By Doug Finkelnburg

What does weed control for agriculture look like in the not-so-distant future? Some are making big bets it will look much more automated. While many are spraying and praying for the next novel active ingredient that can be inserted into their existing weed control program, others are looking to technology.  Precision sprayers that can detect living plants and spot spray in fallow systems have been around long enough to vote at this point, but these systems will seem like the early green screen computers when compared to what is coming. While zonal fertility application and variable rate seeding are coming into their own, they will soon be joined by precision weed control technologies.

Currently, we apply a chemical (or a tank mixed cocktail) from fence row to fence row. Adding additional products, as one might be advised to do when herbicide-resistant weeds are problematic, compounds an already hefty part of an operation’s costs. Other best management recommendations to scout fields regularly, spot apply herbicides where escapes occur, and carefully manage roadsides and ditch banks translates to a daunting amount of labor and increased expense for many operations. Sending a hired hand out on a four-wheeler to drive all over the crop looking for escapes can be impractical for several reasons. So, we spray and pray knowing we really have one practical shot at spring weed control. We spray and pray the crop has not canopied over too much while we were waiting for the ground to dry out enough in the draws to access the whole field. We spray and pray that the one or two products we spent so much on will be effective. These are the stories we will bore our grandkids with, much like tales of rotary phones and rabbit ears on televisions.

They will scratch their heads and wonder how it must have been before the farm drone created field maps of identified weeds that informed precision spray applicators. They will shake their heads at the thought of all the wasted money spent on chemicals applied where they were not needed. They will wonder why grandpa did not just drive around the wet parts of the field and precision spray at an optimal timing for the target weeds, leaving those wet draws to the aerial spray drone.  They will wonder what it was like to not have a spray drone or automated ground weeder minding the field edges and weed escapes while they did other spring work.

We are on the cusp of the marriage of tech and ag that will revolutionize weed control and change the rules for modern farming. Ag-engineers are refining imagery identification systems that will soon be able to differentiate grassy weeds from grassy crops (the proverbial holy grail of imagery analysis). When coupled with smart sensors a fraction of the amount of chemical applied today to a field could be used to get the same level of weed control. Spray drones are already being deployed for agricultural applications and their load limitations are offset by their ability to make precise spot applications. Other technologies in development include precision flamers, lasers, abraders, or cultivators which can replace or augment herbicides. Before you walk away thinking this is a bunch of fun speculation, consider John Deere spending over $300 million in 2017 to acquire a robotics company specializing in “see and spray” technology. Also, consider BASF’s recent investments in start-ups that focus on solar-powered robotic weeders and precision spraying technologies.

The result of this increased farm automation will be a more precise, data-driven farming operation. These technologies will not replace all existing practices, but they will allow for a reallocation of time and resources. Technology has become an ever-increasing part of modern life and modern business. There is no indication that dryland farming will be any different and every indication we have a lot to benefit from its adoption. Bring on the robots!