Nitrogen (N) is often supplied to plants in excess to minimize the possibility of encountering N deficiency that would reduce the plant quality due to leaf chlorosis and necrosis. This is not only costly, but it can reduce the quality of plants, predispose the plants to biotic stress such as Botrytisgray mold, and extend the production cycle. Several tools can be used to identify N deficiency in plants, and most are based on chlorophyll reflectance or transmittance. While sensitive when plants are experiencing N deficiency, spectral signals can saturate in an ample N supply and make it difficult to discern sufficient and supra-optimal N nondestructively. Three diverse ornamental species (begonia, Begoniacea×tuberhybrida; butterflybush, Buddlejadavidii; and geranium, Pelargonium×hortorum) were grown with a broad range of N supplied (1.8 to 58 mm) in three separate studies that resulted in a range of 1.8% to 6% tissue N concentration. Using a spectroradiometer, we measured reflectance from the whole plants twice over a period of 3 weeks. A first-derivative analysis of the data identified six wavebands that were strongly correlated to both begonia and butterflybush tissue N concentration (r2 ∼ 0.9), and two of these also correlated well to geranium N concentration. These wavebands did not correlate to chlorophyll peak absorbance, but rather blue, green, red, and far-red “edges” of known plant pigments. These wavebands hold promise for use as a nondestructive indicator of N status over a much broader range of tissue N concentration than current sensors can reliably predict.
Advanced variable-rate spray technology, which applies pesticides based on real-time scanning laser rangefinder measurements of plant presence, size, and density, was developed and retrofitted to existing sprayers. Experiments were conducted to characterize the application of four programmed spray rates (0.03, 0.05, 0.07, or 0.09 L·m−3 of crop geometric volume) when applied to Malus domestica Borkh. ‘Golden Delicious’ apple trees using this crop sensing technology. Water-sensitive cards (WSCs) were used as samplers to quantify spray coverage, deposits, and deposit density in the target and nontarget areas, and an overspray index based on a threshold of greater than 30% coverage was calculated. The application rate ranged from 262 L·ha−1 at the programmed spray rate of 0.03 L·m−3 to 638 L·ha−1 at the rate of 0.09 L·m−3. For a given WSC position, spray coverage and deposits increased as the spray rate increased. WSC positions 1 and 2 were oversprayed at all rates. The effect of spray rate on deposit density varied with WSC positions, with high densities achieved by low spray rates for WSCs closest to the sprayer but by high spray rates for WSCs positioned either deeper within or under the canopy. When coalescing deposits were accounted for, deposit densities met or exceeded the recommended pesticide application thresholds (insecticides 20–30 droplets/cm2; fungicides 50–70 droplets/cm2) at all WSC positions for each spray rate tested. The lowest spray rate reduced off-target loss to the orchard floor by 81% compared with the highest rate, dramatically reducing potential exposure to nontarget organisms, such as foraging pollinators, to come into contact with pesticide residues. Applying the lowest rate of 0.03 L·m−3 met deposit density efficacy levels while reducing spray volume by 83% compared with the orchard standard application of 1540 L·ha−1 and by 87% compared with the 1950 L·ha−1 application rate recommended when using the tree row volume method. Thus, there is potential for growers to refine pesticide application rates to further achieve significant pesticide cost savings. Producers of other woody crops, such as nursery, citrus, and grapes, who use air-assisted sprayers, may be able to achieve similar savings by refining pesticide applications through the use of laser rangefinder-based spray application technology.
Nursery producers are challenged with growing a wide range of species with little to no detectable damage from insects or diseases. Growing plants that meet consumer demand for aesthetics has traditionally meant routine pesticide application using the most time-efficient method possible, an air-blast sprayer, despite its known poor pesticide application efficiency. New variable-rate spray technology allows growers to make more targeted applications and reduce off-target pesticide loss. In this study, a prototype laser-guided variable-rate sprayer was compared with a traditional air-blast sprayer. Pesticide volume, spray application characteristics, and the control of powdery mildew were evaluated over the course of two growing seasons. Spray application characteristics were assessed using water-sensitive cards (WSCs) and DepositScan software. This prototype sprayer reduced pesticide volume by an average of 54% across both years despite being tested against a low rate (<250 L⋅ha−1). In 2016, the conventional sprayer had more than double the deposit density on target WSCs among distal trees than the variable-rate sprayer; however, within proximal trees, there was no difference between the two sprayer types. In 2017, when the trees were larger, within both the distal and proximal trees, the conventional sprayer had greater deposit density on target WSCs than the variable-rate sprayer. In 2016, coverage on target WSCs was nearly 7-fold greater with the conventional treatment than with the variable-rate treatment. In 2017, when trees were larger, there was greater coverage on target WSCs in proximal trees (3.8%) compared with those in distal trees (1.0%) regardless of the sprayer type. This variable-rate spray technology provided acceptable control of powdery mildew severity on individual branches and whole trees and maintained the incidence of powdery mildew to levels comparable to that occurring among trees sprayed with a traditional air-blast sprayer. Therefore, the variable-rate spray technology has the potential to effectively control disease, dramatically reduce the pesticide footprint, and preserve natural resources such as ground and surface water, soil, and beneficial insects found within and around nurseries.
Laser-guided variable-rate intelligent spray technology is anticipated to reduce pesticide use in production of crops and safeguard the environment. However, the ability of this technology to effectively control insect pests and diseases of crops must be validated before it becomes part of integrated pest management programs. Abilities of three different intelligent sprayers were tested to control pest insects and plant diseases at one fruit farm and two ornamental nurseries in Ohio during three consecutive growing seasons. The same sprayers with disabled intelligent functions were used as conventional constant-rate applications for comparisons. Test crops were apple (Malus pumila), peach (Prunus persica), blueberry (Vaccinium sect. Cyanococcus), black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis), crabapple (Malus sp.), maple (Acer sp.), birch (Betula sp.), and dogwood (Cornus florida). There were five insects and six diseases total involved in the investigations in the fruit farm and two nurseries. The field tests showed the intelligent spray applications reduced pesticide and foliar fertilizer use by ≈30% to 65% on average during the 3-year experiments. At the same time, intelligent spray technology was similar or more effective than conventional spray technology when controlling insects and diseases on a variety of crops. These results demonstrated that intelligent spray technology was environmentally friendly and more effective for control of insect and disease pests in fruit farms and ornamental tree nurseries.