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SwarmFarm: Targeting small weeds all year

Just five years ago Central Queensland grain farmer Andrew Bate was in a tractor, spraying a wheat crop, and thinking about ways to farm better and more efficiently. His idea to create a ‘swarm’ of small, lightweight machines that could work autonomously and cooperatively, is now a commercial reality.

SwarmFarm operations manager and leader of field development, Will McCarthy, says the robots are the ultimate weed scouts, tracking down escapes and eliminating them before they have a chance to set seed.

Along with his wife Jocie, Andrew is founding director of SwarmFarm Robotics. The headquarters of their agricultural technology company is their farm ‘Bendee’ at Gindie, south of Emerald, where their team of seven software and mechatronics engineers and technicians is building and testing world-first robotic technology specifically for agricultural applications.

“There are currently seven SwarmFarm robots working on grain farms, turf farms and in an environmentally-sensitive area on a mine site,” says Andrew. “Our commercial release of 50 robots setup for spraying weeds using the WeedIT optical sprayer technology is now underway.”

Weed control provides an excellent opportunity for robotics to shine. A time-consuming but ‘simple’ task that robots can do very effectively at a slower pace, ensuring every weed in the paddock is accurately and effectively controlled while still at a small size.

Weighing just 2 t fully loaded, each robot is only 10 per cent of the weight of a conventional sprayer and they fit in perfectly with zero till and controlled traffic farming systems.

The cost benefit of robots applying herbicide lies in the frequency of treatment, accuracy and ability to safely operate any time of the day or night. While a grower may hesitate to go spraying, concerned that there might be another rain event and subsequent germination, the robots can ‘go now and go later’, always targeting small weeds at their most susceptible growth stage.

Weighing just 2 t fully loaded, each robot is only 10 per cent of the weight of a conventional sprayer and they fit in perfectly with zero till and controlled traffic farming systems.

The SwarmFarm robots optimise the use of existing optical sprayer technology to identify and target small weeds in a green-on-brown situation (i.e. in fallow) by enabling more frequent applications that are slower and more accurate. The ability to go over the same paddock every few weeks is the standout difference that robotics can bring to the management of herbicide resistance.

SwarmFarm operations manager and leader of field development, Will McCarthy, says the prescription spraying used on ‘Bendee’ involves the robots passing over the fallow paddocks once every two weeks. “This way, no weed will get bigger than the 50 cent piece size that is optimal for effective control,” he says. “We can apply a wider range of herbicide modes of action, more robust rates for chemicals registered for this use pattern and potentially reintroduce products and brews that may have had reduced efficacy as broadacre sprays in the past.”

“The robots are the ultimate weed scouts, tracking down escapes and eliminating them before they have a chance to set seed. Constantly targeting small weeds and preventing seed set is the only way to keep weed numbers low and avoid herbicide resistance.”

The SwarmFarm robots enable the optical sprayer technology to really come into its own because the robots can operate slower, the cameras and sprayers can be closer together and the robots can go over the paddock repeatedly so there is no concern about getting the timing right. Every weed can be treated at an early growth stage for the herbicide to have maximum effect, tackling herbicide resistance at the source by applying constant downward pressure on the weed seed bank.

The SwarmFarm concept is ideal for new technology developments, as it allows easy integration of third party products as they are being developed, such as green-on-green technology. Will says the robots would then be able to distinguish between a weed and a crop plant and even between weed species. This will allow the removal of volunteer crop plants and even target broadleaf weeds like sowthistle in a broadleaf crop such as chickpea.

Although the current focus is on herbicide application, there is great potential to use the same platform to implement non-herbicide tactics such as targeted tillage or robotic chipping, steam or any other non-herbicide tactic found to be effective.

“Using the robot concept, microwave technology becomes a realistic option because the robots can stop at every weed and apply the necessary microwave blast to kill each weed, something that is simply not feasible for a tractor operator,” says Will.

WeedIT cameras capture data from a 1 m wide band on the ground using NIR and IR light to detect green weeds in a ‘brown’ paddock. The SwarmFarm concept allows easy integration of third party products as they are being developed, such as green-on-green technology or non-herbicide tactics such as targeted tillage or robotic chipping, steam or any other tactic found to be effective.

“Aside from weed management, the robots will enable direct management of a crop’s plant population to maximise yield potential for the available soil moisture,” he says. “There is no reason why the SwarmFarm platform can’t be utilised for planting and applying fertiliser precisely and economically, controlling insect pests and even harvesting the crop. The system is in place to support any application really and all that is needed is the planter, cultivator or harvester to be engineered and bolted on.”

