What a difference 12 months can make

Article taken from the FarmBusiness World in 2014

Oilseed rape and early-sown cereals are looking particularly well.  This assessment comes with a little hesitation, however, as the pitfalls of these early-sown crops seems to be the ever-increasing grass weed populations that will potentially give many agronomists and growers a few headaches through the coming season.  With our chemical armoury becoming less potent, can we rely on technological advances to turn the tide?

While there are currently no miracle cures from technology there are a number of developments that are being refined to give more options in the fight against grass weeds.  The first interesting innovation is the use of unmanned ariel vehicles (UAVs); these space-age mini stealth bomber-esque vehicles can be put to good use in surveying fields.  Unlike our vision, the special cameras on these UAVs can pick up the slight tone and leaf differences between different plants, and this is where we can start to detect the difference between our crops and unwanted weeds.

The question is, what can we do with this data? Technology has a little catching up to do.  When detecting a plant like black-grass with a UAV, the plant is past the point of control.  This gives us a good map of where the problem is but it’s too late to do anything for that crop.  It does allow us to make a weed map, and potentially this can allow us to influence seed rate in the next crop, and variably apply different residual rates onto those areas.  Obviously the goal is to detect the weed at a stage when it can still be treated, and that is where trial work is still ongoing.

A similar technology is where high-speed cameras are attached to sprayers to provide real time ‘spot’ spraying.  This technology would be the holy grail of application technology both in terms of weed control and in terms of keeping with tighter regulations.  Again, this is an area that is being heavily trialled and the concept can be proven to work.  However, add practical field speeds and boom widths and we are again pushing the limits of where technology currently is.

Looking away from electronic wizardry, going back to basics with modern thinking can also achieve results.  Mechanical removal of weeds may see something of a comeback over the next few years, with the development of machines that can be pulled through the growing crop to remove unwanted weeds.  This is relatively easy where the weed and crop have very different stems, not so good where they are similar.  Trial work on some of our problem grass weeds such as brome and black-grass have seen significant reductions in populations, with only minimal damage to the crop.

I think it is true throughout the generations of farming that we have to adapt to whatever nature throws at us, Last year the biggest challenge was the weather; this year it might be weeds.  The key thing that we must do is adapt and innovate; those who sit back and let these problems get worse will ultimately suffer in the short term and the long term.  It is true that we are living in a far smaller world these days – much can be learned from our farming cousins around the globe.  We need to share information to drive forward our industry.


20 January 2014

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