The driving force for change in the tillage sector

Image Credit: Fendt the latest generation of seed sowing robots: The Fendt Xaver comes of age

Mark O’Dowd discusses the transition to digital agriculture in the farming sector and the impact this has on farmer decision making.

Agricultural technologies play a pivotal role in the day to day running of every farming enterprise. When we think of agricultural technologies, big tractors and fancy combine harvesters often come to mind. However the ag tech sector is much more diverse than you may think. From robots that can milk cows 24 hours a day 365 days a year to autonomous drones that spray the steep vineyards of Italy with herbicides and pesticides, the agricultural technology sector is one that is growing exponentially and shows little sign of slowing down.  

More and more, technologies are aiding farmers in making key decisions when it comes to their farm. Such technologies can include management software or autonomous hardware. One such sector where these autonomous systems are being implemented is the tillage sector. 

Increasing pressure and controls are being placed on European tillage farmers regarding the use of certain crop weed and disease control chemicals. Chemical resistance is a large driving force behind this policy change. Glyphosate is one such chemical that is the most commonly used herbicide in the EU and Worldwide. A 2018 report published in Weed Science Society of America found that glyphosate resistance in weeds has been found in 29 countries including the UK. Glyphosate is used in Ireland and the EU on a host of crops and cropping systems including rapeseed oil, potatoes, maize, wheat, vineyards, fruit orchards and many grasslands. 

This worrying statistic shows how big a problem this once new chemical technology has become, glyphosate is currently approved for use in the EU until the 15 December 2022.

Together with chemical resistance and the perceived negative environmental and human health effects associated with the improper use of such chemicals, innovative technological solutions are on the horizon. One such technology employed are systems that allow the targeted spot spraying of individual weeds using vision cameras, near infrared sensors and spectral imagery. This so-called ‘See and Spray’ technology is an alternative crop management decision than the traditional ‘Blanket Spray’ system where every field is treated with the same type, volume, rate and quantity of chemicals regardless of the crop's weed or disease status. Several see and spray technologies are currently available on the market with manufactures claiming a 90% reduction in chemical costs and independent academic studies reporting a high accuracy rate of 83% in targeting individual weeds in a crop. Large multinational machinery manufacturers are investing huge sums of money in these technologies with John Deere forking out $305,000,000 for a ‘See and Spray’ start-up company called ‘Blue River Technology’ established in 2012.

The agricultural technology sector is one that is growing exponentially and shows little sign of slowing down

Spraying technologies are not the only cutting edge tech being implemented within the tillage sector. The first commercially available fully autonomous field robots are currently being used on tillage farms. Driven mainly by the cost and lack of suitable skilled labour, autonomous field robots are the ideal solution to this problem. Autonomous field robots can also achieve higher work efficiencies thanks to 24 hour operation which is essential in such a weather dependent sector. 

Two main types of field robots are available. Firstly, large multipurpose autonomous robots which are essentially driverless tractors that can carry out a wide array of field tasks such as ploughing, cultivating, sowing, fertilizing, spraying and harvesting using traditional tractor implements. Secondly, smaller individual task autonomous robots which may only carry out one specific field task like sowing. These smaller robots generally work as part of a team of eight to ten robots called a ‘Swarm’. The advantage of this system layout is smaller, lighter robots means less ground compaction and damage. AGCO, one of the world's leading machinery manufactures has released “Project Xaver” an autonomous swarm based sowing system planned for commercial release in the near future. John Deere have also released plans of an electric autonomous multipurpose robot which show these companies commitment to driving cutting edge agricultural technologies within the tillage sector. 

Together with these drone, see and spray technology and autonomous field robots, tillage farmers are able to make better informed decisions. These decisions not only benefit their tillage enterprise financially but benefit the end consumer while all the time ensuring little to zero environmental damage.