IPM: Can better data finally reduce reliance on conventional pesticides?

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By Thomas Grandperrin of UAV-IQ Precision Agriculture. This article is part of a series on biological control and Integrated Pest Management written by UAV-IQ (www.uaviq.com).

Most integrated pest management (IPM) practitioners know that advancing beyond conventional pest management requires incorporating a mix of tools and practices as well as taking a more holistic approach to pest management.

In the past decades, there have been a growing number of agriculture technology (AgTech) companies created to help growers in their transition. One of them, Semios, has been building a set of solutions for farmers to implement in their IPM tool kit and is regarded as one of the more influential companies in the advancement of modern IPM practices. I reached out to Michael Gilbert, the founder and CEO of the company, to discuss the role of AgTech in IPM.

When he created Semios 10 years ago, Michael wanted to leverage his background as a chemist to help accelerate adoption by farmers ofa class of chemicals that was not being used widely for pest management: pheromones. The goal of this new class of chemicals is to allow farmers to reduce dependency on traditional pesticides they historically used and approach pest management in a more holistic fashion. Since then, the company has diversified its service portfolio and offers a complete “Precision Agriculture As A Service” solution.

Michael Gilbert, founder and CEO of Semios

Semios’ products are used by growers of a variety of crops, but their largest markets are fruit and nut orchards, as well as vineyards. Historically, its main geographic markets have been the US and Canada, however, the company offers its services all over the world. Through a few recent acquisitions (such as Australian powerhouse AgWorld), Semios now has a stronger presence in Australia, New Zealand, Chile, South Africa and, most recently, Europe.

During our conversation, we discussed how mating disruption and forecast pest models help IPM planners rely less on pesticides, opportunities to integrate augmentative biocontrol into the IPM toolbox, the importance of tapping into the knowledge acquired by experienced IPM consultants, and lastly, the data centralization and distribution challenges AgTech companies and their customers must overcome.

THE ROLE OF MATING DISRUPTION IN AN IPM PLAN

Mating disruption, which is the use of synthetic sex pheromones to disrupt pest mating behavior and limit the reproduction of offspring, is gaining popularity among conventional and organic growers. Unlike conventional pesticides, pheromones need to be deployed almost daily for a few hours and the timing is really important. This first challenge is what drove Semios’ early product development.

“There was a need for a network that would pull information from the field to determine the right time to apply the pheromones and enable it remotely so you could dynamically respond to pest population behavior.. So that’s kind of where the company started,” explains Michael. It was the recognition of this problem that led the company to develop what is now their pest degree-day models and forecasting service, automated pest camera traps and variable rate mating disruption products.

This approach has proven to be successful among growers. “The number one metric we track is how many customers of ours only stay for one season and then go back to the regular ways. We call this the “churn”. And right now for us, it’s less than three per cent.”

Michael explains that the value of mating disruption for growers comes from more than just reducing pesticides, it’s also about improving the yield and the grade of their harvested crop. He explains that for some pests, the crop can still get high damage even with a lot of sprays.

“If you spray and use mating disruption at the same time, then you can actually get less damage and get more valuable crops… So the value our client perceived can be a combination of lower cost, higher grade or higher yield.”

Semios’ codling moth mating disruption dispenser in an apple orchard (Credit: Semios)

While the long-term goal of mating disruption is to reduce conventional pesticides, it is still difficult to assess when this will happen for a grower.

“It is pretty typical for a grower to adopt pheromone mating disruption for a season, maintaining their current sprays and see how the results turn out and then reducing the sprays over time. They’ll want to reduce the local population of insects first before reducing their sprays,” acknowledged Michael.

REPLACING CALENDAR SPRAYING

Currently, the best way for reducing pesticide use is to avoid calendar spraying, in other words, spraying on the same date every year for the simple reason that it’s always been done on that date. Knowing when to apply pesticides and only applying when conditions require them, decreases the frequency of applications called for by traditional blanket application schedules. Through its network of sensors, Semios is helping growers do just that.

