of a corn fungicide during the tasseling stage of crop growth. A few studies indicate corn yield can be increased by up to 15 bushels per acre using this method. “Manufacturers are coming to the table with products and are proving a yield increase on all corn,” says Joel Meyer, an aerial applicator based in Iowa.

According to Andrew Moore, executive director for the National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA), this is the point at which aerial applicators are expected to come into the corn equation in 2007. “This fungicide application is being done at a time when the corn is too high for most ground applicators to work,” says Moore. “Also, aerial application can be done even if the field is too wet for ground applicators to run.”

There is a fear in the industry, however, that there won’t be enough aerial applicators to go around once tasseling time begins, given the increased amount of corn acres they will be asked to cover. At the recent Commodity Classic trade show, several attendees reported hearing that dozens of growers were “paying money in advance” to aerial applicators to “make certain they will have them lined up to cover all their extra acres.”

Still, most aerial applicators CropLife talked with are confident that they will be able to handle the added acreage without too much trouble. “We are a tight community that reaches across the country with equipment that is very mobile,” says Tim Tyree, an aerial applicator at Tyree Ag Inc., Kinsley, KS. “While I don’t have the equipment to spray all the corn in my immediate area myself over a two-day period, I do have — just like every other pilot in the country — a network of operations and pilots I can call to make sure my customers’ fields are sprayed timely and correctly.”

Bryan Hauschild, an aerial applicator at Otter Aviation, Inc., Fergus Falls, MN, agrees. “Our operation may not have the large turbine aircraft, but we can have multiple aircraft come to our operation in short time,” says Hauschild. “We can even have aircraft here the same day from as far away as Texas. Since we have reciprocity agreements between many states, the applicator does not have to wait for testing and license issuance to begin work.”

Doing Some Field Work

Of course, the key to meeting this demand will boil down to timing. According to Meyer, the commercial corn acreage potential in his Iowa territory ranges from 50,000 acres to more than 150,000 acres. “Timing is one of the big issues,” he says. “The direction we’ve been given is that if you see a tassel or two in the field, it’s time to start.”

To make this process easier, Meyer will rely on the retailers and growers to do the scouting, which is relatively easy since tassels are easy to spot. He also uses precision technology on each plane that provides highly accurate application guidance and ensures a thorough and effective application.

What’s not so easy is predicting the application window, and how fast it will close. In general, once tasseling starts, the window for maximum benefit is 10 days to 2 weeks.
“Of course, weather will have a significant impact,” notes Meyer. “Cooler temperatures and low moisture will increase our window, while heat and rain will move the corn right along. It will test us as far as getting the people in the right places.” There also can be days lost to weather issues such as high wind that ground the planes.

Meyer says that at this point, retailers and manufacturers are clear on the benefits, the product options, and the application method, but more strategic planning is required as far as ensuring growers are served when needed.

“There’s no reason retailers can’t sit down now and map out a strategy for aerial-applied corn acres,” says Meyer. “For example, multiple maturity dates can create more opportunities — 100-day corn vs. 113-day corn will have very different tasseling times, and planting dates will also affect maturity. Retailers need to get this information from growers if they don’t already have it and incorporate it into the strategy.”

Thinking Ahead

As far as his own capacity, Meyer is fairly confident he can handle the workload that’s coming, but admits he has no idea how much pent-up demand might be out there. “Growers need to visit with retailers and plan things out so they get the service they need,” says Meyer.

NAAA’s Moore agrees with this viewpoint. “The aerial application industry is migratory with adequate supply networks,” he says. “However, growers that may have significant demand for corn fungicide applications should contact their local aerial applicators immediately so the applicator can gauge the number of planes and pilots they will need to supply during this busy application window from areas of the country where aerial applicators may not be as active during the corn fungicide application season.”

Getting into this kind of pre-planning habit probably isn’t a bad idea, adds Moore. “From everything that been said about it, ethanol appears to be the kind of trend that will have some very long legs,” he says. “This will most likely mean plenty of corn acreage increases for many years to come. Getting used to this market reality now is probably the best way to make sure the whole aerial application industry can be there to help when its called upon to do so.”

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