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Satellite Link to Improved Farm Practices

Sugar beets infected with beet curly top virus are inspected by ARS plant pathologist and Western Sugar Company agriculturist. Click here for full photo caption.
Sugar beets infected with beet curly top virus undergo inspection by ARS plant pathologist Earl Ruppel (right) and Western Sugar Company agriculturist Mike Durnal. When diseases are first detected in an area, advisories can be sent immediately to all growers on the Data Transmission Network.

Nationwide, 100,000 farmers and agribusiness people now rely on information they receive directly from satellites to better plan the planting, growing, harvesting, and even marketing of their crops.

They use satellite systems provided by two commercial companies: Data Transmission Network of Omaha, Nebraska, and FarmDayta of DOS Moines, Iowa.

Colorado is one state where farmers—more than 1,500 of them—use the satellite services for accurate, up-to-date market and weather reports, as well as for information on when to irrigate their crops. They also use the services to help identify and track insect and disease infestations as they occur and move across the state.

About 1,000 pages of text or visual information are available 24 hours a day.

The systems' 30-inch-diameter receiving dish works like the more familiar ones that pull in premium-movie channel signals. The companies provide a monitor similar to one connected to a computer and an electronic box that receives and decodes the scrambled satellite signals. Subscribers pay about $250 as a one-time equipment deposit, then about what cable television runs—less than $50 a month. A printer can be added if users desire.

"A main benefit these systems afford subscribers is timeliness. The information farmers get is recent, so they can begin their irrigation or pest control operations before yield-reducing damage occurs," says James R. Welsh, director of the ARS Natural Resources Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Weather is updated hourly. Other information is updated daily—or minute-by-minute, if it's especially important.

During the summers of 1993 and 1994, Harold R. Duke, an agricultural engineer in ARS' Water Management Research Unit in Fort Collins, provided information on evapotranspiration to the satellite system.

Bob Hamblen makes crop information available to agricultural producers through images and text transmitted over satellite. Click here for full photo caption.
Bob Hamblen of Colorado State University Cooperative Extension makes crop information available to agricultural producers through CD images and text transmitted over satellite systems.

Subscribers who have irrigated crops need to know the amount of water that is evaporating from plant leaves and soil surfaces so they know when to turn on the water, he says. Correct and timely information can save water, too, by making sure excess isn't applied.

Duke is the administrator for COAGMET—a 25-station, statewide agricultural meteorological network in Colorado. Each day, it collects and processes weather data (including calculations of crop water use), places the data in a computer bulletin board system, and provides access instructions to prospective users. This information is uploaded daily to the two satellite systems.

This year, Bob Hamblen, who is with Cooperative Extension at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, has worked with various campus departments to digitize more than 1-500 color slides and images on a CD-ROM storage device.

The scientists bring this information up on a computer, electronically enlarge portions or delete superfluous ones, electronically paste in explanatory text, and give the best recommendations.

Hamblen, who is the satellite information delivery coordinator for the project, then coordinates sending the information via computer modem to both Des Moines and Omaha. Total time can be less than an hour and could become a matter of seconds, once everyone gets more familiar with the mechanics.

The images digitized so far deal with crop production issues such as diseases, weeds, cultural practices, and insects that affect Colorado crops. These photos show vividly, for example, what the insects look like in various life stages and the damage they can cause.

Agricultural engineer Harold Duke sets up an automated sprinkler irrigation system. Click here for full photo caption.
Near Fort Collins, Colorado, agricultural engineer Harold Duke sets up an automated sprinkler irrigation system.

"We are producing color maps that show infested areas of the state. For example, if the corn rootworm were spreading from east to west, we could color an infested area red and farmers could see how many miles their farm was away from the advancing front. This will give them more time to plan control strategies," Duke says.

"State-of-the-art control strategies might one day come from computer models. These could be used to assess potential threats that insects pose. If potential damage doesn't exceed projected costs for control, such as chemicals and their application costs, a model would offer the option to do nothing," says Duke.

In a recent survey of users, some subscribers said they view the satellite information before they read a newspaper or magazine.

The survey also showed that users increased net farm income by an average of nearly $1,500 per year and that they check the service more than 3 times a week.

While the basic systems are currently in use throughout the United States, the information specific to Colorado growers is provided at no additional cost by the two satellite services. Colorado information, now the equivalent of about 20 pages, was made possible by a grant from Colorado State University Cooperative Extension.

Beginning in 1984, Data Transmission Network was the first to deliver national news and market information into farm homes by computer modem. Three years ago, FarmDayta began making information available via satellite.

Currently, 12 Cooperative Extension county or area offices are using the systems, as well as ARS installations in Fort Collins and Akron, Colorado. The university has three units on campus and one at a nearby field station. But satellite systems are also being installed in nontraditional sites, like coffee shops where farmers gather. And a banking official says he uses it to help customers stay informed.

Other partners include the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which is providing crop water use information: Mountain States Weather does the regional weather forecast; and the Colorado Dry Bean Administrative Committee, Northern Colorado Onion Association, and Arkansas Valley (Colorado) Growers and Shippers Association are now linking their weather station data into the systems. — By Dennis Senft, ARS.


USDA-ARS Water Management Research Unit, Natural Resources Research Center, 2150 Centre Avenue, Building D, Suite 320, Fort Collins, CO 80526-8119; phone (970) 492-7400.


"Satellite Link to Improved Farm Practices" was published in the January 1995 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.


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