Q&A: Maximize Drone ROI On Your Farm

Tennessee farmer Corey Blick attends a Tennessee State University drone training event in Springfield, Tenn. ( Corey Blick )

Building trust in food begins with empowering farmers through one of the largest and most diverse conservation- and sustainability-focused public-private partnerships in our nation’s history: America’s Conservation Ag Movement. To find the latest news and resources related to the Movement, visit AgWeb.com/ACAM.

Drones have zipped lower in cost and soared higher in battery life over the past few years, making them increasingly attractive for farm operations. Yet how do you know if you’re getting the most horsepower out of a technology that for some might be stalled out at hobby status? 

One leader at Tennessee State University Extension set out to help farmers in his state answer that question. With grant funding from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Jason de Koff developed a training program to give farmers more sky time—and a firsthand look at the business benefits this technology can have in making operations more resilient and better stewards of their environmental and financial resources. 

Tennessee State University Extension and de Koff, associate professor and Extension program leader for agronomy and natural resources, are the winner of the Farm Journal Monthly Story Lead Contest. The partnership between eXtension and Trust In Food, a Farm Journal initiative, highlights the impact of Extension and resulting benefits for farmers and their communities. In July 2020, the contest focused on the role of precision technology on modern U.S. farms. 

To offer AgWeb.com’s readers practical advice on making the most of their drones—no matter whether they are first-time users or experienced pros—Trust In Food sat down with de Koff; East Roane County livestock producer David Brashears; and Loudon County Extension agent John Goddard for the following Q&A. Responses have been lightly edited for grammar, style and flow.

Tell our readers a little bit about your professional backgrounds. 

BRASHEARS: I am a fourth-generation family member to live and work a farm. My great-grandparents on both side of the family were full time farmers. My father inherited our current farm from my mother’s folks. The farm is well over a century old. My father worked the farm and then began work with Tennessee Valley Authority building the Norris Dam. 

As the Oak Ridge Federal operations came into reality, my father went to work at the K-25 facility while maintaining the farm operation in East Roane County, Tenn. He maintained cattle, sheep, horses, gardens, hay and other products to assist in raising seven children. 

I am the youngest of family. My brother closest to me has maintained the farm as a cattle operation since the ‘70s. We currently maintain approximately 20-plus head of registered, commercial Black Angus. We market approximately 20 feeder calves a year in special feeder calf sales or to a backgrounding operation. 

My family has been involved in 4-H activities since the ‘80s. My children were national winners in their 4-H horse project. We show all types of livestock—horses, cattle, sheep, chickens—and also are involved in public speaking and other projects in 4-H.

DE KOFF: Since earning my Ph.D. in agronomy from Purdue University, and working with the USDA-ARS for two years, I have been working as a state-wide specialist at Tennessee State University over the last 10 years. I’ve developed farmer programs that focus on producing biodiesel on the farm by using a mobile biodiesel demonstration that we would take along to workshops to complement information on the agronomics and economics of growing biodiesel feedstock crops. I also engaged in programming related to soil health and provided training and a soil health test kit to Extension agents that they could use in the field to assist farmers.

GODDARD: I was raised on a beef & dairy farm in Louisville, Tenn. After receiving my bachelor’s and master’s in animal science at the University of Tennessee in 1980, I was employed by the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service – in Bradley County, Hawkins County and, currently, Loudon County.

How did you all become interested in working with drones?

BRASHEARS: As the technology for drones became more accessible to commercial-type endeavors, I purchased a drone in mid-2000. I thought it would be a great tool for maintaining oversight of the cattle operations without having to walk or drive to check cattle every day and to assess hay and pasture conditions. Therefore, I have maintained an interest in this technology as it has progressed. 

I noted the development of drones for military purposes during the last 30 years with interest. I knew that this technology would soon be available to the general public. As it has become more available, the industry began to improve the reliability, length of flight time and imaging of camera technology. 

I still have the original drone, however I do not fly it very often. I have waited till now to purchase a drone with more flight time and greater capabilities for filming.

