Dr. Charlie Rush hopes to use a unique method – helicopter drone – to track disease progression across wheat fields and eventually help producers make better irrigation decisions.
Rush, a Texas A&M AgriLife Research plant pathologist in Amarillo, has enlisted the help of Ian Johnson, a Montana State University-Bozeman graduate student who is using his work in the university’s Science and Natural History Filmmaking Program to help scientists conduct research.
Approximately 1.1 million acres of wheat in the High Plains are irrigated, Rush said, making wheat the second-largest user of irrigation water from the Ogallala Aquifer. In this same region, mite-vectored virus diseases are the predominant pathogenic constraint to sustainable wheat production each year.
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The viruses causing these diseases are transmitted by the wheat curl mite, he said. Infected wheat plants not only have reduced grain and forage yields, but also greatly reduced root weight and water-use efficiency. Therefore, fertilizer and groundwater applied as irrigation to diseased wheat is largely wasted.
Rush’s team is using the helicopter to take remote images  of a field study where they are trying to develop an economic threshold for irrigation of wheat infected with wheat streak and other mite-vectored diseases.