Three pieces of weed control technology are entering the crop protection mix.
Throughout the history of agriculture, one constant has been the ongoing battle between growers and weeds.
That struggle has become even more pronounced in recent times as a result of rising resistance to some herbicides, mounting issues of the public perception of crop protection products and importing countries increasingly setting their own maximum residue limits (MRLs) for allowable limits of pesticide products instead of adhering to an international standard.
Brent Nicol, business development manager for xarvio Digital Farming Solutions, says that if farm customers make a fundamental shift in the way they approach crop protection, embracing precision weed control technologies and other developments hitting the market, it could change the way that retailers do business.
“The technology is coming fast and, in some cases, it’s already here,” he says. “Ag retailers will need to embrace it and sift through it all to determine what works and what doesn’t. They need to be aware of these technologies and what they can do.”
This means ag retailers may need to adopt and adapt; helping their customers to evaluate and implement these new technologies and evaluating and adjusting their own business models to evolve alongside their customers.
Three emerging technologies with the potential to change a grower’s relationship with pesticide products are the xarvio Smart Sprayer, the WEEDit system and the X-Steam-inator. The Communicator reports on the design and functionality of each below.
BASF’s xarvio Digital Farming Solutions has already earned high praise for its xarvio SCOUTING app that was introduced in Canada two years ago. In July 2019, the app won the Innovations Award in the plant and soil science category at Ag in Motion in Saskatoon.
The free app, which is available for both Apple and Android devices, uses a highly-sophisticated algorithm to help identify 117 different types of weeds at five different stages of growth, and can also recognize crop diseases and measure leaf damage. A farmer simply opens the app on their device and uses it to take a photo of a weed. The app then scans the image before indicating what the weed is, along with a percentage of accuracy.
“Weed identification is definitely becoming more of a challenge, even just in the sense that things in agriculture are way more mobile than they used to be,” says Nicol. “For example, some of the weeds that were once found only in southern Manitoba are now starting to show up in southern Alberta and central Saskatchewan.”
Nicol says this increased mobility is a fairly new phenomenon for many growers, and has contributed to their desire for new solutions.
The app was developed in conjunction with a team of agronomists, research associations, and colleges and universities to ensure the accuracy of the technology. It now has an image library that numbers in the tens of thousands, with contributions made by growers worldwide.
Xarvio SCOUTING is also the basis for the xarvio Smart Sprayer – a new piece of weed control equipment developed in collaboration with Germany-based Bosch Global.
The Smart Sprayer works with boom-mounted cameras that are linked with the scouting image recognition technology to identify nearly two dozen species of weeds.
Once a weed is identified, it is selectively sprayed with just the right amount of herbicide for that weed. For example, if it recognizes thistle at one end of the boom it will trigger the appropriate nozzle to hit the thistle, leaving the remaining nozzles closed.
The Smart Sprayer is already generating considerable buzz among ag retailers and growers, in part because of its ability to selectively target weeds, thereby requiring less product and helping to reduce herbicide resistance.
Xarvio and Bosch are currently testing prototype units of the sprayer. Nicol says early test results have been positive so far and Nicol says it’s conceivable that full field tests could be conducted within two years and the sprayer could be available for commercial use within three or four years.
Rometron, a small manufacturer based in the Netherlands, has taken a different approach to precision weed spraying. Its WEEDit weed detection and elimination system works with a grower’s existing sprayer to achieve a similar goal as that of the xarvio Smart Sprayer – selectively spraying plants and reducing the amount of herbicide required on a field.
The “eyes” of the WEEDit system are a series of sensors, secured to a boom-sprayer at a distance of one metre apart. Each emits a specific wavelength of light that projects approximately one metre ahead of the boom. If the light hits a weed, it sends back a slightly altered reflection back to the sensor, which then activates one of four nozzles that is in-line with the weed and sprays it with the appropriate amount of herbicide.
WEEDit was first developed about a decade ago and has been available in Canada for the past two years. In Australia, more than 500 of the sprayer units are already in use.
Canadian spray consultant Tom Wolf owns Saskatchewan-based Agrimetrix Research & Training and is one of the founders of sprayers101.com, a non-profit resource with information for safe, efficient and effective agricultural spraying.