Andrew reckons that a 10 000 ha property like ‘Bendee’ would only need two SwarmFarm robots to take care of all their weed control operations.

SwarmFarm robot features

Working through the features of the SwarmFarm robots highlights their simple and robust construction and numerous safety features. Will says the team has worked hard to make diagnosis as simple as possible and the modular components have minimal opportunity for failure. “If there is a problem, the replacement parts can be easily fitted on-farm without specialist technicians and the maintenance is straightforward and well within the capability of any farmer,” he says.

Multiple safety features built into the robots, which make them safer than a person operating a spray rig or tractor, include:

  • obstacle detection sensors (can determine if the terrain ahead is suitable to traverse and also stopping if there is something in its path e.g. a vehicle or person),
  • paddock definition (it maps the paddock to show boundaries, fencelines, trees, troughs, dams etc. then uses software to generate A–B lines. The robot then drives itself around these fixed obstacles),
  • remote control using an iPad (allows the operator to stop and restart the robot when within the local farm network),
  • a bumper sensor to turn off the machine as a back-up to the obstacle detection sensors (slow operating speed means any damage would be minimal if this was activated),
  • a geo-fence that turns off the machine if it crosses the line.

Each robot has an 8 m boom fitted with eight WeedIT optical cameras, 40 nozzles and a 600 L spray tank. Depending on weed density across the paddock this could last all day or an hour. The robot monitors the volume of spray in the tank and makes a decision whether it can reach the end of a run or not before running out of spray. It then returns to a docking station for refilling. At the moment, a person is required to refill the spray tank but plans are in place to fully automate the refilling operation within the next 8–12 months. The 60 L diesel fuel tank on board gives the machine an operating time of 18 hours between refueling.

WeedIT cameras capture data from a 1 m wide band on the ground using NIR and IR light to detect green weeds in a ‘brown’ paddock. There are five individual sprayer solenoids per camera span, giving one spray nozzle every 20 cm. The cameras are set to turn on three nozzles over a weed to ensure good coverage, which is particularly important if there is a breeze blowing.

The genius of the SwarmFarm system lies in the ‘smarts’ of the SwarmHive base station computer. Located in the grower’s office the SwarmHive takes care of the robots’ activity and decision making and coordinates the workflow of all the robots operating in the paddock.

“If one machine is going slower due to higher weed numbers then the SwarmHive will reallocate the other robots to cover the extra area so that the whole paddock operation is completed at about the same time and all the robots come back to the docking station together,” says Will. “It is updating in real time and making decisions about the weather conditions, mapping weed density, ensuring the robots are operating efficiently and sending alerts if any problems arise, such as a pump malfunction or an obstacle detected.”

An on-site automatic weather station located at the docking station monitors key parameters such as Delta-T, wind speed and direction and ensures the robots only operate within the label directions. The SwarmHive automatically turns off the robots and then restarts them when the conditions are within the acceptable range. Integration with an on-site, automatic weather station also provides a reliable record of spray activities and the real-time environmental conditions during the spray operation, such as wind speed and direction. The grower also has ‘on-the-go’ access via an iPad app to monitor and control the robots if necessary, when within the local farm network.

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Investigate adverse experiences when using herbicides

