Satellite Link to Improved Farm
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
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 farmersmore than 1,500 of themuse
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
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
runsless 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,
Weather is updated hourly. Other information is updated dailyor
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 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 COAGMETa 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
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.
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
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
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.