According to Wolf, one of the major benefits of the WEEDit system is that because it exclusively targets plants, it can provide huge savings compared to broadcast sprayers that spray the entire field regardless of weed density. Some of the customers that he’s spoken to who have purchased the system have reported savings of 75 per cent or more when compared to a conventional sprayer.
In addition to saving growers money, the WEEDit system can also make great contributions to their sustainability efforts. Because it uses less inputs, it leaves less chemical residue in the soil that could potentially be carried to nearby rivers and streams.
With WEEDit, it becomes economical to do things that were previously too expensive.
“With WEEDit, it becomes economical to do things that were previously too expensive. For example, costly tank mixes containing multiple effective modes of action to delay the onset of herbicide resistance are now affordable,” says Wolf.
One of the challenges with the system, Wolf points out, is that it is relatively sensitive to fluctuations in height when used with current suspended boom sprayers compared to more traditional pull-type sprayers.
For that reason, he recommends operators closely monitor their travel speed, since boom heights are easier to manage at slower speeds. The latest version of the system has a feature that automatically turns on all of the nozzles when the boom rises too high for the sensor, as a precautionary measure to avoid misses.
Wolf says the WEEDit system could have a major impact on the way agri-retailers, and especially equipment dealers, do business. Since sprayers are considered a necessary piece of equipment for most farmers, return on investment isn’t usually a consideration. However, he says a product like WEEDit can pay for itself within a few years because of the inherent savings it offers.
“Improving the value and the capabilities of a piece of equipment that (the customer) already owns is a great opportunity for retailers,” he says. “When times are tough, dealers are maybe not going to sell as many new sprayers. But an add-on like WEEDit can make the sprayer the farmers already own better and put more money in their pocket.”
What do you get when you mix a little water with a bit of heat and some state-of-the-art technology? According to an upstart agricultural company in Saskatchewan, you get an economical and environmentally-friendly solution to fighting weeds.
The “X-Steam-inator” sprayer uses steam to kill weeds prior to spring seeding and can also be configured to spray between crop rows to provide in-season weed control. The idea for the steam sprayer was conceived of by Ron Gleim, who formed X-Steam-inator with partner and fellow investor Kevin Hursh earlier this year.
Hursh says the X-Steam-inator is ideal for pre-seed burn-off and could even be used at the same time as seeding occurs, which could result in significant time-saving for growers. His company is also studying how the system could be used for desiccation down the road.
While his company has a patent pending on the system, Hursh admits its design is hardly revolutionary. Water is stored in a tank where it is heated by induction coils powered by an onboard generator or PTO. The high temperature steam that is produced is then sent through lines to a pull-type sprayer, which applies it to the weeds.
Contrary to what you might think, the X-Steam-inator requires very little water since just a small bit of water can produce a lot of steam. By comparison it uses only one or two gallons of water per acre as opposed to the five to 10 gallons per acre that many herbicides require.
Steam the Weeds
The primary appeal of the X-Steam-inator is that it requires no chemicals; instead killing weeds by heating them up to a point where their cell walls burst. This could be a boon for organic growers who are looking at non-pesticide methods of weed elimination.
Another plus to using steam, Hursh adds, is the fact that herbicide resistance becomes a moot point. In addition, frosty nights that can delay spraying herbicide don’t really make a difference when it comes to using steam.
“Those weeds should die after spraying even if there’s been a slight frost the previous day,” says Hursh, who runs his own farm in Cabri, Sask.
A couple of challenges with the system right now include a limit on how fast the unit can be used and the amount of dissolved minerals in the water it uses. Because the steam needs to be applied long enough to kill the weed, the unit is limited to a speed of four or five miles per hour. As well, demineralized water is required to prevent scale buildup in the lines and nozzles.
The X-Steam-inator was officially launched earlier this year at Canada’s Farm Progress Show in Regina, Sask. Gleim and Hursh currently have a prototype machine that has been tested in the U.S. and is scheduled to be tested in Canada in the near future. They hope to have the first commercial units available for purchase by 2021.
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