Aerial Application Pros & Cons
We often get asked the question "Is aerial application worth it?" Unfortunately, (like most things in ag) there is no clear cut answer, it depends on the situation. Below we have highlighted some of the pros and cons of aerial application, as well as what to expect, and what products/rates/dates work best.
There are several benefits to aerial application. One of the biggest advantages can be the earlier opportunity to establish a cover crop and get more fall growth. This is a big benefit in years with a delayed harvest (either due to weather or planting). Having a cover crop that is a few inches tall before harvest can greatly increase the biomass production and benefit of crops that winterkill, as well as helping overwintering crops establish better before dormancy, and potentially reach maturity earlier the following spring.
Another benefit is managing the labor spread at harvest and in the fall. Instead of tying up a machine and operator, aerial application can help relieve labor shortages. Cost is usually not significantly more than actual cost of ground application, either custom or on your own by the time labor, fuel, wear and tear, interest, etc are calculated. Many times it is well worth $3-4 more per acre to get the crop established earlier, and not tie up as much labor in a very busy season.
There are a few considerations for aerial application. First, it tends to be more weather dependent for success. We need a few rains to have the best chance of establishing. In very dry years, it may not be advisable, or you should consider if the potential benefits outweigh the risk of poor establishment. Secondly, there are often some bare spots in the end rows and on field edges. This is often due to the amount of harvest traffic, as having several trips across newly establishing seed can kill it. (End rows often get 20x more traffic than the rest of the field.) Fields with trees alongside, or uneven shapes may get better spread coverage from a helicopter due to it's shorter turn radius, but consult with your applicator, as they are the best judge of their own capabilities.
As for timing, on standing corn, we typically advise seeding 3-4 weeks before harvest, or once some light can infiltrate the canopy. Some species handle shade better than others, so take that into consideration as well. For standing soybeans, it is typically advised to seed between 5-20% leaf drop. If you wait too long the seed often ends up on top of the leaves and never makes soil contact.
We always recommend talking with your aerial applicator to find out what products and rates have worked well for them and their customers. Every plane is different in the setup that they have, some may be able to spread rates as low as 10# per acre, others may need 30# plus. They are the experts!
As always, every year in ag is different. What works one year, may not work as well the next, or vice versa. If you have any questions, feel free to give us a call at (309)837-1820 and one of our agronomists can assist!