A shuttle of glyphosate applied over the top of a Roundup Ready cotton crop was recently shown to also contain a damaging level of 2,4-D impurity, resulting in significant crop injury and yield loss.
The grower involved did not accept the suggestion that the crop damage was due to poor sprayer decontamination or spray drift from a fallow application of 2,4-D, and he was able to prove the problem was due to product impurity.
2,4-D herbicide injury in cotton after the crop was sprayed with glyphosate product contaminated with 2,4-D.
Other shuttles of the same batch may have been applied to fallow weeds where the residual 2,4-D in the glyphosate would have gone unnoticed. Full rate 2,4-D in glyphosate is known to compromise glyphosate efficacy, but studies of low-rate 2,4-D impurity in glyphosate could not be found.
Where can impurities come from?
While the agricultural chemical manufacture and supply chain in Australia is considered first-class and is highly regulated, there is an acceptance that the nil-impurity requirement for the manufacture of agricultural chemicals is unattainable in facilities that use multi-purpose equipment for synthesis, formulation and packaging of products.
Companies therefore apply their own quality assurance standards before releasing products for distribution and sale. If the level of risk posed by certain residual impurities in a product is underestimated, there is potential for instances of crop injury, pesticide residue in produce or poor performance of the product on the intended target weed, fungus or pest.
Mistakes can and do happen within the manufacturing process and chemical supply and distribution chain. To ensure that risks of contamination are minimised and that quality assurance protocols are followed carefully, it is important that any breaches or errors are identified quickly, reported and investigated.
Keep good records of each spray event, including batch numbers of applied product, to help identify the cause of adverse experiences with herbicides.
There are two important things to note: firstly, the current regulations specify that crop protection products must contain nil impurities (other than manufacturing impurities listed in the APVMA standard); and secondly, companies are required to recall product batches when contamination issues are identified. The Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) oversees a highly regulated system of registration, compliance and enforcement on crop protection products.
Assess potential application issues
When misapplication (wrong product applied, incorrect mixing, contaminated product etc) occurs, symptoms of affected plants are usually uniform throughout the treated area. It is often suggested that poor application technique or poor sprayer decontamination is the reason for crop injury or poor weed control results – suggesting a grower ‘own-goal’. Such potential errors must be considered, but if best practice spray techniques and spray rig decontamination procedures have been followed, product impurity should also be considered and investigated.
The chemistry of the product will determine the risk of residues being held within the tank and spray lines of the application rig. This is why there are differences in the sprayer hygiene requirements after using particular products.
Most modern spray rigs have impervious rubber and plastic, or stainless steel components, drastically reducing the risk of chemical absorption and subsequent extraction. Residues on the rubber surfaces are the main concern, and all registered cleaners will physically remove residues when used as directed, but cracked rubber components can present a contamination risk. All filters/strainers must be cleaned and all actuators and taps musts be cycled as the cleaner is run through the spray boom and tank loading system, agitators and tank.
Crop injury or poor weed control that is associated with just one sprayer tank load would suggest sprayer contamination. Effects from contaminated tanks are usually worse at the beginning of the spray run, with damage diminishing with spraying and tank reloading. The field pattern can provide clues to the sprayer filling routine in the field where the crop damage occurred.
The other major reason commonly cited for crop injury in spray drift. Although there is always some small amount of drift when agricultural chemicals are sprayed from a ground rig, the amount is down to ‘virtually safe’ levels within a few tens of metres. If the conditions are very windy, or the boom is too high, or the droplet size too small, spray could drift a few hundred metres from the application ground rig.
Spray droplets may travel a few feet to several kilometres from the targeted area, depending on weather conditions and spray application; but the potential for drift damage decreases with distance because droplets are deposited or become diluted in the atmosphere. The pattern of injury is normally seen most prominently on the section of the field closest to the sprayer that generated the spray drift, and decreases across the field.
During inversion conditions, a similar amount of product is subject to drift, but the drifting product will not dilute as much in the air, so concentrations at specific locations can be higher than expected in non-inversion conditions.
What to do if your crop is damaged or weeds don’t die as expected?
Along with several other possible causes, unintended application of contaminated product should be considered as a potential explanation for crop injury or poor weed control.
Keep in mind that if product impurity is the problem, it is most likely due to a low-dose effect that may be difficult to diagnose or may take longer to express in the target weeds or susceptible crops.
Finding the cause of an ‘adverse experience’ with herbicide is one of the most important reasons to keep accurate and detailed spray records.
If a problem occurs:

Take detailed, time-stamped photographs of the crop or weeds and record everything you know about the crop or fallow management, weather conditions in the weeks prior to the damage being seen, spray history of the field etc. If possible, geotag the photos so they can be easily associated with the correct field.
Record the relevant batch numbers of the chemicals used, which can be checked against the retention samples at the factory if necessary. Collect samples from drums of product used prior to the injury being observed (up to 14 days prior to symptoms being obvious). When you take samples, make sure there are witnesses who can vouch for the voracity of the evidence you have collected. Testing for one impurity (e.g. 2,4-D in glyphosate) costs less than $500 per sample.
Document the injury over time. For example, injury in cotton from low rates of 2,4-D will grow out in two weeks, but injury from higher rates, could last three to four weeks and are the most likely to result in yield loss. Similarly with weeds although the impact may be more difficult to document.
Mark out the affected area in the field to help assess crop yield loss at the end of the season. Note the pattern and intensity of the problem across the field.
Eliminate as many possible causes as you can. Re-assess the application technique and equipment, consider the pattern of damage in the field, look at the weather conditions for the relevant period of time and so on.
Test for herbicide resistance in weeds.
Report the crop damage or poor weed control. The APVMA administers the Adverse Experience Reporting Program, which allows anyone to report a problem with an agricultural chemical, including crop and plant damage, for example, plant death, severe stunting or significant yield loss. This is also the way to report poor weed control outcomes.

