Factors affecting cotton development present spatial and temporal variability. Plant growth regulators (PGR) are used to control vegetative growth, promote higher yields, better fiber quality, and facilitate mechanical harvest. The optimal rate of PGR application depends on crop height, biomass, and growth rate. Thus, the objective of this study was to evaluate optical and ultrasonic crop canopy sensors to detect the crop spatial variability in cotton fields, and to develop strategies for using this information to perform variable rate application (VRA) of PGR in cotton. Field trials were conducted in Midwest Brazil during the 2013/2014 and 2014/2015 crop seasons. Two optical and two ultrasonic active crop canopy sensors were evaluated as tools to detect crop variability. On-farm trials were used to develop and validate algorithms for VRA based on within-field variations in crop response to PGR applications. The overall performance of the sensors to predict crop height and the accumulation of biomass in cotton was satisfactory. Short distance variability was predominant in some fields, reducing the performance of the sensors while making current technology for variable rate application of PGR inadequate. In areas with large scale variability, the VRA led to 17% savings in PGR products and no significant effect on yield was observed. Ultrasonic sensors present can be a low-cost alternative to implement variable rate application of PGR in real time.
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