Producers may soon reach for their iPhones or Droids when they find a problem in their wheat fields instead of sending clippings or dead insects to an expert, according to a Texas AgriLife Research scientist.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding a four-year program under its Risk Avoidance and Mitigation Program to help build a database that will give producers real-time data for diagnostics.

Researchers participating in "iWheat" are AgriLife Research-Amarillo, Texas AgriLife Extension Service-Dallas, Oklahoma State University, Kansas State University and Colorado State University.

"The idea is to extend what we have already been working on with the former area-wide pest management for greenbugs and Russian wheat aphid project," said Dr. Jerry Michels, AgriLife Research entomologist in Amarillo.

Michels was referring to a five-year program in which the group of scientists sampled wheat and did remote sensing to understand the relationship of aphids in wheat crops over the southwestern Great Plains area.

"We tried to put together better management strategies for aphids with the entire area included instead of our individual regions," he said. "We looked at what the similarities and differences were and determined management strategies for the different producers depending on where they were located."

Grower surveys

Michels said a lot of information gathered during that study came from surveys with individual growers in the different geographic areas about how they plant wheat, rotational or continuous, and agronomic practices such as whether they were dryland or irrigated operations.

"It worked fairly well, but we still ended up with five big chunks of data," he said. "We still wanted some way to put it all together."

The group is looking at the abilities of the different information delivery systems such as the iPhone or Droid that will allow them to consolidate this information and make it available to a person on an interactive basis.

"What we will do is put all this into a real-time database that will be made available to people who are cooperating with us for the next four years," Michels said.

Michels said his work will start this fall in several experimental fields, but he’s also looking for two wheat farmers who will volunteer to be involved with the program. In addition, he will be working with 10 AgriLife Extension agents.

Many producers, crop consultants and AgriLife Extension agents already use a program called Glance-N-Go to sample aphids in wheat, he said. That program came from the initial five-year study.

Real time data

With the new program, the idea is they can access the system in the field and the data will be entered real time, Michels said. They will be able to enter how many tillers have greenbugs on them, and the system will be able to tell them if there are enough samples to make a decision and if the number of aphids detected warrants treatment.

"As time goes by, the people who are using the system will be able to enter the variety they are planting, when they planted, the fertilizer, etc.," he said. "The idea is that eventually there will be guides available to tell them when to start looking for insects and what they might be looking at in the field."

Another possible option is the producer will be able to take pictures in the field and send them to the database where an expert can look at them.

While some of those details are yet to be worked out, Michels said his program will monitor wheat fields and do the Glance-N-Go and other types of sampling with the producers and AgriLife Extension agents, and determine how this will work out.

"Hopefully we will be able to get input and provide data by the end of the second year and then make it available to the public within four years at the end of the research," he said.

Diverse practices beneficial

With the initial five years of work, researchers found that farmers who used diverse practices instead of planting continuous wheat were getting better results, and while that data was reported in some areas, it wasn't consolidated and easily accessible to farmers, Michels said.

"Accessibility, and even more important, the ability to get the data real time, is what we are looking for now," Michels said. "Instead of sending a picture or clippings of the wheat or an insect by mail or taking it in for an expert to analyze, the information is instantaneous. We hope some day they can take a picture and submit that for analysis."

But to get to that point, it takes someone to do the "field-truthing" and see how it will work. That is why he and others will be working directly with producers to see what they want, what they need and how it should be tweaked to make sure it is something that has value.

Michels said by allowing the diagnosis to take place in the field and determining an appropriate action to take in most cases, this real-time prescription application should save time and money for producers and help them schedule treatment earlier for fields that might need it, thus reducing the overall damage.

SKledbetter@ag.tamu.edu