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What’s the latest in optical sprayer technology?

with Jeremy Jones, PA Specialist, Dalby Rural Supplies

Can you believe that it’s almost 20 years since optical sprayer technology came to Australia? In that time, being able to spray ‘green weeds on brown paddocks’ has been a game-changer for fallow weed management on many grain farms.

What started as a great double-knock tool has since evolved into a multi-purpose weed management tool for driving down the weed bank and re-gaining control of weeds that are notoriously hard to kill with glyphosate.

Jeremy Jones, Dalby Rural Supplies PA specialist. Photo: Neil Lyon

Precision agriculture specialist with Dalby Rural Supplies, Jeremy Jones has a long association with optical spray technology. Jeremy sees the adoption of optical sprayer technology across Australia’s grain growing regions is testimony to the role the technology can play in an integrated weed control strategy.

“Early on, growers used optical sprayers such as Weedseeker and WEEDit as an efficient way to apply paraquat in the traditional double-knock tactic to control any weeds that were surviving the initial glyphosate application,” says Jeremy. “This helped save time and chemical but growers were often left with a changing weed spectrum that was dominated by hard-to-kill species such as feathertop Rhodes grass, sowthistle and fleabane.”

“This led growers to look toward more expensive herbicides that have better efficacy on these species and optical sprayers enabled the economic application of these products because product was only applied to such a small portion of the paddock area, typically around three per cent.”

The latest use pattern emerging for these sprayers is the option to apply pre-emergent herbicides to known patches of weeds such as feathertop Rhodes grass to reduce germination in the following season.

The whole aim of fallow weed control is to save soil moisture and to reduce the weed seed bank from harvest to planting ensuring crops are sown into clean paddocks. Optical sprayers have proven their worth as a valuable and cost effective way to achieve both these outcomes.

WeedSmart Week from 13–15 August in Emerald will focus on leading technologies and tactics that make a real difference to effective weed control. Jeremy will be speaking about the opportunities that optical sprayers present and the latest WEEDit sensors will be put through their paces on-board robotic platforms for spraying and on the ‘Weed Chipper’ at the SwarmFarm Robotics base at Gindie. To register go to

How much chemical can I save?

Short answer: The amount of chemical applied is always significantly less. The cost saving may not be as great as more expensive products may be applied.

Longer answer: The greatest savings will not always be in chemical costs. Using optical spray technology usually reduces chemical use by 90 per cent and, consequently 90 per cent less water. The real savings though are seen in resistance management through the use of more modes of action and maintaining a low seed bank. Frequently a single pass achieves the required level of control, saving hours of time spent in the sprayer. Growers generally find that the payback period for these sprayers is just a few years.

How are growers using optical sprayers to apply pre-emergent herbicides?

Short answer: By mapping the weedy areas and using the sprayer to select these areas for treatment prior to planting.

Longer answer: Soon, the WEEDit will have on-board mapping capability to ‘remember’ where weeds were sprayed early in the fallow, enabling the operator to apply residuals to known weedy patches while also applying a knock-down to kill existing plants prior to planting. This capability already exists with SwarmFarm’s robotic platforms that currently carry the WEEDit sensors.

WEEDit sensors are mounted on the latest SwarmFarm robotic platform, which will feature at the Emerald WeedSmart Week field demonstrations in August.

Can optical sprayers be used to apply all herbicides?

Short answer: Many products now carry registrations for optical sprayer application.

Longer answer: When the rates used in the optical sprayer are within the application rate range on the label, there is no problem using an optical sprayer or any other. Some labels have an application range specified for optical sprayers.

Some minor use permits are available for use patterns that lie outside the conditions on the product label. For example, APVMA permit number 85049 provides for the control of volunteer and ratoon cotton in fallow using optical spot spray technology using specified tank mixes and application rates. Always read the label to check that the use pattern you plan to follow is legal.

Can optical sprayers help reduce spray drift?

Short answer: Yes, less product is applied to begin with, putting less particles into the air. The new nozzles increase the proportion of coarse droplets, in line with the new 2,4-D guidelines.

Longer answer: Optical sprayers are acknowledged as a useful tool to reduce spray drift. When the optical sprayer is engaged and the coverage area is below the threshold, the required buffer zone is reduced.    