The APVMA acknowledges there is likely under-reporting of adverse experiences. The magnitude of under-reporting is unknown and provides limitations in quantifying product risk.
Investigations of spray drift are conducted by the relevant state government body, for example: NSW EPA (call Environment Line: 131-555), Biosecurity Queensland (call 132-523) and Chemical Standards Officer (Victoria) (call 03 5430 4463). Industry organisations will also support growers impacted by chemical damage to crops.
If the damage is due to factors other than spray drift, the affected party will need to take legal action and seek compensation themselves.
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Is poor weed control due to herbicide resistance?

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What to expect at WeedSmart Week 2021

Big 6 at WeedSmart Week 2021 – Double knock to protect glyphosate
The WeedSmart Forum is set for Tuesday 17 August, 2021 at the Civic Centre in Esperance WA. The program features growers, agronomists and researchers discussing ways to use the BIG 6 to beat crop weeds. You can register for the 3-day WeedSmart Week event here.
Greg Warren from Farm and General in Esperance will be sharing his thoughts on the control of weeds like summer-germinating ryegrass, marshmallow, fleabane and portulaca.
He says the growers around Esperance are tackling glyphosate resistance in annual ryegrass, along with brome and barley grass and other emerging weeds using a range of integrated control tactics. The double knock plays a key role in preserving glyphosate (and soil moisture) and providing a clean seed bed for planting crops.

 
Big 6 at WeedSmart Week 2021 – Increase crop competition
WeedSmart Week 2021 is set for Tuesday 17 to Thursday 19 August, 2021 in and around Esperance WA. The last two days feature local growers hosting visits to their farms and discussing how they use the BIG 6 to beat crop weeds. You can register for the 3-day WeedSmart Week event here.
One of the farms hosting a visit during WeedSmart Week is Warrakirri’s 12,800 cropping operation at Condingup. Farm manager Con Murphy has implemented a variety of tactics to combat their main weeds – annual ryegrass and wild radish. Since 2015 the farm has undergone an intensive soil amelioration program to improve the drainage and ameliorate the sandy soils across the farm.
Con says the benefits have been seen in better germination and establishment that sets their cereal, pulse and canola crops up to compete strongly with weeds. There is also a benefit at the end of the season where rain in August or September enters the soil profile without causing waterlogging, and providing a better finish for their crops.
Since 2016-17 about 80% of the farm has been ripped and a portion has been ripped 2 or 3 times because the sandy soils tend to slump after substantial rainfall events, recreating the hardpan.
Con will be showing the WeedSmart tour group how their ripping, drainage, liming and spading program has helped grow more crop and less weeds!
Listen to the podcast with Warrakirri’s Con Murphy talking about the impact of improved drainage on crop competition

Big 6 at WeedSmart Week 2021 – Implement harvest weed seed control
The WeedSmart Week machinery display is set for Wednesday 18 August, 2021 at Dave Campbell’s shed near Esperance WA. The 3-day WeedSmart Week program features growers, agronomists and researchers discussing ways to use the BIG 6 to beat crop weeds. You can register for the 3-day WeedSmart Week event here.
We’ve saved the harvest weed seed control discussion for the machinery session on Wednesday 18 August. Ben White from Kondinin Group will host the machinery session with spray and harvesting gear on display including impact mills from Seed Terminator, Redekop and iHSD (both hydraulic and belt-driven), Emar chaff deck, and spray technologies including Goldacres’ G6 Crop Cruiser series 2, and weed detection technologies using drones and weed identifying cameras (green on green).
Ben White, Kondinin Group (Photo: Melissa Powell, courtesy of GRDC)
Growers doing the WeedSmart Big 6
WeedSmart Week 2021 is set for Tuesday 17 to Thursday 19 August, 2021 in and around Esperance WA. The last two days feature local growers hosting visits to their farms and discussing how they use the BIG 6 to beat crop weeds. You can register for the 3-day WeedSmart Week event here.
One of the growers who will open up their farm for a visit is Adrian Perks who farms at Condingup, 70 km north-east of Esperance. Adrian runs a continuous cropping program on his 4300 ha property, growing canola, wheat, barley, faba beans and lupins. This diverse rotation allows him to mix and rotate both chemical and non-chemical weed control tactics. Over half of Adrian’s farm is sandplain, on which he has implemented a soil amelioration program to address non-wetting to increase the competitiveness of his crops. He currently uses chaff decks for harvest weed seed control and is introducing an impact mill this season. Adrian monitors the tramtracks for weed growth and if he feels the weed pressure is too high, he uses a shielded sprayer to reduce seed set. The bus tour will include four farm visits and a machinery display.
Listen to Adrian on the Regional Update podcast.
Adrian Perkins, Condingup WA
 

