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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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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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Never cut the herbicide application rate

Scientific studies have demonstrated that resistance can rapidly evolve in weeds subjected to low doses of herbicide. Some weeds can develop resistance within a few generations.
Full rates when mixing herbicides too!
When mixing herbicides it is important that each product is still applied at the full label rate to ensure high mortality.
Applying different chemicals in one mix can provide an additive advantage. It is important to understand the mode of action of each herbicide on the plant when preparing a herbicide mix. This is just as important for pre-emergent grass weed mixes as it is for post-emergent mixes aimed at broadleaf weed control. ALWAYS READ THE LABEL.
Surrounding weed seeds with a combination of pre-emergent herbicides with different modes of action can give a high level of control and help extend the useful life of all the chemicals used. The high level of control must be supported with additional control measures for all survivors. All products with different modes of action must be applied at full label rates for this to be an effective strategy.

 
Mixing two chemicals with the same mode of action can achieve some additional efficacy, however, the mix should deliver the combined full rate to ensure a lethal dose. The amount of stubble present and crop safety are all important considerations when mixing chemicals. For example, when using a tank mix of Avadex® and trifluralin to control ryegrass in wheat, the rates used will vary depending on the sowing system and level of stubble retention. Be sure to get good advice.
Many herbicides on the market are a combination of two or more modes of action within the one product. These products must be applied at the full label rate to be effective. Having dual action does not negate the need to change herbicide products and rotate modes of action. Repeated use of any single strategy will reduce the effectiveness of that strategy over time.
 

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