The first time Dan Kubal, a native of southeastern South Dakota, saw an airplane was in his youth, when a plane flew over one of his father’s farm fields to apply pesticide.
“From that moment on, I was fascinated by aviation,” he said. “So, I got my pilot’s license —that took about five years, because I was doing it a piece at a time — and started flying in 1986. I started aerial spraying in 1991.”
The background that led him to aviation also led him to a career in aerial spraying. His love for everything agriculture, coupled with his passion for airplanes, made it a perfect fit.
Dan started out with a small business in his native state but saw the potential for a larger operation when he traveled to Texas for some contract work. Today, he operates Kubal Aerial Spraying out of the former Maytag Corp. hangar at Newton Municipal Airport.
“Our core area is southern and central Iowa,” he said. “But we work from as far south as Texas to as far north as the Canadian border, basically the center section of the country, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota and Texas.”
A lot has changed over the years, particularly with regard to technology used in aerial spraying. Dan said his company uses the most state-of-the-art technology, including global positioning systems, which have created whole new areas of capability for his aircraft, all of which are five years old or newer.
Dan said the GPS technology allows his company to create “prescriptions,” which can be downloaded into the onboard computer system. The oldest aircraft in his fleet of four is a 2008 model.
“We’re more into total plant health now,” he said. “There’s a misconception out there that all we’re doing is spraying for some pest — whether it be bugs or weeds — and while that’s still part of what we do, the bigger focus is on plant health.”
A recent change, Dan said, was the move to dry applications within the industry. He has made substantial investments in new equipment to meet that new need for farmers.
“If you compare agricultural aviation with where it was when I started 23 years ago, it’s amazing,” he said. “Not only GPS, but the improvements in other application equipment — nozzle technology, depositing calibration — it’s all far superior today.”
New technology has improved the efficiency of aerial spraying, as well. Much like planting, which is now done with 24- and 36-row attachments instead of six- and eight-row implements, aerial spraying has seen substantial improvements in the equipment used to do the job.
“With GPS, you can see exactly where we applied, and at what rate we applied,” Dan said. “You know what you’re getting. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and the results from our applications speak for themselves.”
For farmers who have tried aerial spraying in the past with disappointing results, and to those who are still skeptical about the impact it can have on overall crop yield, Dan said he encourages them to take another look. He often hosts farmers at his hangar, so they can see the hard work and quality that goes into what his company does.
“With aerial application, you have zero crop damage, because we’re not driving over crops,” he said. “The window to apply is as important as what you’re applying. With aircraft, we have the ability to apply more acres in a shorter amount of time.”
Dan said a lot of growers he works with have gone to variable rate application and precision planting. With the improvements in technology in his own business, his aircraft are also able to vary the rate of application in spraying to match the plant population on the ground.
“Why apply 150 pounds, when it only requires 50?” he said. “We’re able to be much more precise with our applications.”
And with aircraft that travel upward of 160 mph, his pilots can be working in northern Jasper County at 6:30 a.m. and begin flying over a field in the southern part of the county by 7 a.m.
Insurance requirements have become more stringent, and licensing is more strict than it has ever been. Still, Dan said he has enough confidence in what his company is doing that he’s turned it into a full-time business venture.
Each of his pilots have more than 15,000 hours of flight time, and the top-of-the-line equipment receives top-notch maintenance, he added. In fact, the hangar from which he operates is in nearly pristine condition, the floors shining brightly in the mid-morning sun.
“We’re working every day to do a better job,” he said. “When a farmer tells me what we’re doing is working, and they want to do more next year, that really makes my day. That’s what fuels what I’m doing.”