Crop pest scouts may gain from ‘app’lied knowledge

Insect ID is a challenge — but Prairie entomologists say there will soon be an app for that, and a whole lot more

One of the most challenging aspects of crop protection will always be the flying, crawling and chomping critters that show up every season, hoping to take a bite out of your profits.

There are a lot of them, they can be hard to tell apart, and wind and weather can determine if insects arrive in time to whip up a full-scale problem. Even if you do figure out what you’ve got and whether you need to do something, there’s still the problem of finding the best strategy for controlling the bad bugs without harming their beneficial predators.

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It adds up to a situation where farmers would benefit from better and more readily accessible information, says a post-doctoral entomology researcher at the University of Manitoba. Ana Maria Dal Molin has been working for the past few years on a project that aims to provide it with a cellphone app, along with Professor Barb Shanowski, who has since moved on to a position in Florida.

“There’s just a lot of information to keep track of,” Dal Molin said during a recent discussion with Country Guide. “We think using an app will give farmers a better chance of finding the information they need to make their decisions.”

The project is a joint venture involving universities, provincial and federal governments, research and extension staff and producer dollars through the Western Grains Research Foundation.

Producer testers wanted

Dal Molin says the project is fundamentally about designing an efficient way to facilitate communication between extension entomologists and forecasters and the farmers of Western Canada.

It starts by being out in the field with app loaded and phone in hand. The app is in the beta testing stage this coming season and Dal Molin said she wants testers.

“We want it to be reviewed by as many farmers as we can. We really want their feedback.”

Grower input will help test the efficiency and effectiveness of the system, and make it more robust and better at predicting crop-damaging outbreaks, Dal Molin explains. It will allow the system to be refined and tailored to better meet growers’ needs.

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Photo: MAFRD

At the heart of the system is a question-and-answer model that allows growers to narrow the question until the system provides an answer. It begins by selecting a type of pest — for example, insects in a canola crop. Then it takes growers through an identification process where they can input what they know about the pest — for example, its colour, body size, wing characteristics, antennae, the appearance of any eggs and the type of crop damage.

“They don’t have to have all the information — they can pick and choose the ones that are easiest to answer, or that they have answers for — but the more features they identify, the more precise the results will be,” Dal Molin says.

The app then presents growers with a list of results that match the search criteria and the opportunity to compare a photo of the identified insects with what they’re seeing in the field. If this results in a solution, the next step is accessing further information, which can also be done through the app. If it’s still not clear at this stage, growers can ask for assistance.

“They can snap a picture, and compare it with pictures in the database, and if they’re still not sure, there’s an option to contact an extension entomologist,” Dal Molin says.

Tracking the outbreaks

Once the insect is identified, its presence will be added to the database, thus increasing the app’s ability to track and predict insect outbreaks as they develop.

Every year, extension personnel across the Prairies generate an impressive array of predictive tools. From weather maps and trap counts to disease models, they do a good job of providing farmers with much-needed crop management information.

What’s been a bit harder is getting that information into the hands of farmers quickly during a short and busy growing season. For example, until now, accessing that handy colour-coded map of bertha army worm populations has required sitting down and searching for it, or at best getting an email with a link to it.

“That’s been a real challenge, and we think this app can play a role in getting information like risk maps out to producers more quickly and effectively,” Dal Molin says.

The app will also give growers access to the latest integrated pest management (IPM) strategies for insect control, something that’s been growing in importance in recent years as research shows the important role of beneficial insects.

“It will give them easy access to IPM information online,” she says.

An optional module in development also promises to make the app a tool for total crop management record-keeping, Dal Molin says. It will give growers the option of saving all their crop management decisions to the system, giving them a clear picture of everything they’ve done in the field.

“They can store any of that information they want to — seed choices, chemicals, all that data.”

The system got its first major test drive out in the field last season, and so far the results are promising, but Dal Molin stresses that the more farmers who participate in the beta development phase over the next couple of seasons, the better the app when it’s released, which the development team is targeting for 2018.

“In the meantime, the beta testing phase is critical. We’ll be field testing again this summer. The functionality is there, but it needs to be optimized and it must be tested,” she says.

Researchers and extension staff have a reasonable idea of what information will help farmers, but Dal Molin says only the farmers themselves will really know the ins, outs and potential shortcomings that should be addressed to make the tool truly effective.

