Precision Ag Reviews
Precision Profile: Weeding Out Chemical Applications with Robotic Alternatives
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Name: Clint Brauer
Farm: MG Honor Farms
Location: Cheney, Kan.
Size: 400 acres
Crops Grown: Soybeans, Winter Wheat, Yellow Field Peas, Pearl Millet, Sorghum, Oats, Winter Barley; previously raised more than 100 vegetable crops
Valuable Tech Tools: Greenfield Robotics; Weedbot Robotic Weeder
Precision Pain Point: Scaling Effective, Non-Chemical Weed Management to Regenerative Ag Practices
Weeding Out Chemical Applications with Robotic Alternatives
Sometimes the cure can be worse than the disease, a lesson Cheney, Kansas, grower Clint Brauer learned early in his farming career.
Shortly after forming MG Honor Farms in 2010 and raising a variety of organic vegetable crops for grocery stores and restaurants, Brauer dealt with an aggressive insect infestation that decimated his heirloom tomato plant population.
He eventually identified the pest as a species of brown blister beetle, and liberal applications of Spinosad, a natural insecticide, eradicated the insects. But eliminating one problem led to another.
“A couple weeks later, we ended up with massive amounts of grasshoppers tearing our plants apart,” Brauer explains. “We found out that the blister beetles eat grasshopper larvae so, ultimately, it was a real eye-opening ecosystem lesson for me.”
The experience motivated Brauer to explore more eco-friendly alternatives to excessive chemical applications, especially in broad-acre crops, to work with nature, rather than against it.
By 2015, he had transitioned the 400-acre operation out of vegetables and into no-till soybeans, winter wheat and other small grains, experimenting with alternatives to chemically controlling weeds.
Three years later, Brauer co-founded Greenfield Robotics, a startup committed to gradually reducing farmers’ reliance on herbicide application with a mechanical alternative and a more natural complement to regenerative ag practices.
But scaling an effective non-chemical weed control solution proved challenging.
“The most fundamental problem that I saw on a lot of farms was what to do if a spray rig can’t get out there when pigweed or marestail gets over a foot tall in soybeans?” Brauer says. “At that height, those weeds become resistant to applications, whether the soybeans are genetically modified or not. So once that starts happening, what do you do?”
Rather than increase the volume and frequency of chemical applications to combat weed pressure, Brauer engineered a robotic solution to strategically maneuver fields and eliminate or dramatically reduce species before they become invasive.
Greenfield Robotics developed - and today offers as a service - a fleet of compact, programmable 4-wheel-drive ‘Weedbots’ that navigate in between rows, cutting weeds a quarter- to a half-inch in height and growing 1 to 2 inches from emerging crops. The first generation of the battery-powered robots are about 4 feet long, can run day or night and weigh about 200 pounds, leaving a minor footprint in the soil.
For a fixed-rate annual contract, the company deploys and monitors a fleet of up to 10 robots, which can cover 120 to 150 acres per day, according to Brauer.
“Once we get the planting date from a farmer, we’ll fly the fields and collect drone imagery a few weeks later. Then depending on the crop, we’ll make 2 to 3 cutting passes with the robots during the growing season,” he says. “We look at it as a race to the canopy. In south central Kansas, we’ve got 60 to 75 days with soybeans, so we want to maximize that window of opportunity by making enough passes to control weeds.”
While Brauer acknowledges current mechanical management of broad-acre weeds isn’t going to eliminate every threat, it’s a safer, equally effective method as a post-plant herbicide application.
“If there’s a pigweed in-row or within an inch from the plant, we’re not going to get those, but that’s uncommon with how good seed genetics are today and how precisely row crops are planted,” he says. “I don’t think any farmer is looking for 100% perfect weed eradication, just the confidence that they can control it. And our robots pencil out the same or maybe even a little better in terms of effective weed control as spraying a post-plant herbicide in soybeans.”
Further reduction in the risk of unnecessary chemical handling and application are critical elements to Brauer’s vision with Greenfield Robotics. An updated version of the Weebot will be launched in spring 2022, with enhanced sensing capabilities and automation.
Additional steps in advancing the company’s vision include the launch of two new solutions in 2022 - one which provides a noninvasive alternative to pre-plant herbicide applications - and another that offers a non-chemical solution for terminating cover crops ahead of a cash crop.
Recalling the early lessons he learned about the give and take of creating a thriving ecosystem, Brauer is working on a collaborative - not combative - approach to increase sustainability of farms.
“If there is a way to help incentivize nature, that’s better than dominating it,” he says.
Farming as a Service: Mainstream Potential or Niche Market?
As manufacturers advance the autonomous capabilities of equipment, the opportunity for farmers to lease mobile fleets of smaller machinery to perform seasonal field operations rather than purchase traditional full-size implements is increasing.
So how far along is the industry in developing the farming as a service model?
In Episode 37 of the Precision Points podcast, Dr. Scott Shearer from Ohio State University shares his perspective on the value of robotic irrigators as a more mobile option for water application.
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