Real-Time Pest Patrol

April 5, 2009 07:00 PM

Pam Smith, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor
My Dad used to tell me the farmer's best friend was a dung beetle. Each spring the habits of these curious insects caused something of a stir as they constructed balls of manure many times their own size and laboriously began rolling them beyond the barnyard.
Tractors were often rerouted to avoid one of these industrious friends that were ostensibly fertilizing our fields. Later I would find that dung beetles stop and bury the dung as a brooding ball for the next generation. So what if they didn't make it all the way to the corn field—I appreciated any help I could get in barn cleanout.
The point here is the dung beetle is often misunderstood and misidentified. Fact is it's often difficult to identify what's chewing on your corn or sucking on your soybeans. Add gardens and orchards to the mix and you've got a lot of potential pests.
No worries—new technology can deliver expert identification and control suggestions in much less time than it takes a dung beetle to work his or her magic.
Dennis Bowman, University of Illinois Extension crop systems educator, says digital imaging equipment is the current trend in plant diagnostics. "High quality images of plant and pests problems can give us a good look at what's going on in the field,” says Bowman. The images, along with background information about the problem are submitted to Illinois' Distance Diagnostics System through the local extension service. Appropriate experts are instantly notified when an image arrives and farmers often have answers almost immediately.
"If these experts are somewhere where they can get email, they can make a diagnosis,” Bowman says. Rapid diagnosis is critical in preventing losses and also in providing peace of mind. "Last year 22% of the samples were diagnosed within two hours of submission and 77% within 48 hours,” he adds.
Other states have similar systems. Cornell, for example, works through their plant clinic . Purdue has an active system. The American Phytopathological Society (the group that represents plant pathologists) maintains a list of active plant clinics.
Illinois Distance Diagnostics System evaluates samples only from that state. However, the website is an excellent resource for how to submit a sample and other plant related information.
Bowman says internal studies indicate that the potential economic impact of Illinois' Distance Diagnostics was $500,000 in 2008 alone. He notes that proper diagnosis not only helps design a solution, but it also points out when something is not a problem. In other words—such systems might save a few hardworking dung beetles.

You can email Pam Smith at

This article appeared in a recent issue of Farm Journal's Crop Technology Update eNewsletter. To sign up for a free subscription, click here.

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