Jeremy Jones, Precision Ag specialist with Dalby Rural Supplies says the real savings that growers are seeing through the use of optical sprayers are in resistance management through the use of more modes of action and maintaining a low seed bank.

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How do you manage summer weeds without spraying at night?

Concerns are being raised about the practical implications of this for summer weed control programs. Mary O’Brien, a private consultant with extensive experience in managing spray drift, is keen to see growers fully adopt spray application practices that maximise herbicide efficacy and minimise off-target drift.   Mary O’Brien says the ‘community drift’ that can occur when a number of applicators are each putting a small amount of product in the air at the same time can have very damaging effects on off-target sites. “The bottom line is that allowing spray to drift is like burning money,” she says. “Any product that doesn’t hit the target is wasted and the efficacy of the spray job is reduced, mildly resistant biotypes may survive as a result of low dose application and there is potential damage to sensitive crops and the environment.” “The difficulty is that many growers want to spray at night to cover more ground when conditions are cooler and potentially weeds are less stressed. Having a restriction on night spraying does restrict the time available to cover the areas required.” Having heard these concerns from growers across the country Mary keeps coming back to the fact that if there was a limitation to capacity at planting or at harvest, growers would scale up to get the job done in a timely manner. “Buying another spray rig or employing a contractor is an additional cost, especially after a couple of tough seasons, but I really think this is insignificant against the cost of losing key products and the resultant escalation in herbicide resistance to the remaining herbicides,” says Mary. “This problem is not confined to 2,4-D or even to herbicides. I recently spoke to a stone fruit grower who was forced to dump his whole crop after a positive MRL return for a fungicide he had never even heard of, let alone used.” What about just slowing down and lowering the boom during night spraying? Short answer: This, coupled with a good nozzle, will reduce drift but it will never eliminate it. Longer answer: The correct ground speed and boom height will have a large effect on the amount of product that remains in the air. The problem is that it only takes 1 per cent of the product remaining in the air to cause off-target damage. Once there are a few operators putting just 1 per cent of their product in the air at the same time, the amount of product quickly accumulates and can potentially be very damaging. Mary calls this ‘community drift’. Isn’t it better to spray weeds at night when it’s cooler? Short answer: Not really. Longer answer: Research by Bill Gordon showed that even if you keep everything else the same, night spraying can put at least three times more product in the air than daytime application, even if weather conditions are similar and there is no temperature inversion in place. The main difference between day and night is how the wind is moving across the landscape, rather than the wind speed. Under inversion conditions, the air moves parallel to the ground surface and this means that the product can move significant distances away from the target before coming to the ground. To achieve the best results through daytime spraying, applicators should focus on treating small, actively growing weeds. When there is good soil moisture, weeds are unlikely to be stressed even when the temperature is quite high. Temperature inversion conditions are more common at night and in the early morning. These conditions generate a laminar flow of air across the landscape allowing small droplets to travel many kilometres away from the target site before coming to ground. Can I use other products at night and just avoid using 2,4-D? Short answer: The current changes to 2,4-D labels has drawn a lot of attention but the problem is the same for all crop protection sprays – herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. Longer answer: Different products have different properties and some may work better at night but the problem is the sensitivity of some crops to certain products, such as 2,4-D. All products are tested for their efficacy and the label provides detailed information about the required spray quality and spray application conditions. Many products have explicit label instructions regarding wind speed, temperature inversions (or laminar flow) and night spraying. Given the high risk of drift at night, applicators need to be very confident that there is no inversion present, and weather conditions should be measured at least every 15 minutes to ensure wind speed remains above 11 kilometres per hour. An on-board weather station is the best way to monitor conditions. A visual demonstration using smoke to simulate the the lateral movement of small spray droplets when a temperature inversion is in place. What can I do to improve spray efficacy and avoid spray drift? Short answer: If you do just one thing – change your nozzle. Longer answer: All the factors that increase drift also reduce efficacy. To improve efficacy and reduce drift, use a better nozzle (larger spray quality) and appropriate water rates (matched to spray quality and stubble load), slow down and keep the boom low. Wind is required to push product downward and onto the target, and remember that the 3–15 km/h wind speed is for day time conditions only, this does not apply at night.
Ask an Expert

