Technology Will Change Weed Control From Chemistry to Application

A tightening labor pool, increasing regulations, calls for sustainability, demand for precision and (perhaps the biggest of them all) resistance, are all converging to bring great change to the crop chemical and application sectors. For retailers, this will change the products and services you sell for crop protection and custom application.

Weed management provides an excellent example of the latest innovation and evolution. The main driver is there has not been a new herbicide group since 1992 (HPPD inhibitors, group 27), and researchers say it takes at least 10 years to develop a new herbicide and get regulatory approval. 

But technology and innovative methods for application are being developed at a much faster pace.

“Globally, resistance has triggered a lot of thinking on what you can do and what you can change to improve opportunities,” says Dr. Marco Busch, Head of Weed Control Research, Bayer Crop Science.

Look no further than technologies such as Blue River’s See and Spray, which John Deere acquired for $305 million, that combines machine learning and precise application technologies. Other examples include Rantizo’s automated drone-based spray technologyand emerging disruptive technologies, such as RootWave.

“There are no clear winners yet,” says Melissa Johnson, Formulation Science and Technology Leader, Crop Protection Product Design and Process R&D at Corteva Agriscience, Agriculture Division of DowDuPont. “But it’s an exciting time to see how technologies are being deployed for agriculture, and how it will make products more efficient and sustainable.”

She explains that her team is charged with the task of paying attention to all of the applicable technologies while staying focused on the near term but also keeping in mind the future. And with the 10-year timeframe for new product development and the rapid technology changes emerges, that challenge is growing more intense.

Using existing products with new application methods will lead to more changes. There are examples from the global market that are showing how new application methods and formulation considerations can evolve together.

“If you are spraying with a traditional sprayer, you use gravity to deliver the droplet. If you have a drone, it has that rotor wash to push the droplets into the canopy,” Johnson says. “We’ve gained experience with this in southeast Asia, where drone applications are becoming more common due to the size of the fields and challenging access to the areas for application.”

Additionally, traditional spraying systems have relied on large amounts of water for a carrier, and if drones or swarm robots are used instead, their payloads are drastically lower. That opens the conversation for more precise, targeted applications of higher concentrations of active ingredients.

Sensors, predictive models, machine learning and other technologies are combining for advanced intelligence in yield threats as they develop.

“For a long time we’ve talked about farming by the foot, but quickly we are going to get to farming by the seed,” says Mark Young, chief technology officer at The Climate Corporation. “And when we get to edge computing and see and spray technologies—we’ll farm by the plant and make ongoing decisions all season-long.”

Young says with predictive technologies, earlier detection, and sensors to make scouting more efficient, applications will greatly reduce to only be treating the necessary areas of the field.

“That starts us down the path of how formulations may change,” Johnson says.

As new possibilities in application methods are achieved, chemistries can be tailored to specific needs.

“Precision application satisfies the needs for enhanced environmental safety and toxicological safety, because it reduces the load you apply to a field,” Bayer’s Busch says. “But it also opens the possibilities to designing products specific to the weeds or conditions. So in the future we may be talking about very targeted new chemistries for “driver weeds.””

Busch also thinks crop protection solutions will become more and more crop specific with distinct solutions for particular crops.

Some such technologies are already being used. In late 2017, FMC acquired DuPont’s PrecisionPAC system, which is a custom blend system for up to six active ingredients located at the retail location. The company has more than 400 machines in the market today, with a focus on products for the cereals market.

“We have a number of development projects underway to bring this system’s capabilities to the soybean market with the Authority and Anthem herbicide brands,” explains Rick Ekins, application and innovations platform lead for FMC.

PrecisionPAC’s advantages include custom blending active ingredients, custom volumes for specific applications, and tracking with time stamps and precise blend information.

Another emerging technology being applied in advancing crop protection applications are advanced detection technologies.

“There’s a continuum of technologies in every step in the pest control process,” Johnson says. “For a farmer, he has to first identify and diagnose the problem, then determine what to do about it, and finally decide how to apply the solution. We are working on solutions that span prediction to sensing and analysis to treatment.”

As for when all of these technologies will be deployed across large acres, Johnson says it’s a matter of time.

“Change is coming quickly, but I’m not saying there won’t be a place for large sprayers still in fields five years from now.”