Bowles Farming - California

Adding Drones to a Precision Agriculture Program

Pairing DroneDeploy with John Deere Operations Center to increase profits during cotton harvest


acres of cotton field mapped


per acre saved when not sprayed


generations on this family farm

When it comes time to harvest thousands of acres of cotton, the more you know about the crop, the better the yield. Bowles Farming Company takes this idea seriously, having built a robust precision agriculture program around it.

Their 12,000 acre operation paired DroneDeploy with John Deere Operations Center to track their post-foliant cotton crop and generate a variable rate map for a targeted respray. Technology integration specialist Justin Metz shares the story of how this decision minimized equipment and supply costs while maximizing the cotton yield.

Justin imported the VARI map into John Deere Operations Center seamlessly from his DroneDeploy dashboard by using the My John Deere Export App.

Drones Help Create Precise Variable Rate Prescription in John Deere Operations Center

Before a cotton harvest, it's sprayed with a defoliant (to dry the plant and open the bolls containing the cotton fibers). If it's harvested before thoroughly dried, valuable fibers are left behind, making the equipment work harder and straining expensive parts.

Technology integration specialist Justin Metz mapping a field at Bowles Farm.

Without comprehensive information about an entire field, it’s difficult to know if the defoliant is drying the cotton evenly — and exactly when it will be ready to harvest. To solve this problem, Justin mapped close to 3,200 acres of cotton fields with a DJI Inspire 1 Pro and an X3 camera.

Objectives of the Drone Project

  • Create a variable rate map for a targeted respray of areas that weren’t drying as quickly.
  • Evaluate the field maps and choose the best harvest date.

Data Collection Process

  • 1st drone flight - Ten days prior to their estimated harvest date Justin would fly the cotton field and applied the VARI index to the new map. He used this information to make sure the cotton was drying out evenly across the fields and to adjust the order in which the fields were harvested, based on their readiness.
  • VARI index - Justin used DroneDeploy’s built-in plant health tools to apply a VARI index to the drone map.
  • Export into John Deere Operations Center: Justin imported the VARI map into John Deere Operations Center seamlessly from his DroneDeploy dashboard by using the My John Deere Export App.
  • Generate variable rate map: Justin imported plant health information into John Deere Operations Center and could then create a variable rate map for precise re-spray of just the areas that needed it. The per-acre rate for the variable map was assigned according to the product used. They are also able to choose the appropriate material they need to apply based on how green the plants are and time left to until expected harvest date. Different products have different strengths, and days required for full affect. With those different strengths, comes different pricing. Using the VARI index and ground truthing they are able to determine the most economical product to apply taking into consideration how green the plants are and how much time is left until anticipated harvest.
  • 2nd drone flight: Justin was able to share the map with his crop advisor, and If requested, conduct a second flight to verify the remediation plan was on schedule.

NDVI sentinel 2 satellite imagery of a section of Bowles Farming Company’s cotton fields. Justin uploaded the imagery into DroneDeploy, and also used the platform’s Side by Side app to visualize how the entire cotton crop was progressing.

With Drone Data, Cotton Harvest is Less Costly and More Productive

Justin prefers using drones to generate highly-accurate aerial insights with centimeter per pixel accuracy. In the past, using traditional collection methods — such as manned aircraft imagery — for this purpose hasn’t been this detailed but gave you an overall snapshot. “With manned aircraft imagery, you have to make assumptions off of pretty pictures,” says Justin.

The accurate variable rate map that Justin created using drone data allowed him to precisely apply the second round of defoliant.

Defoliant spraying is another $11–15 per acre, so for every acre we don’t have to spray, we increase our net profit for the harvest.

Justin Metz picture

Justin Metz, Technology integration specialist, Bowles Farming Company

With timely aerial data about plant health, Bowles Farming Company went into the harvest confident that they had correctly estimated the best date for picking cotton. This strategy saved money by minimizing strain on the cotton picker, and maximized the yield by collecting the most cotton fibers from the plants.

Bowles Farming Company uses drone maps to detect pre-season drip irrigation leaks.

Drones Enhance Farm’s Precision Agriculture Program

At Bowles Farming Company, precision agriculture doesn’t end with drone data. They gather data on seeding, tractor and driver efficiencies, and actual rates applied for fertilizers. They also record information about speed and coverage of their sprayer, and analyze data from their water truck. Justin combines drone maps with all this data in the John Deere Operations Center. “It provides another layer of information and organizes it all into one place,” says Justin.

The farm uses drones in nearly every aspect of their operations, from assessing drip irrigation leaks, to monitoring crop emergence. Justin even sends screenshots of his DroneDeploy flight plans, which includes the area map, altitude and estimated flight time, to local crop dusters to avoid any airspace conflicts. He appreciates drones, and tools like DroneDeploy, for the simple workflows and actionable data that a single flight can produce.

In the early days of drones, it was, "Here’s your drone and a pretty image that shows a bad spot." But, a farmer already knows where his bad areas are. What he doesn’t know is when they are going to come up during the season. Now, we can see exactly when the issue is starting and how big it is, then create a plan to fix it.

Justin Metz picture

Justin Metz, Bowles Farming Company

About Bowles Farming Company

Located near Los Banos in the Central Valley of California, Bowles Farming Company is a sixth-generation family farm operated by the Bowles and Lawrence families. They primarily produce annual crops, with a focus on tomatoes, melons, and extra long staple cotton — among other crops