DE KOFF: I became interested in working with drones when I realized how they could be applied to agriculture.  I was awarded a grant in 2018 by USDA NIFA that allowed me to purchase drones and develop a hands-on workshop to let farmers “try before they buy.” Other information such as how drones could be used in agriculture, different options and costs, and federal regulations were also provided at these workshops to try to give the full picture and allow farmers to make the best educated decision for their farm.

GODDARD: I have always been fascinated with aerial photography. As a 4-H agent, I had to train our wildlife judging teams how to evaluate aerial photographs for wildlife habitat. Whenever I would fly commercially with any of my 4-H wildlife judging team members, I would always use the window seats as my teaching tool. 

For the last 25 years, I have been primarily focused on adult agriculture programs. We do corn and soybean variety test plots along with several other crop-testing programs in our county. One of our corn test plots is located beside a river bridge. I always loved that site because I could scout the field for problems by standing on the bridge. Two of the University of Tennessee specialists, Darrell Hensley and Neal Eash, have helped us scout crop fields with drones. I went on a Tennessee Farmers Co-op trip a few years ago with our Co-op Manager John Walker. He has a drone and told me all about how he checks his cows with it.  

Lastly, when county agents have to do livestock abuse calls, how handy would a drone be to check on starving or abused animals instead of having to confront the irate and sometimes dangerous owners?

What makes you so passionate about drones and the potential benefit to your farm operation?

BRASHEARS: All ag operations are looking for ways and means to lower risk, reduce cost, use technology to provide a better product for the consumer, and maintain an affordable food supply for the U.S. and the world. John has been a major force in this technology and other means and methods for the betterment of animal and crop operations. 

What are the most exciting advances in drone technology for farms over the past 2-3 years? What yet-to-be-introduced improvements and benefits do you see on the horizon?

BRASHEARS: The reduction in labor for maintaining close observation of your operations is critical. As the age of the agriculture owners move into the 50s and early 60s, the technology will allow operations to continue and the operators that love the industry to maintain an interest in agricultural production.

DE KOFF: Having software available that helps users analyze their images for trouble spots—whether it is due to issues related to pest pressure, soil fertility, physical characteristics or moisture—is very helpful to allow more efficient and effective responses.

There is a lot of research being done to determine ways to use drones to identify specific diseases, insects, nutrient deficiencies or yield estimates. As these become more accurate, they can provide a greater benefit.  Also, being able to identify this information in real time, rather than having to upload, stitch images together to form a map and analyze the data, will make drone use even more beneficial.  

There is some interesting work being done using drones or fleets of drones to apply pesticides and fertilizers.

GODDARD: When drone and camera prices dropped dramatically a couple years ago, this concept became a real possibility. Longer-range batteries and simpler mapping programs are needed. I wish it were easier to get a drone license. 

What are the economic, agronomic and environmental benefits farmers can realize from using drones?

BRASHEARS: I believe that famers can use this technology to reduce crop inputs. That reduction will assist protein-based agriculture that depends on feed at a reasonable price. It will also allow animal production to view the animals in a timely manner that will help to identify problems early rather than later. 

DE KOFF: The biggest economic benefits are the time savings. Using a drone to scout a field or animals can be especially useful in saving time to identify “hot spots” that need further investigation. As the average age of farmers is close to 60, this can help them stay active in their land management. Also, drones can entice younger individuals into farming by showing that farming encompasses many technological advances.  

From an agronomic standpoint, a drone can cut down on the time spent driving or walking a field. This can allow for more frequent scouting. More frequent scouting increases the likelihood of finding a potential issue before it becomes a major problem. 

As sensors and software algorithms are further refined, there could be better determination of rates of some types of fertilizer for crops growing in the field. This would enhance precision ag capabilities for greater economic and environmental benefits.

GODDARD: Farm labor runs from $10 to $20 an hour and up. For row crops, a corn field of 50 acres could be scouted in just a few minutes. Once corn reaches 5 ft. in height, it can’t be scouted at all without a drone. A simple soybean scouting job for diseases, insects or fertility could be done in minutes rather than days by foot. 

For beef, dairy, sheep, goats or horses, the stock could be visually checked daily in just a few minutes, compared to several minutes or hours if done by foot, truck, tractor or four-wheeler. This would be extremely handy during birthing season or checking on hay or pasture supply. 

