Public Airports & Aerial Applicators Are Vital To Nebraska’s Farm Economy

by Russ Gasper
Nebraska Dept. of Aeronautics

When it comes to agricultural receipts, bigger is not better and size does not matter. Nebraska and Iowa rank in the top four in the U.S. in agricultural receipts for all commodities, along with California and Texas, but Nebraska and Iowa are not in the top 10 when it comes to total area. Table 1 below shows that Nebraska and Iowa are much smaller in size; however, Nebraska and Iowa are able to compete with the big guys (i.e. Texas and California) for the top producers in U.S. agricultural receipts for all commodities.

A major commodity for agricultural receipts is crop production. In Nebraska, three of the top five agricultural commodities are crops: corn, soybeans and wheat. These are also Nebraska’s main exported crops. It is estimated that in Nebraska, every dollar in agricultural exports generates $1.34 in economic activity. Nebraska’s $5-6 billion in agricultural crop exports translates into approximately $7-$8 billion in additional economic activity, which is approximately 35% of all agricultural cash receipts. These facts and figures may not be surprising to most Nebraskans, however, many Nebraskans overlook the contributions of aerial applicators and the 80 public-use airports that support applicator activity to make Nebraska a leader in agriculture on a national level.

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture has 436 applicators registered to do business in Nebraska. The other leaders in agriculture have comparable numbers of applicators registered in their states. However, it should be noted that Nebraska has the fewest number of public-use airports (See Table 2).

Nebraska’s 436 aerial applicators represent a small portion of Nebraska’s population working in agriculture. It is estimated that one in four jobs in Nebraska are related to agriculture, which would be 250,000 jobs, as Nebraska has approximately 1,000,000 people employed in the state. In recent years, more and more farmers are using aerial applicators to control diseases and pests. The reason for the increasing use of aerial applicators is threefold: 1) maximized crop yields, 2) improved flight technology, and 3) development of fungicides.

Aerial applicators have the capability of applying products at the right time, at the right place and in the right amount, to maximize crop yields. In addition, aerial applicators have several advantages that include the capability to treat more acres per day than ground rigs; the capability to make extensive applications in narrow, busy treatment windows, especially if weather/soil conditions are unfavorable; they cause less crop damage, which is estimated to be 1.5-5% of crop yields; and they cause no soil compaction, hence preventing soil runoff. The National Agricultural Aviation Association (NAAA) has indicated:

• The average aerial applicator has 21.3 years of experience.

• Aerial applicators have a commercial pilot certificate, and must meet requirements of FAA regulations Part 137, which allows low-level aviation operations.

• 87% of the aircraft used are fixed-wing; the remaining 13% are rotorcraft/helicopters.

• Of the combined fleet, 67% are turbine powered and 33% are piston-powered engines.  (At the 2015 NATA Nebraska conference it was reported that 94% of ag operations are done with fixed-wing aircraft, while 3% is done by helicopters and 3% by other means.)

• Aerial applicators account for just under 20% of all applied crop protection products on commercial farms, and 100% of forest protection applications.

• Applicator’s most commonly treated crops are corn, wheat/barley, soybeans, and alfalfa.

Advances in aircraft have also ignited aerial applicator popularity. Aircraft are twice as big as they were several years ago. The most popular aircraft today are powered by a turbine engine and carry 400 to 500 gallons of product, which together allow applicators efficient applications by dispensing huge swaths of product across a field during flight. The move to larger turbine engine aircraft has not only added aircraft power for faster application of larger areas, but has proven to be more mechanically reliable, resulting in less maintenance. For aerial applicator aircraft, bigger is better and size does matter.

In recent years, there has been an explosion in the growth of aerial applicators due to the development of fungicides that are designed to be applied to the corn tassel. In addition, advances in flight technology allow for more timely, efficient, and effective application of protection products. The University of Illinois conducted a study that recorded a yield increase of 18.6 bushels per acre with aerially applied fungicides. However, on average retailers report that their customers are indicating increases of 7-10 bushels per acre.

During the spring and summer of 2015, all 80 Nebraska public-use airports replied to questions regarding 2015 aerial applicator activities at their airport. Based on the responses, 66 of the public-use airports (82.5%) indicated that they anticipate applicator aircraft using their facility for base operations, fuel, and/or maintenance. The combined total of aircraft using the 66 airports is anticipated to be 321. The use of public-use airports in Nebraska by aerial applicators is very significant and somewhat surprising, because the industry’s general thinking is that aerial applicators operate off privately owned airfields.

Based on NAAA data, Nebraska appears to be within the national trends/norms for aerial applicators. Therefore, using the national trends with information collected within Nebraska and applying similar lines of thinking to other states, Nebraska is a leader in resourceful use of limited valuable assets (i.e. public-use airports and aerial applicators). Table 3 illustrates a similar line of thinking applied to the other top agriculture states.

Based on USDA data, approximately 8,800,000 acres of corn are planted annually in Nebraska. If an acre produces 160 bushels of corn, approximately 1,400,000,000 bushels of corn are produced annually in Nebraska (See Table 4). Assuming aerial applicators treat 15% of the corn crop, we can estimate that 211,200,000 bushels of corn receive an aerial treatment.  Based on a study by Purdue University, crop loss due to ground trample from ground applicator rigs could range from approximately 1.5% to 5.0%. Therefore, if the same 211,200,000 bushels were not treated by aerial applicators but treated with ground rigs, and it is assumed that 3% crop loss occurs (6,366,000 bushels), it is estimated that $25,464,000 is lost in crop yields. If the amount lost was in exports, approximately $34,000,000 would be lost in additional Nebraska economic activity. Based on crop production, aerial applicators provide significant financial advantages from an economic/business standpoint.

From a farmer’s standpoint, applying treatments (fungicides, pesticides, etc.) with aerial applicators also indicates substantial financial advantages if crop loss is part of a farmer’s cost equation (See Table 5).

The next time you are asked, “Why does our community support this small general aviation airport?” you can reply with “This small airport is a valuable asset for the community in the role it plays in the agricultural economy of the state.” Nebraska airports and aerial applicators are prime examples of how they can work in harmony with one another to maximize lesser resources while maintaining national leadership in crop output.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Russell F. Gasper, P.E., is the Division Manager at the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics.

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