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WeedSmart agronomist set to tackle high rainfall zone weeds

Every locality has its own spectrum of weeds, and growers face different opportunities and challenges regarding the control tactics they can employ.
The WeedSmart Big 6 approach is a practical way to ensure that an integrated weed management program is put in place that disrupts weed seed production and the evolution of herbicide resistance.
Commencing in January 2021, Jana Dixon has joined the WeedSmart team of extension agronomists, with a focus on applying the Big 6 to manage weeds in the high rainfall cropping systems of southern Australia – from Esperance in WA to south-eastern SA, Tasmania and south-western Victoria.
Jana will add to the dedicated and experienced extension agronomists on the WeedSmart team with Peter Newman in the Western region, Chris Davey in the South, Greg and Kirrily Condon in the East and Paul McIntosh in the North.
Jana Dixon has joined the WeedSmart team of extension agronomists, with a focus on applying the Big 6 to manage weeds in the high rainfall cropping systems of southern Australia – from Esperance in WA to south-eastern SA, Tasmania and south-western Victoria.
Jana hails from the Mid North of SA, and began working at Pinion Advisory (previously Rural Directions) while she was studying agriculture at the University of Adelaide. She has been employed full-time at Pinion Advisory since January 2019 as an agribusiness consultant, based in Clare, and spends most of her time delivering agronomy and farm business advice to clients from a wide range of cropping regions in South Australia.
Pinion Advisory is a foundation WeedSmart sponsor and Jana has been involved in two WeedSmart Week events already – the first as a participant and grower group organiser at the Horsham event in 2019 and then as the local organiser for WeedSmart Week 2020 in Clare.
In welcoming her to the WeedSmart team, program manager Lisa Mayer says Jana brings energy, commitment and insight to deliver communications focussed on the southern region’s high rainfall regions.
“Growers in the southern high rainfall zones are facing some serious issues with herbicide resistance influencing their farming decisions,” says Ms Mayer. “Jana will be engaging with agronomists, growers and researchers in each of the distinct high rainfall zones to understand the complexities and look for practical ways to apply the WeedSmart Big 6 in various cropping scenarios.”
“We plan to deliver WeedSmart Week in Esperance, part of Western Australia’s high rainfall cropping zone, in August 2021 and Jana will play a key role in the planning and delivering of our annual 3-day flagship event.”
Jana says her experience with the WeedSmart program has been very positive and she has been particularly impressed with the support the program has from all sectors of the grains industry.
Newly appointed WeedSmart extension agronomist, Jana Dixon (green cap) leading discussions with farm visit host, Ben Marshman, Owen SA, and growers and agronomists attending WeedSmart Week 2020 in Clare.
“I have spoken to many growers and agronomists who have found real value in the information that the WeedSmart program delivers,” she says. “For many it is as much about considering another operator’s philosophy on dealing with weeds, and taking a fresh look at their own systems, rather than just learning about a new tactic or the traits of a new herbicide in isolation from the big picture.”
She says the high calibre of industry people who contribute their time and expertise to the program is testament to the value WeedSmart has to agribusiness, growers, agronomists and researchers alike.
In taking on the responsibility for delivering information tailored for the high rainfall zones Jana says she is pleased to have an extensive network of contacts through Pinion Advisory, with offices in a number of high rainfall areas to provide easy access to local agronomists and growers. She is also aware that there are major differences in weed spectrums and farming systems in each high rainfall zone and plans to take full advantage of the opportunity this role presents to expand her understanding of different approaches to weed management.
“The long and favourable growing season and the associated prolonged periods of weed germination, is a key factor that I see potentially impacting on a grower’s weed management strategies in these regions,” she says. “On the other hand, access to highly diverse rotations and a focus on crop competition are two strategies that can play an important role in achieving excellent weed management in these regions.”
“I am keen to engage with anyone working and farming in the high rainfall zones to build my knowledge and understanding,” she says. “And to create opportunities to develop and extend the WeedSmart Big 6 strategies, both herbicide and non-herbicide, that work in each area and in different situations.”
WeedSmart is the industry voice delivering science-backed weed control solutions with support from the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC), major herbicide, machinery and seed companies, and university and government research partners, all of whom have a stake in sustainable farming systems.
You an follow Jana on Twitter and keep up to date with the HRZ here.

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