Crop sprayers provide farms with effective pest control

By Nikki Kallio

It’s the peak season for rural sightings of yellow aircraft gracefully dipping over fields throughout the Midwest. While it’s fun to observe the aerial maneuvers, what’s happening in the pilot’s seat is serious business.

“I love to fly, but my gratification comes from knowing I did something more positive for society as a whole,” said Damon Reabe, president of both Reabe Spraying Service in Plover and Plainfield, Wis., and Dairyland Aviation in Waupun, Wis. “I know that those growers that chose our service are going to generate more bushels from their fertilizer.”

Crop sprayers provide a variety of services to growers, including application of fungicide, pesticide, fertilizer and cover crop seeding. They also can offer other services such as scouting and aerial imagery.

In the Central Sands area of Wisconsin, Reabe Spraying Service protects potatoes from late blight fungus, as well as works with canners to protect peas, green beans, lima beans and sweet corn from disease and insects. The company also services cranberry bogs. Dairyland Aviation, which Reabe operates with his uncle Bob Reabe, mainly applies fungicide and insecticide on forage and grain crops.

In 1945, Reabe’s grandfather, Roy, launched Reabe Flying Service as a flight school, evolving it into a crop dusting company several years later. In 1979, Reabe’s father Tom and uncles J.R., Jeff and Bob formed Reabe Spraying Service. As a part of a succession plan, they divided the two companies in 2016.

“We’ll travel any distance throughout Wisconsin, provided that the work order is large enough that we can move our equipment and still have it be financially feasible,” said Reabe, though the majority of work is with farms within about a 40-mile radius.

Similarly, Randy Van Veldhuizen, who owns Countryside Ag Services in Hawarden and Rock Valley, Iowa, normally will travel about a 50-mile radius, mainly working with corn and soybean crops. Van Veldhuizen started selling seed in the 1990s and “requests from farmers for us to do more than seed is kind of how we got here.”

So in 2003, Countryside Ag added a flying service provided by Crop Dusters, LLC, owned by Van Veldhuizen’s son and son-in-law. Countryside also provides ground application services, crop scouting to help detect pests and recommendations for fertilizer, herbicide and seed. The company also provides aerial imagery, aerial cover crop application, soil sampling, portable seed treating services and weigh wagon services.

Ground application generally occurs early on in the season when crops are smaller and they may switch to aerial services later in the season.

“When the crop gets larger, it just doesn’t make sense to drive through it anymore because going to do too much damage,” Van Veldhuizen said.

Additionally, he added that with aerial services “you can get a lot of acres done quickly, and it’s very efficient.”

During the winter months, Van Veldhuizen sells for the next season. “September first, you start selling seed for next year,” he said.

Reabe also said the off-season is spent prepping for the next season. The company works on maintenance to ensure both aircraft and ground facilities are ready and in top shape for the next spring. He also leads educational seminars on services, the results of applications and growing cover crops.

“We visit a lot with our customers to maintain those relationships,” Reabe said. “We like to spend time usually around Christmas to say ‘thanks’ and make a quick visit.”

Additionally, Reabe, who logged 15 years of experience flying corporate jets in addition to his aerial application flights, is the government relations chair for the National Agricultural Aviation Association Board of Directors, “so we spent an extensive amount of time working with chemical registrants and the EPA on proposed rulemaking regarding aerial application. So it’s a busy winter.”

Drone technology, which is beginning to be used for multi-spectral imagery in agriculture, may bring a complementary component to crop spraying companies in the future.

“I think there is going to be more advancements in agricultural research regarding aerial imagery in the ability to find pests and nutrient deficiencies,” Reabe said. “As that technology further develops, we will get extremely accurate prescription maps of where the fertilizer and pesticides need to go.”

That will reduce the needed volume and allow crop sprayers to accomplish the same task more effectively while reducing costs, he continued.

Drones won’t compete with aircraft in terms of spraying crops simply because they don’t have the ability to carry the load that’s needed. As an example, one day in July, Reabe carried 230,000 pounds of urea dried fertilizer, requiring an aircraft with a max gross weight of 16,000 pounds.

“In order for a drone to be an actual legitimate tool for pest control, we’d need a complete change in technology of the pesticides themselves,” Reabe said.

While that may become possible in the future, aerial application still has an additional human factor. “A drone has no means of spotting the neighbor that came out to watch the aerial application or the bicyclist coming down the road,” Reabe said. “A pilot with a panoramic view can see and take the proper precautions to make the application safely.”