By Trevor Bacque

Scouting isn’t always the most fun thing to do on the farm, but getting it right matters

A giant reason farmers love what they do is simply being in the great outdoors. However, it seems as if crop scouting may qualify as the one exception — it can be painstaking, and the yawn factor is often high. But it’s also important to get an accurate picture of what’s happening in your fields. So, how can you stay motivated and how can you become a better scout? Farm Forum enlisted three agrologists to give us their take on the age-old practice.

Shannon Winny, owner of GroWest, standing in the field facing the camera

Shannon Winny, owner of GroWest Ag Ventures, Harris, SK

Whether it’s her first time scouting a field or the tenth, agrologist and CCA Shannon Winny never wants to get too comfortable and think she has outsmarted Mother Nature. “If it’s a field that I’ve been scouting for seven years, then I can scout it faster just because I know where some of the problem areas might be,” says Winny. “At the same point, it’s always good to double check, right? So that means actually getting out, digging, and double checking everything.”

Winny never enters a field without her trusty trowel, throw square, tissue sampling bags and, most importantly, her phone. She encourages farmers to at least carry a trowel if they scout on their own because, “nine times out of 10 you have to dig.”

She embraces digital tools, using Farm QA for easy report creation and FieldView for everything else. But Winny adds that you can’t rely only on technology to be your guide. For instance, normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) maps are great, but the satellite images aren’t captured daily. “If you don’t have boots on the ground actually looking at those fields, some things can get missed really, really quickly,” she says. “Don’t overly rely on NDVI — green areas could be weed biomass and not a healthy crop.”

She recommends all farmers start geo-tagging trouble spots in their fields so they can make year-over-year comparisons of soil health, or to see how specific in-crop treatments are working. For example, she uses geo-tags after an insecticide spray to get a time-lapse assessment of efficacy.

She encourages farmers to know when to call for backup. While hourly rates for agrologists can vary between $100 to $150, and per acre rates anywhere between $3 to $10 in Western Canada (with season-long agreements), she says it’s money well spent because there is simply too much at stake if a problem gets missed or misdiagnosed. “Even the wrong timing for an application, that’s going to end up costing them a lot more than what I would charge them for my time,” she explains.

Wendy McDonald, senior agronomist with 360 Ag Consulting, taking a selfie in the field with a blue pickup truck in the background

Wendy McDonald, senior agronomist with 360 Ag Consulting, Gilbert Plains, MB.

If you only have time for one thing when it comes to scouting, says Wendy McDonald, make it a nice stroll through the field with a hula hoop or throw square. She knows farmers don’t have the time to thoroughly scout every field on every outing but says it’s a good idea to at least step into them during different growth stages.

Because every field is unique, McDonald’s preferred tactic is to wander with a hula hoop or throw square. “I just wander, throw, count; wander, throw, count. You want to make sure that you get to enough parts of the field that are representative, but you don’t have to get so caught up and cover every square inch of a field. Keep wandering until you find an area that’s good, and then compare plants from both the good and bad areas before you make your decisions.”

McDonald says that too often people scout pre-determined to find problems. And while you may encounter issues that need to be addressed, remember everything is relative. What you rank as bad in one field may be re-evaluated as mild once you go into another field. Good perspective is key to making good decisions when input costs are weighed against softening commodity prices, she says.

Above all, never just go by time of season or crop height — you could miss something important. “You have to be really, really good at determining crop growth stages because so many products only work optimally within certain growth stages,” she says. “You need to know that the applications you’re making are being made at the right time for the crop, the weeds, the pests, and the diseases. You can’t just go by the calendar. Just taking a height measurement isn’t good enough.”

Into every field McDonald brings a fanny pack overflowing with index cards and a black marker. She writes notes about what she sees, puts the card beside what she’s looking at, then uses her phone to snap a picture for reference. Her scouting kit mainstays include a digging trowel, soil moisture probe, soil thermometer, seed depth checker, tape measure, computer tablet, notebook, reference material, clipping shears, plastic clamshell packaging to take plants with her and more.

If you ultimately decide you do not have the time to scout, call a professional, McDonald suggests. “With scouting, I’m not solely making decisions for farmers; we’re making decisions together. We’re part of a team; we can make the best decisions for the field. It makes us so invested because we do get to follow that crop start to finish.”

Dale Cowan, agronomy strategy manager and senior agronomist for Agris Co-op, a portrait photo

Dale Cowan, agronomy strategy manager and senior agronomist for Agris Co-op in Chatham, ON

The bulk of Dale Cowan’s crop scouting is done before he even enters a field. Then, once he gets there, he’s laser focused. A pre-scout call with the farmer informs him of critical details ahead of time, such as soil type, planting date, rainfall, variety type and more. “Get that stuff done ahead of time so when you get to the field, you’re turning your attention to the observations that are in front of you,” he says.

He always carries a pocketknife, shovel, trowel, tape measure, soil probe, sample bags and jars for tissue and bug collection, and a smartphone or tablet. He says a 50- or 75-acre field could take 15 to 90 minutes to properly scout, which is fine, as long as you’re focused.

Although perhaps slightly unconventional, Cowan is an advocate of not going into every field. He regularly visits what he calls “sentinel” fields. If those have “action”, it’s a signal that other fields likely have issues.

Cowan advocates leveraging digital tools and data. He says FieldView is one of the best resources available, with integrated and easy-to-read, up-to-date information, and that crop health maps from satellite imagery can be helpful as well, even if it’s a bit delayed.

“Digital tools help you organize your day and get to the areas of greatest need or greatest change first,” he says. While he compiles detailed reports for his customers, he also sends ‘just the facts’ summaries. “What farmers really find interesting in-season is: ‘What are the action items I need to consider?’ They’re all busy people.”

He says the power of digitized fields is quick year-over-year comparisons. Reviewing scouting pins from the same spot over multiple years has a huge benefit, offers insight into weed evolution in field to inform your spraying programs.

“If I have to go into a file folder and find a piece of paper from last year, I’m not going to do that, but if it’s a formal crop scouting report with pictures attached to a point in the field, boy, that’s pretty valuable stuff.”

Just do it!

Wherever you farm, crop scouting is a non-negotiable aspect of the job. While digital technology is constantly improving and data is a powerful record building and decision-making tool, nothing tops being in a field with a bag full of old school tools like trowels, tape measures, sample bags and soil probes to see a disease, pest or weed up close and personal.

If you’re not sure, or just want a second opinion, professional agrologists like Winny, McDonald and Cowan, are just a phone call away.

An up-close image of a crop part with a disease.

What should I do if I spot something unknown?

  • Record GPS coordinates of your location.
  • Take a sample of the plant or insect.
  • Show your local agrologist for potential ID and next steps.
  • Return to that geo-tagged area regularly over the following months to years to assess field/soil health.
An example of a farmer with a ruler measuring the size of a pest.

Is this to scale?

When scouting, always carry an object with you to show scale so you can easily convey how big a pest or weed is. A ruler or pen for a weed and a loonie for a pest.