“We do a lot of pest monitoring with traps, and also measure the degree days insect phenology models on every acre, every ten minutes. Based on this data, we advise growers of when and where they should be spraying based on our visibility on the insects’ population development,” explains Michael.

Example of Semios’ automated camera traps reporting (Credit: Semios)

These pest forecasting models are constantly improving, making them more reliable over time.

“We do a lot of post-season analysis because not only do we predict when the insects will show up, but we actually see them show up thanks to our monitoring traps. We can map the evolution of the population by correlating the two together. Then our clients will either choose to spray according to our data or against the university or academic data, and we can see what the results are.”

HOW DATA MIGHT HELP IMPLEMENT AUGMENTATIVE BIOLOGICAL CONTROL

As the pressure to find better alternatives for conventional pesticides is getting stronger, growers are increasingly using augmentative biological control, the release of beneficial insects and mites. The mechanization of this method thanks to emerging drone technologies now makes it possible to release those biological control agents in medium and large scale outdoor fields.

Timing of these releases is also critical, however, growers need to keep in mind that the residue of both conventional and organic pesticides might have a negative impact on the beneficial insects. It is therefore important to properly time the spray with the release of predators or parasitoids. 

Based on the data they make available to growers, Michael believes Semios can help deconflict biocontrol and chemical applications.

“I think we can better predict how long the residual effect is. We have access to microclimate data in the irrigation schedules. We can also know if the growers sprayed or not, if it rained or they irrigated, if it was hot or cool… Those parameters all have an impact on how fast pesticides degrade. If you had this data, you could ideally time the introduction of beneficials.”

Michael argues that a combination of the use of pheromones and data-driven farming will help increase the adoption of augmentative biological control. 

“Not only will growers spray less, but they’ll be able to use our guidance as to when to spray. For example, if you’re going to release beneficial insects, you need to give them enough time to be effective before you time your next spray. Understanding when these different insects are showing up, at what time, and at what place will be really important if you want to start using more beneficial insects.”

SURROUND YOURSELF WITH IPM ADVISORS

The integration of all these solutions can seem challenging, especially for large scale growers. Surrounding yourself with the right IPM advisors is key to making a smooth transition.

Michael observes that “If your current advisor is more experienced with conventional hard chemistry, they might not have enough experience to help you design a successful IPM plan using these novel solutions.”

In markets like France, regulators are encouraging truly independent advisors, not tied to the retail channel of the chemical companies.

What is certain is that implementing a successful IPM strategy requires a lot of boots on the ground. “You need somebody who’s going to be there to help you. Change is hard and requires people who have experience, to walk you through what to expect, how to troubleshoot when things go wrong… because things always go wrong.”

CENTRALIZING THE AGTECH DATA

One of the challenges of agriculture is that  farms are complex biological systems. There are many different factors that have to be considered together to ultimately make the right decisions.

The AgTech industry boomed over the past decade, with thousands of new companies created. Thanks to several novel technologies, farmers now have access to new insights about their farms to help in their decision-making process. However, with so many solutions available out there, Michael believes that “farmers are paying the price for the data being everywhere; separated and not easily accessible. Most of them now want their data somewhat consolidated.”

He worries that, “If it’s not consolidated, it’ll always be non-optimized. For example, irrigation is impacted by when you apply fertilizer. If you fertilize and then irrigate too much, it can be pushed beyond the reach of the roots and eventually it goes into the aquifer. It reduces the impact of the fertilizer, and has the potential to negatively affect the environment and nearby communities. Another example is that heavy equipment can’t be taken into a field with wet soils, if you irrigate your fields, you can’t spray with your tractors for several days afterwards. If you aren’t watching pest development when planning irrigation, you may not be able to treat for the pest at the ideal time because the field is too wet. It’s all connected, so you want to bring that together where it can be evaluated side-by-side.”

