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20 Feb 2023

Robot scanning maps route to target herbicide applications

As featured in Arable Farming Magazine

Robot scanning maps route to target herbicide applications

by Arable Farming Magazine November/December 2022 issue

The first of three field scans to be performed by robots has been completed on land farmed by a Hampshire farm business signed up to a new ‘Per Plant Farming service.

There will be robots at work in broadacre arable fields in Hampshire this season.

Wheatsheaf Farming manager David Miller has signed up the business to the Small Robot Company (SRC) Per Plant Farming Service.

Wheatsheaf Farming is one of 50 farms to join the scheme following a pilot study which demonstrated the service can reduce herbicide applications up to 77% and fertiliser applications up to 15%, according to SRC.

Wheatsheaf Farming is a contract farming company comprising four privately owned farms totalling 728 hectares and located between Basingstoke and Winchester.

The farms are managed as one business, with the percentage of land each farm contributes defining the percentage of profit received.

The farm has been managed under a regenerative system for the last 13 years and has fully utilised cover crops and a no-till system since 2015.

Cropping comprises mainly conventional spring and winter crops, including oilseed rape, barley, wheat and beans.

The predominant soil type is a light loam over chalk with a clay cap and lots of flints.

Mr Miller has always tried to be open-minded about developments in agricultural technology and has been following SRC developments for several years.

The main thing that convinced me to sign up for the service was the ability of the robot to scan the field and then have that information passed directly to the sprayer.

Our sprayer has GPS shut-off capabilities, so when spraying the field, the robot can tell the sprayer where the weeds are and where it needs to spot spray, says Mr Miller.

From an environmental perspective, if we can spot spray where the robot recommends, we wont need to spray the whole field.

We are then able to adopt a more targeted approach in what weeds we are trying to control.

Environmental considerations are particularly important to us here.

Mr Miller signed up for the scheme this year and robots have been on the farm for the first time this autumn to conduct the first scan.

The field is planted to winter spelt wheat, with the planted area totalling 20 hectares.

The service includes three scans throughout the growing season, gathering per plant data which farmers can then use on an informed basis to ensure inputs are applied exactly where they are required.

Targeted The Small Robot Company has recently completed the first ‘green on brown scan ,which is conducted prior to drilling, detecting plants for targeted treatment with a non-selective herbicide such as glyphosate James Vining, business development manager at SRC, describes how the first scan targets the glyphosate application.

He says: We detect areas of green plant life and create a treatment map that allows targeted glyphosate application using existing farm machinery, rather than treating the whole field in a broadacre approach.

This means we dont necessarily have to spray the whole field with glyphosate, but target only the areas with weeds.

Currently, the service only runs commercially for broadleaved weed detection, but the SRC is making ‘significant progress with grass-weed detection, adds Mr Vining.

The second survey identifies, geolocates and counts crop plants and broadleaved weeds to provide a targeted autumn herbicide application map, for use with contact herbicides.

Mr Vining says a density map of the field can be created by collating plant count data.

This can then be used to feed into a variable rate fertiliser application model.

The third and final scan does a similar survey in the spring, focusing on broadleaved weeds and nutrient uptake.

The final survey consists of a biomass assessment to support the second variable rate application of nutrients, says Mr Vining.

Growers then have the option to do a second nitrogen application if required to increase crop uniformity and achieve a higher yield.

The Per Plant Farming service is still in its infancy and the SRC had a choice of two fields at Wheatsheaf Farming.

Its standard operating area under the service is 20 hectares, but farm businesses can opt to have up to 120ha serviced by the robots.

This means we can get a robot to any farm, even if they want to start small.

Speaking to farmers, 20ha was felt to be a good area for an initial trial, which increased their confidence in trialling the service, says Mr Vining.

Winter wheat The robots cover 2.2ha per hour and operate currently in pairs.

This service is currently only offered for winter cererals, with a range of crops being added to the robots inventory over the next few years.

The robot is designed to operate up to growth stage 31, with the SRC currently assessing what action could be informed if they deployed a solution which could operate past GS31.

According to Mr Miller, one of the most exciting things about being involved with the service is knowing that what the SRC is developing is just the beginning.

The technology, cameras they are using and the data they can collect and interpret have moved so fast over the last five years.

The SRC is finding new things that they may have been unaware of before the commercial stage, but it is great to be at the beginning of this learning curve and have an impact on the future development of this technology, he says.

Future services currently in development or on trial include robotic non-chemical weeding; disease identification and fungicide treatment sprayer export; soil sampling and insights; and grass-weed classification, including black-grass.

Precision monitoring alone can provide immediate value, optimising existing sprayers for herbicide and fertiliser applications.

But we believe thats just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential for what per-plant farming can deliver, both in input cost savings and yield enhancement, says Mr Vining.

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