Precision ag technology can be used very effectively to aid in the battle against herbicide-resistant weeds, says John Fulton with the Auburn University Precision Agriculture Program.
“Technology can play a role, especially in the area of saving money or at least making more informed decisions,” said Fulton at a recent weed resistance meeting held in Decatur, Ala.
Scouting remains an important factor to help insure that a grower is making the most informed decisions possible, says Fulton. “Whether it’s you the grower or a consultant, getting out in the field and collecting additional information is important in making better decisions,” he says.
Tools and technology are available that can help in cost savings, he adds. “Producers need to reduce input costs but also to maximize yields and profits at the end of the year. These are the types of inputs where precision ag technologies can have an impact. Growers are spending a lot of money producing a crop, and the amount increases each year,” he says.
Timing is critical in making spray applications, says Fulton.
“But if I can put a sprayer out there applying my herbicides and squeeze in another 50 acres at the end of the day, that’s a big thing. Technologies such as guidance and automatic section control can make you more efficient, save time, and have an impact on labor and inputs. If you haven’t adopted these technologies, you can pencil them in and see how they’ll work for your operation,” he says.
Data collected from trials conducted over the years illustrate the savings that are possible from using precision agriculture technologies, says Fulton. A guidance system alone has been shown to save up to about 12 percent on average, he says.
“You can get a larger savings, and some people don’t do quite that well. Much of it is dependent on the operator and what you were using previously. But 12 percent is a big addition when you look at what you’ll invest to get into guidance,” says Fulton.
Savings from the use of automatic section control — averaged on a country-wide basis — totals about 4.5 percent. “If you look at your pesticide bill at the end of the year, and multiply it by 4.5 percent, that’s what expectations could be,” he says.
A technology that is relatively new and can be used to a grower’s advantage is a hand-held computer, says Fulton. With prices ranging from about $500 to $1,000, these come equipped with a GPS receiver and a camera, he says. “That might not play a role for you today, but it does provide the opportunity for people to generate maps that will make for some good consulting. It’ll be good if we can tie precision ag technologies in with scouting. We’ll never replace the guys who are spending time in the field. But it is more information that hopefully will help us make better decisions in managing issues such as weed resistance.”
Guidance systems have been available to growers since the 1990s, says Fulton, and they have progressed greatly over the years. Guidance systems today are much more user friendly, he says, whether it’s an auto-steer system with the machine driving itself or some type of light bar in which the operator is still in control.
“They are not as hard to use or as hard to implement as they once were, but the savings can be tremendous, 12 percent on average,” he says. “The big thing is that guidance systems really address the overlap issues, and they also address skips. That could be a big thing with resistance.”
Turning to automatic section control, Fulton says when you look at the statistics in the Midwest and the Dakotas, probably 70 percent of the self-propelled sprayers are using some type of auto section control.
“It pays, and the payback is very quick. Ultimately, when you combine these technologies, you enhance your application accuracy, and there are input savings of up to 30 percent. There are several options out there that very quickly can be integrated into the different sprayers and machines.”
Automatic section control, he explains, is simply an “on-off” control. “The nice thing about it is the automation of turning it on and off. I do not have to guess as an operator whether to turn it on or off. The machine automatically does it. All I need is a GPS receiver. I need a controller in the cab that has that type of software integrated into it. Typically speaking, we have to have an electronic control unit that sits between the controller and the boom values, and then the appropriate mechanisms. In terms of mechanisms, we’re talking primarily about the boom valves. For most of the newer sprayers, it’s not a big issue. Some older models might have to be upgraded.”
From the standpoint of cost, a grower could be in the business of automatic section control, if he doesn’t already have it, for as little as $2,000 or slightly less. The cost could rise to $10,000 if the grower has nothing at all to begin with.
Many growers who are using automatic section control on their sprayer eventually will implement it on their planter, says Fulton, and that also can result in tremendous savings.
“On average, the savings from using just automatic section control are about 4.4 percent. So if you’re spending $100,000 on your pesticide bill, multiply that by 4.4 percent, and the technology probably will pay for itself in one year.
“In most cases in Alabama, whether you’re growing cotton, corn, soybeans or peanuts, the payback period is less than two years. The cutoff for the payback has been 800 to 1,000 acres, if you have your own sprayers and you’re doing your own work. The worst-case scenario is that it takes maybe two years to pay off the technology, but that’s the extreme case, where you have nothing in the sprayer and you have to buy the controller, GPS receiver and everything to automate it.”
Savings can total up to about $20 per acre for some producers, says Fulton.
As researchers have worked with sprayers and automatic section control, they’ve learned some key things, he says. “The big thing when you start to integrate some of this technology is to make sure the controller is set up correctly. Make sure the flow-meter values are calibrated properly and ensure the valve control number is set up properly.”
There’s a difference, says Fulton, between a driver and an operator. “If you’re not doing it yourself, make sure your driver is an operator — that’s key to the success of some of this technology and to your herbicide treatment programs.”
It’s also important to consider the products and their labels, he says. “When we talk about mixing and matching products, I get concerned, especially about dry products. They become hidden in these machines very quickly if you let them sit.”
Growers also should clean spray booms, says Fulton. When you move from 90 to 100 to 120-foot booms, there’s a lot more hose involved. “There could be more hose with a bend in it, giving a place for some of these products to hide. Cleaning out hoses is as important as anything you do at the end of the day.”
Some sprayers used during research, he says, did not have a visible pressure gauge on them. “I encourage growers to have a visible pressure gauge on the machine. We saw wide ranges in pressure in some cases, and this increases the risk of drift.”
Drain time is another important factor, he says. “When I come to the end of a field, whether I’m manually hitting it or using automatic section control technology, how long does the product drip out when I’m turning around? There are some products out there and some valving that would allow you to capture some savings, because just three or four seconds of drain time can be quite a bit.”