“Anyone who’s interested in helping with this can visit our website at www.mobile-ipm.com and sign up,” Dal Molin says.

Great complexity

One benefit of an app-based approach is that it makes far more complex calculations possible.

Tyler Wist, a visiting researcher with AAFC in Saskatoon, is working on an app to predict dynamic thresholds for cereal aphids in Prairie crops. It’s under development with the working title CerealAphidBOSS.

A dynamic threshold goes beyond the simple count of target insects and instead attempts to capture their complex interplay with the predators that can frequently lower their population below economic thresholds.

“An economic threshold is just the number of aphids,” Wist says. “It doesn’t take into account the number killed by predators, which can have a really big impact on controlling the aphid population.”

Another factor is that each potential predator can devour different numbers of insects.

The answer is an Excel spreadsheet calculation, delivered in a cellphone app. It crunches the numbers in the background and then furnishes the grower with a recommendation, based on the interpretation of the available information.

“It will tell you if you’re getting close to the threshold, or if you have enough beneficials that it’s unlikely to surpass the threshold — that sort of thing,” Wist said.

The project is based loosely on a similar project in Ontario a few years back that looked at soybean aphids, but concentrates on cereal aphids to make it more applicable to the Prairies. It’s being developed through the Pesticide Risk Reduction Program, a joint venture of AAFC and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.

The app is currently in development and initial in-house testing will be performed the coming growing season. A larger beta testing program is expected for the 2017 season.

“We’re hoping to have it released for the 2018 growing season, and it will be available for Android, iPhone and BlackBerry,” Wist says.

Private efforts

It’s not just public researchers who see the potential of an app-based approach. Decisive Farming, a company based in Irricana, Alta., thinks tightly focused farm apps are the way of the future, and is set to release one this spring.

Chief product officer Tasha Schmaltz says the company is excited about its Croptivity scouting app, which will be available on the Android and iOS platforms in March.

Schmaltz told Country Guide the company’s app will help growers gather data in-field, make growing season decisions, share those decisions with other members of the operation, and generally address the need for better crop information management, access and sharing.

“A grower or an agronomist hired by a farm can go into a field, scout, enter those findings, and it will be automatically shared with other people working on that farm,” Schmaltz says. “They’ll then be able to make recommendations for action — say a herbicide application — and even extend that to other fields where it may be warranted — for example if they’re going to be making the same application to all their canola fields.”

Croptivity will also help growers keep track of treatment options in an increasingly complicated landscape of multiple control products and strategies.

“Once an issue is identified in the field, it will give growers the full spectrum of all the control options,” Schmaltz says. “This will be specific to Canadian farmers, with plans to launch a U.S. version in the coming year.”

Once a course of action is settled upon, the in-field applications and operations can also be recorded in the app, Schmaltz says.

“It will let them record, for example: ‘I applied one litre of Roundup with five gallons of water on this field, at this date and time,” he says, adding this will serve growers in a couple of different ways. It will take record-keeping into the electronic world, and will also let them capture those records by exporting them into an Excel spreadsheet and be completely synced with the company’s My Farm Manager program.

“This will be useful for things like traceability programs,” Schmaltz says. “It will let them connect it to all of their farm data in My Farm Manager, with the ability to export the data, clean it up a bit, and send it on to something like a certification agency or an end-use customer that wants it.”

It also opens up the possibility of utilizing data science to parse the data later, seeking patterns and ways to improve efficiency and boost yields.

Croptivity is fully functional offline and will be available to Decisive Farming customers shortly. It will also roll out to retail agronomists and be available as a stand-alone product through Android and Apple app stores.

Test drivers wanted

Researchers are looking for farmers to help test a new app for identifying insects and recommending treatment. It can be downloaded from mobile-ipm.com.

Pest Identification
User-friendly, well-illustrated tools to identify pest insects, weeds and diseases of the major Canadian field crops. Pick characteristics you can easily see and get answers. Snap a picture. If still not sure, ask for help of your extension agent.

Monitoring and Forecasting
(Coming soon!)
Real-time monitoring and forecasting, updated based on pest reports. Data from AAFC agencies on climate, biology and degree-days and vetted by government specialists.

Farm Management
(Coming soon!)
Use your cellphone to help keep track of different fields. Save your decisions, product choices, crop protection, management history and more, and keep records for future reference.

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