Folks interested in the future of agricultural weed control are spending a lot of time following the dollars being spent on precision technology and artificial intelligence (AI) as major farm equipment and chemical companies collaborate to improve the efficiency of their products.

Shrinking the resolution of spraying whole fields to prevent weeds or to treat isolated outbreaks is the path most engineering is taking as engineers combine machine vision with AI to create “smart” sprayers which promise near “single-plant treatment.” Such technology bears little resemblance to the early broad-spectrum herbicide machines that struggled to differentiate between bare dirt and green plants.

The systems under development offer the potential to improve chemical efficacy with more timely and targeted application rates – improvements which bring a smile to both bankers and those concerned with farming’s effects on the environment.

In the most recent development, AGCO announced in late May a proof-of-concept (PoC) collaboration with Robert Bosch GmbH, BASF, xarvio Digital Farming GmbH and Raven Industries Inc., to evaluate targeted spraying technology for improved chemical application effectiveness, which could reduce crop input costs.

The project is currently underway in Europe with prototype equipment mounted on a Fendt Rogator featuring technology from AGCO. Bosch is supplying hardware, machine learning and AI capabilities. Xarvio Digital Farming Solutions provides automated real-time, in-field decision-making software, and Raven Applied Technology is responsible for sprayer efficacy and operational efficiency.

U.S. tests resulting from the collaboration are expected in 2022.

Earlier OEM investments pointing to the future of more precise and limited crop protectant application include the $300+ million John Deere purchase of a robotics firm specializing in “see and spray” technology. And, in other ventures, BASF has invested in start-ups that have developed solar-powered robotic weeders and other precision spraying technology. 

As we discussed in the February issue, German firm Crop.Zone is busy using it’s “Electroherb” system to defoliate weeds in European potato fields by passing high-voltage electric current through them from a tractor-mounted generator and chassis-mounted electrodes. The system destroys the plant’s vascular system and disrupts the photosynthetic mechanism of chlorophyll, leaving the targeted species to wither within 24 hours. 

And, earlier, we talked about how Kansas developer Dave Button’s Row Shaver provides a completely mechanical in-row mowing head to cut weed species before they reproduce and add to the seed bank in cropland.

“Weed control in cash crops will continue to be a war-like challenge probably as long as humans operate above a subsistence level…”

Even today, sprayer drones are flying sorties in many fields, with precision technology allowing targeted delivery of small, but accurate spot applications of herbicides, allowing growers to identify small, emerging weed infestations and treat them long before they become “field-size” problems. As field mapping and AI improve, UAVs — even with their limited payload — likely will be at the forefront of weed control in specific field problem areas and along headlands not easily serviced by public roads.

In a recent issue of Certified Crop Advisor, University of Nebraska weed ecologist Steve Young says he sees technology leading to fully automated systems with tractor-mounted sensor and computer technology which would categorize each plant in the field as a weed or crop species.

“Once those identifications are made, one of several weed-fighting tools located on the tractor or sprayer could be applied to individual plants based on their biology,” he says. “If the system identifies a weed that’s resistant to glyphosate, for example, it could be sprayed with a different herbicide. Or an on-board cutting or flaming tool could be used to kill the plant instead.”

Such a system could target different weed control methods to specific weeds, similar to today’s variable rate technology which can mix and match fertilizer and seeding rates on the go based on individual field maps.

Weed control in cash crops will continue to be a war-like challenge probably as long as humans operate above a subsistence level, but the tools the industry is developing will make the fight a much more targeted and specific operation than even today’s most efficient methods. 

Without a wholesale change in the overall food production and marketing system, farm economics and environmental concerns will continue directing weed control development dollars toward increased accuracy and efficacy and the farm equipment of the future will reflect that.