Tuesday, December 2, 2003

Satellite imagery can help producers identify problems early

Source: UW Extension Service's press release
By: Vicki Hamende, Writer and Editor, Office of Ag Communications and Technology
Date: 2 Dec 2003

Orbiting satellites collecting data about land surfaces can help Wyoming producers learn information like where leafy spurge infestations are on the move and whether pastures are being overgrazed or undergrazed.

Through a year-old U.S. Geological Survey-funded program called WyomingView, investigators with the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center (WyGISC) hope to partner with the University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service to use mapping and spatial analysis at the grass roots level to save time and money for ranchers and farmers.  Located in newly remodeled offices in the College of Agriculture building, the center is the state’s largest repository of geospatial data used by industries, state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private citizens.

WyomingView is part of AmericaView, a program that promotes remote sensing technology, education, and research. “CES fits in on the education side,” says Kenneth Driese, principal investigator for the project. “Extension agents can make contact with individual ranchers and farmers who might be interested in improving their operations.”

The services are free to producers, who simply file a request for particular overhead images of their property and receive the records they have asked for either through their own computers or through a limited number of provided satellite dishes and computers.

Information gleaned from downloaded photographs can distinguish cured grass from new growth, monitor the necessity for fungicide treatments, test the success of variable rate nitrogen applications, determine spray drift damage, and analyze how the discharge of water from coalbed methane operations is impacting rangelands.

One farmer in North Dakota, headquarters of the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium of which UW is a member, was able to increase his income by $33 per acre after learning through satellite imagery that he was applying herbicides inadequately.

“The satellite can pick up plant distress caused by things like wind damage or pest attack or nutrient deficiencies long before the human eye can,” explains Ramesh Sivanpillai, coordinator of WyomingView. By studying color-coded aerial material, he says, producers can monitor their fields to spot damage before it is too late to reverse it. Driese points out that WyGISC’s direct connection to the USGS data center guarantees that producers can receive current information within a day or two of when it is requested.

Satellite image of Farson, WY
“This year we collected several images during the growing season that we gave to the Natural Resources Conservation Service to report to farmers,” Sivanpillai says. “CES can be using the same technology.”

The two scientists say College of Agriculture Dean Frank Galey and Associate Dean and CES Director Glen Whipple have expressed excitement about the opportunity. The WyomingView colleagues have also met with some CES agents and say they are eager to travel to different counties to make presentations about the services and free software they offer.

“One area we are discussing with Glen is how we can work together to train CES people and to find out what type of information they need,” Sivanpillai says. “I think this technology can help the way CES people do their jobs. They can help producers use images to do comparative analyses and pilot studies to predict yields. We hope the CES people will be able to help the end users.”

Driese says WyomingView is trying to build a UW-based consortium of data consumers in the state. “We are reaching out to federal agencies and community colleges and CES and NRCS to get the coalition growing,” he explains. “We’d like to make educational opportunities more available both at the UW level and outside the university.”

Driese says the program is also trying to add more data to the www.wygisc.uwyo.edu/wyview Web site. “For a state so sparsely populated, Wyoming is pretty far ahead of some areas in developing spatial data that farmers and ranchers can access,” Driese says. “There’s quite a lot of expertise growing on how to use it.” He notes that there are companies that provide sophisticated spectral analysis in parts of the country with more industrialized farming.

Sivanpillai says the program can help most producers in the state no matter how limited their holdings. “We’re small enough in Wyoming that they can just stop by or give us a call.”