CHAMPAIGN — Flying drones for strategic crop scouting and effectively managing cover crops are important skills today, so Dennis Bowman, a crop science educator, is naturally on top of both.
When he started working with University of Illinois Extension 36 years ago, he was the young one everyone turned to for new technology expertise. He still likes that expectation.
“Part of what has driven Dennis through the years is that he has always been interested in new technologies and the application of those to help producers,” said Suzanne Bissonnette, assistant dean for agriculture and natural resources with Extension.
Bowman makes an effort to understand tech trends in order to be a translator as a practice becomes popular.
Early on, Bowman did a lot of work with variable rate technology, conducting field demonstrations into the 1990s as the technology developed. He also was very involved when GPS was only a government system — before it reached the mainstream. He got a grant for working with GPS meters and developed training models. Then GPS moved in to the tractor cab.
Of all the changes Bowman has seen in how Extension operates over the years, he says the reduction in the number of Extension advisers has had one of the biggest impacts.
In 1981, there were 150 general Extension advisers in Illinois, with at least one in each county. Today there are 40 in total, which includes small farms and local crops, horticulture, energy and environment advisers. The four new divisions were established six years ago when the county offices closed as part of a major restructuring of Extension.
Bowman, one of only four Illinois Extension crop advisers, tends to work more often with Certified Crop Advisers than directly with farmers today. These agronomists are then able to get the message out to the fields. The trust in Extension information hasn’t changed, though.
“We (Extension) are still the unbiased opinion. We’re not selling anything,” he said.
Despite the changes, Bowman still sees his goal as helping farmers get higher yields, which may include anything from helping with Palmer amaranth control to interpreting soil tests.
On this day he fielded two calls. One was a farmer with a field problem and the other a landscaper in Chicago trying to grow plants near a municipal building that had high salt content from de-icing steps in the winter.
He also answered emails, looked at research for herbicide labels, wrote a blog post, held a media interview and research farm tour and prepared for the university’s upcoming 60th annual Agronomy Day Aug. 17.
For the commercial ag educator and researcher, his daily 45-mile commute from his home near Maroa, Illinois, to the University of Illinois Crop Sciences Research and Education Center in Champaign County, gives him a chance to do broad crop scouting.
His interest in crop scouting started on his own family farm and continued with his first job in agri-business before joining Extension, and he continues to seek the best ways to do it.
Bowman’s aspiration has been to get above the crop. Remote sensing projects caught his eye early, he said. In the field this week, he explained the capabilities of a new camera on his latest drone.
After he gets a good idea, he’s known for carrying through — an attribute funding bodies look for, Bissonnette said. Funders see what has been developed and support going further with the project, developing the technology, demonstrating it and getting the word out, she said. As state funding declines, getting research funding remains an essential part of Extension work.
Some of the cover crop work Bowman does with Extension crop specialist Emerson Nafziger is funded by the Illinois Nutrient Research & Education Council and the fertilizer checkoff. One thing they know for certain is not to grow cereal rye before corn because it can reduce yields by as much as 60 bushels per acre.
While Bowman values technology and the future, he also likes connections to the past. In his office is a piece of art his mentor, Bill McAllister, made — a model of an Extension adviser looking at a plant with a farmer. McAllister died recently, but the lessons he taught are the kinds Bowman likes to pass along.