aphids Rich Sigurdson

Rich Sigurdson and one of his four Air Tractor spray planes at the Olivia, Minn. airport.

LAMBERTON, Minn. — It seems strange, but Mother Nature apparently is on your side regarding the 2019 soybean aphids season. How can that be?

Explained Bruce Potter, Extension plant pathologist for the University of Minneosta in an Aug. 20 visit, “So far it’s been a slow year for aphids. A few farmers are doing some spraying, but very little so far. Some fields have hit threshold numbers (250 aphids/plant), but state-wide it’s a very localized issue.”

“Give some credit to nature,” suggested Potter. “We’ve had lots of rain. Aphids don’t thrive in saturated soils. They have a hard time processing all that sap. But credit extremely cold winter conditions too. Where we didn’t have snow cover, some of those aphid eggs might have froze.

“But I think the biggest factor was when those aphids tried to get out of the buckthorn (their over-wintering habitat) this spring, with such a late soybean planting those newly hatched aphids didn’t have places to go. We had patches of volunteer soybeans. We found aphids in these patches. But many of those patches got ‘herbicide tilled’ when farmers finally found another opportunity to get at their corn planting.

“So a small population to begin with, and then constant rain during their hatching season, it’s been a tough year for aphids. Yes, I’d likely agree that nature was on our side. However a few other things out there make up for fewer aphids. Lots of defoliators ... Painted Ladies, Sweet Clover Worms, that sort of thing. Keeping score so far, it’s been good for soybeans; not so good for aphids.”

Plant pathologists don’t like to prognosticate.  Potter wasn’t predicting an ‘explosion of aphids’ was still to happen. He merely reiterated, “...so far it hasn’t been a good year.”

He added, “This year, because of the large number of late-planted soybean acres, we may need to scout later in the season than usual. Also, aphids could begin their move to buckhorn anytime from now until mid-September. Insect killing fungi may be collapsing aphid populations because of dense, moist canopies and cool temperatures.”

The soybean aphid is native to China, but now occurs in several Southeast Asia countries. In America, 31 states now do battle with this most costly pest.

Predictably, Renville County often leads the parade for the annual aphid invasion. And the best indicator is how many aerial applicators are swirling through the skies in this annual bug fight. 

But this year? Apparently no aphid war. In an Aug. 22 visit at the Olivia airport with Rich Sigurdson, he said so far only five calls for aphid control. “Sure, we’re pleased for our farmers but the simple fact is this annual battle against aphids was good money for us aerial app guys.

“Get a normal season with crops planted on time is what our farmers really need. Plus crop prices so they can get above their break-even income stranglehold and we’ll all be happy … even we aerial guys can make this business work without the aphid explosions.”

Piper Air Tractors with turbine-powered 750-horsepower engines make up Sigurdson’s Aerial Spraying Inc. fleet at Olivia which includes three 500-gallon rigs and one 400-gallon plane.

Yes, farmers invest $500,000 in tractors and combines … often even more. These Piper spray planes cost some big money also. “About $700,000 per plane, but a new Piper Air Tractor is a $1.2 million investment. So, yes, we like to keep our birds on the job as much as we can,” said Sigurdson. Airborne at 6 a.m. is not unusual at the Olivia airfield.

And yes, these are productive machines. Like 200 acres per hour at 130 to 140 miles air speed while laying down a 60-foot-wide swath! And all this precision while flying only 10 feet above fields being sprayed. Spray pilots pay big money to get certified. They often have only about a 6-month working timeframe each season. Yet accuracy is their creed.

Just like GPS guidance keeps farmers amazingly on track in their fields, so too for these air tractors. Pilots plug in the coordinate locations of their next field and GPS guides their airplane directly to the field. The same precise system even activates the actual spraying when the plane reaches the field, and precisely turns the system off when the pilot gets to the end of field and makes his climbing turn to get redirected the other direction.

Sigurdson commented, ”Sure this all comes with a price, but accuracy is how you survive in this business. Farmers have lots of money invested in every field we cover. We totally understand precision is what we’re all about.”