Does ambient temperature affect herbicide performance?

with Chris Preston, Associate Professor, Weed Management
The University of Adelaide Temperature affects the absorption, translocation and metabolic degradation of herbicides applied to plants. Herbicides applied under the wrong conditions can appear to fail, however the reason may not be herbicide resistance. Dr Chris Preston, Associate Professor, Weed Management
 at The University of Adelaide says most herbicides have a temperature range at which they are most effective in controlling target weeds. “Applying herbicides outside the optimal temperature range is likely to contribute to a spray failure, even in susceptible populations,” he says. “Alternatively, applying herbicides within the correct temperature range can improve the control in populations known to have a level of resistance to that herbicide.” Dr Chris Preston suggests testing whole plants rather than seed for responses to a range of post-emergent herbicides. The Quick-Test is conducted in the same growing season as herbicide will be applied so the testing will occur under similar conditions to field conditions. Dr Preston says the effect of frost on the efficacy of clethodim is a striking example. Spraying clethodim in non-frosty conditions achieves vastly better results than spraying after three days of frost, even on populations that are resistant to this chemical mode of action. “Combining the optimal temperature with optimal weed size will give the best results possible,” he says. “The current common practice of applying clethodim to tillered ryegrass in the coldest months is not making the best use of this herbicide.” As a general rule of thumb, Group A (fops), paraquat (Group L) and glyphosate (Group M) are more effective at lower temperatures while Group A (dims), atrazine (Group C) and glufosinate (Group N) are more effective at higher temperatures. However, weeds that are resistant to paraquat become less resistant in warmer temperatures. “The other implication of this research is the effect of ambient temperature on herbicide test results,” says Dr Preston. “Seed collected in winter and grown out in the glasshouse in summer will be tested for resistance in conditions that are not representative of field conditions when growers are next treating that weed species. The Quick-Test using whole plants overcomes this problem and improves the reliability of herbicide susceptibility testing.” How can I get the best performance out of clethodim? Short answer: Avoid applying clethodim during frosty periods. Longer answer: Twice as much clethodim is required to kill susceptible annual ryegrass if the product is applied after three days of frost. Even higher rates are required if the plants have resistance to clethodim. Planning to apply clethodim for grass control outside the coldest months of June and July, and avoiding night spraying in winter, will see better results in both resistant and susceptible populations, particularly in tillered plants. Clethodim is most active when temperatures are over 20 degrees C. Weed seed that is tested during summer may return false negative results, which could translate into spray failure in the field the next season. Twice as much clethodim is required to kill susceptible annual ryegrass if the product is applied after three days of frost. Even higher rates are required if the plants have resistance to clethodim. When it is it too hot for glyphosate? Short answer: Efficacy is much better at 20 degrees C than at 30 degrees C. Longer answer: Spraying glyphosate resistant barnyard grass at lower temperatures is more effective than under hotter conditions. If barnyard grass is tested for herbicide resistance during the cooler parts of the year it may appear susceptible to the field rate of glyphosate but then when this rate is applied to the population in summer there may be many survivors. When glyphosate is taken up rapidly it tends to limit its own translocation, which can mean that although symptoms may appear more rapidly in warmer temperatures, plant kill is less reliable. Which herbicide resistance test should I use? Short answer: The weed resistance Quick-Test for post-emergent herbicides. Longer answer: The Quick-Test involves testing whole plants rather than seed for responses to a range of herbicides and rates. The Quick-Test is conducted in the same growing season as herbicide will be applied so the testing will occur under similar conditions to field conditions. The results of the Quick-Test are available within the same season, potentially giving growers an opportunity to apply an effective weed control tactic before the end of the season. The Quick-Test is not available for many pre-emergent herbicides. The Quick-Test is available through Plant Science Consulting and results are normally available after four weeks. Relevant links Maximising clethodim performance and the impact of frost fact sheet Keeping clethodim working in broafleaf crops Plant Science Consulting herbicide resistance testing – Quick-Test GRDC Update Paper – New developments and understanding in resistance mechanisms and management

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