The consolidation of the industry has started though. With the recent acquisition of AgWorld and Altrac, Semios is one of a few companies who are now investors but were considered startups not so long ago. Other agricultural service companies that have acquired other AgTech startups include Deveron (which acquired FarmDog), and AgEagle (which acquired Micasense and Sensefly), to name a few.

“I believe it will be good for the industry. It will help growers access their information in a centralized fashion, and receive a better service. Otherwise, you’re losing a lot of benefits to everybody.”

But with so many potentially valuable solutions for growers, how should AgTech companies decide which ones to integrate into their offerings? Michael describes Semios’ strategy on that matter. “We ask our customers what offerings would have the most impact on a single, unified platform. That’s what drives our decisions on partners and acquisitions.”

He shares that, “We already do everything for insect management. We also now do a lot of frost management, we predict when frost will occur. We’ve partnered with, then acquired a wind machine control company. That whole risk is now managed. We started doing irrigation timing detection and stress management in trees. Then we began irrigation line monitoring, to tell farmers how much water is being applied, and now we’re even partnering with a pump control company.”

Michael teases a few things in the pipeline at Semios.

“The next thing we’re developing is in the fertilizer and nutrients space. We’ll look at doing soil analysis, sap analysis, or general tree stress through imagery or tissue samples, which we could thentry to tie back to what and how much nutrient support the soil and tree need, and when.”

Michael also adds that, “Unfortunately, farmers are oftentimes being squeezed between the input providers and the food wholesalers. I think for them to actually capture more of the value that they’re creating, they need to have more visibility in the data and decision-making.”

THE DISTRIBUTION CHALLENGE IN AGTECH

Another issue impacting AgTech companies, and ultimately the growers, is the lack of digital agriculture and precision farming distribution channels.

Michael reminds us that “The biggest distribution channels in agriculture are typically selling chemicals and fertilizers. But they are often in conflict with what AgTech is bringing to the table, which is often intended to help reduce the amount of chemicals used.”

He believes Semios has an opportunity to help connect the ecosystem.

“We have over a hundred million acres under management. Quite a few of our customers are innovative, want to try new technologies, or have problems that need to be solved. Unlike the traditional channels, I think we’re in no way conflicted by connecting customers to other high-tech solutions. We are going to play that role and we are actively looking to partner right now with companies and introduce them to our customers and find a way to make that successful for all parties.”

Another difficult challenge faced by AgTech companies is the ability to supply boots on the ground in order to give the appropriate level of service and support to the growers.

Michael suggests that for AgTech to get adopted faster, there should be more partnerships between companies in the space. “If one company already has a service representative in the area, they could better manage multiple technologies.”

Semios might be one of the companies with the ability to do that.

“Our solution itself requires that we build a large field services infrastructure. We now have nearly a hundred staff who are in the field with trucks and quads, who can install, maintain and service equipment, and can support the adoption of AgTech. So we’ll continue to leverage that to help other companies reach our customers.”

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE HOLD

To summarize the most important take-aways from our conversation, Michael stresses that “as an industry, we are definitely moving away from calendar spray timing and harsher chemicals. But what’s not well understood is the number of minor insects that will show up once the hard chemistries are gone.”

He believes that one of the ways growers will be able to address these issues is by using biological pesticides and beneficial insects, “But it’s going to come fast and it would be hard for a grower to only do a half step.”

He emphasizes that growers need to get ahead of upcoming regulations as well as emerging pests by beginning to experiment with new pest management strategies and IPM tools before those environmental and regulatory changes are here.

“It will take a lot of monitoring to see what insects are showing up and what’s happening and then figure out the solutions. But humans are pretty innovative. We’ll figure it out.”

Reader, we’d love to learn from you as well… What combination of IPM tools have you successfully implemented in your farms? Do you have some doubts and concerns about the implementation of Ag Tech? Reach out to us and help shape our industry with your experience!

UAV-IQ is helping organic and conventional growers implement biocontrol in an efficient and cost-effective manner by using drones to release beneficial insects and mites exactly when and where they’re needed to suppress pests.

 

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