A Snapshot Of Aerial Application

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Aerial Application Plane, Air Tractor

This summer, CropLife editors sent out a brief survey to our enewsletter readers to better understand the impact aerial application is having on ag retailers, especially in light of this market’s substantial growth in the last five years. While not all 126 respondents answered all 10 questions, they still provided solid information for us to work with. We thank the owners and managers who took the time to share their input. We received almost equal responses between cooperatives and independent dealerships, with a number of returns coming from firms that are a part of a national or regional chain of retailers (not coops).

The responses only highlight the importance of aerial work, with fully 88% of companies saying they used the services of an aerial application professional in the last two years.

What were the operators’ assignments? Fungicides, baby! Preventive fungicide application on corn was number one with 77% of the retailers saying they did this work for customers. Fifty-four percent made preventive fungicide application on soybeans.

But just over half (52%) came in with rescue applications of insecticides on corn and/or soybeans, proving this is still a vital need, even with the widespread use of genetically engineered crops.

Apart from the buzz about fungicides, aerial is also important in herbicide application as well, with 45% of dealers saying they used it on a variety of crops. Then, too, ag airplanes put down a considerable amount of fertilizer — 41% of companies told us they did this service for growers, a good portion perhaps going on rice fields in the South.

In our discussions with aerial experts and pilots for this report, one thing that frustrated operators was how retailers and growers don’t plan well enough for applications. Tony Goede, aerial manager at BASF Corp., estimates a whopping 70% of work is “last minute,” scheduled within a week or two of the need. Retailers in our survey (82%) said they do plan as much as possible but rely on rescue applications as well. Almost 10% admitted they “rarely” plan aerial work and count more on rescues. In fact, 8% said they only use aerial services for rescue applications.

Survey respondents had strikingly positive words about the quality of service they’ve received from aerial professionals. An impressive 84% say they felt the work was “very good” or “exceptional.” The applications were deemed “acceptable” by 12%, and “fair” by 4%. It is a testament to aerial professionals that none of the retailers surveyed rated their work “not acceptable.”

Power Of The Planes

While ag aircraft have been evolving into powerful, cutting-edge machines over the past several years, the majority of our surveyed retailers did not seem too concerned about what kind of planes aerial applicators use. When asked if the aircraft type used influences the decision to work with an aerial company, 74% said no. The plane utilized was a deciding factor for 26% of retailers.

Many of today’s operators are flying Air Tractor and Thrush aircraft with turbine engines that can cover large stretches of fields quickly — an imperative as treated acreage continue to grow. But single and double piston planes from companies such as Cessna and Pawnee continue to service the industry as well.

A portion of our aerial report this month focuses on whether retailers should contract with an aerial firm or purchase their own planes. Of those we surveyed, 81% do not have an in-house aerial application service, while 19% do.

Our report will show the commitment to building your own aerial segment is absolutely huge. Our surveyed retailers understand that: 61% of them saying they have “no plans” to even consider the move. Four percent did consider the possibility, but decided not to move ahead.

But, alas, the business and scheduling control promised by having your own planes is enticing. Just over 3% of retailers responding said they are seriously considering the investment; 17% have discussed the possibility, and 15% said they have not considered an in-house aerial segment yet, but “may in the future.”

Speaking Out

We posed one open-ended question to our surveyed readers: “In a few words, what is the biggest challenge you deal with in working with an aerial application professional?” The number one response was timeliness, followed by reliability/dependability, then by accuracy. Retailers obviously want the job done promptly by committed, trained applicators. We will see in this report how pinpointing grower customers’ needs as much as possible in the fall and winter would be a real help in getting work done on time.

The next most important traits our respondents look for in pilots are professionalism and honesty. The pilots we talked with are committed to both. For survey respondents, professionalism is evidenced in part by being “clean and neat (that way I know he cares)” and “not a showman” or not “crazy.” Retailers also valued a partnering relationship with aerial applicators that are “transparent, easy to do business with,” and offer “good communication.” As we will see, building relationships via regular and honest communication goes far in getting jobs done right.

Perhaps surprisingly, experience and equipment were not widely mentioned as challenges for respondents — though accuracy could certainly be a sign of experience. It seems retailers trust the skills and planes most of today’s pilots possess, but the aerial operators we interviewed highly encouraged retailers to do research on both.

Heacox is a Contributing Editor for the CropLife Media Group, which includes CropLife and CropLife IRON magazines, and the PrecisionAg Special Reports.

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