Another farmer told me he uses his drone to check fences after a storm rather than waiting for the neighbors to call.

How can farmers pencil out the ROI of investing in (or upgrading) a drone?

BRASHEARS: The industry has done a great job in reducing the cost of the drone technology. As with any investment that is ag-related, one has to assure that the ROI is sufficient to justify the purchase. 

DE KOFF: A good scouting drone is around $400 to $1,600. As with anything, this could increase depending upon how much you want to do. I wouldn’t recommend anything below $400, since the cheaper ones may be more difficult to maneuver. 

Sensors can be $2,000 to $6,000 or more. Software applications that analyze images are $50 per month to $250 per month. But you don’t have to have the sensors and software. They can provide additional information that you can’t see with the naked eye, but you can still see a lot with the stock digital camera that comes with the drone.  

The savings in time will be seen right away.

GODDARD: Time is money. I have found that anything that saves me time at work means I can spend more quality time with my family. You can’t put a price on this quality family time. When we die, our legacy is our family not the farm. I think farmers can be better farmers. 

Two hundred dollars will buy a 150-meter-range drone, video camera, memory card and spare 15-minute battery. I would think one could make a $1,000-or-less drone pay for itself easily in a year or so. 

What training, resources and time commitment should farmers expect to spend using their drones to get direct business benefit?

BRASHEARS: As with any new products, acceptance will be slow until the individual can see the results. Therefore, more training with hands-on experiences helps tremendously.

DE KOFF: Farmers are required to get the Part 107 remote pilot certification prior to using a drone for their operations. This entails some studying for the exam, which is $160 and is good for two years upon passing (70% or higher).  

I offer a four-hour training that provides the material related to the exam. Certification is required for drones that are 0.55 lb. to 55 lb., including payload.

There is one drone (DJI Mavic Mini) that is light enough that you can fly it without being certified or registering your drone. 

With respect to flying, it will take some time to get to know how to maneuver the drone, but it really depends upon the user. Some will pick it up quickly, while others may take some time getting used to the controls. 

The drone price minimum that I identified will enhance the ease of use because these drones do not require continuous adjusting in the air and will hover in place.

GODDARD: Jason de Koff has a hands-on training and a PowerPoint training that lasted about two to three hours total. I think this was enough to get the new pilots going. There are videos online that would be helpful, too.

What’s one example of a farmer you’ve worked with who went from “never flown before” to “I can’t imagine farming without this”?

DE KOFF: I don’t know if I’ve got one farmer in particular, but during my workshops it has come up countless times where farmers mention how they thought they would be harder to fly.  

Many were concerned about flying the drones we provided in the workshops for fear of crashing them.  Once they tried it, though, they started thinking about all of the things they could use it for.  It really opened up their eyes more than anything I could have said to them.  

That’s why the hands-on flying is really a key component to the workshops.  In the surveys that farmers filled out following the workshops, 63% indicated that drones were less difficult to fly than they had thought, which really corroborates this.

I think in some cases, participants might have tried some of the cheaper drones that are on the market and were frustrated by how difficult they were to fly.

What action steps would you recommend farmers take to advance their application of drones to the next level of professionalism if they are… 

…a first-time drone user?

DE KOFF: Learn to control the aircraft, take pictures and video, and get used to the different features that come with the drone.

GODDARD: Practice in an open field. Nothing takes the place of hands-on practice.

…a farmer with moderate experience flying drones & capturing data/insights?

DE KOFF: Try out some of the software (i.e. DroneDeploy, FieldAgent, Pix4DFields, PrecisionAnalytics) that is available for analyzing images and set up a free trial. Then they can see if the software makes sense for their operation.

GODDARD: Take as many online and live drone courses as possible. Talk to people like Jason de Koff who know their stuff. 

…a farmer with advanced drone experience?

DE KOFF: Look into different sensors, how they work, what they measure, and their cost. Talk to an Extension professional that has experience using these sensors for agricultural applications.

GODDARD: Reach out to university professionals who are involved in drone engineering like Jason de Koff.

Here are some additional drone resources de Koff encourages farmers to explore: