Whether you garden, farm or do both, weeds are a perennial problem, and my Wisconsin garden and farm fields are no exception.
Controlling weeds is all about balance: We must balance the needs of the plants we want to grow and those we don’t. It doesn’t matter if we are growing tomatoes and peppers in our garden or corn, soybeans and wheat in our fields. We need fertile soil, water, and sunlight for the plants to grow and prosper while keeping unwanted pests, like weeds, insects and disease to a minimum.
Cultural practices like crop rotation, reduced tillage and crop covers all work to discourage weed growth. Still, weeds have a cunning ability to adapt and survive these management techniques. That’s were technology helps.
Innovative technology has placed some amazing tools at our disposal to use in collaboration with our best management practices. As forward-thinking farmers, we are always looking for the latest weed-fighting technologies as they become practical, available, and affordable.
GPS is a great example of a technology that has offered us some of the most significant advances in farming over the past decades. While motorists await the advent of driverless cars, farmers for years have used self-driving tractors. They still require people to sit in their cabs, ready to take control if problems arise, but today’s modern tractors can steer themselves, thereby reducing operator stress and fatigue while improving precision and providing accurate records of field operations.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, are quickly becoming another important tool in our farm toolbox. There’s nothing new about farmers using aerial technologies, of course: The first crop dusters went to work about a century ago but UAVs with their ability to take off vertically, fly low and close provide much needed adaptability.
UAVs outfitted with cameras can identify small problems before they become yield-robbing issues. Larger UAVs can be outfitted with sprayers and in the near future could become almost as important to our farm operation as combines are today.
As unmanned machines become more sophisticated, instead of talking about the “robots” on our farms, we will speak seriously about “row-bots” similar to this autonomous laser weed control robot—the machines we may deploy to manage and protect our rows of crops.
Our abilities are about to become much better, however, as the revolution in artificial intelligence comes to airborne agriculture. In the future, we expect machines to work with less oversight and more accuracy. Hovering over our property, they’ll examine our fields closely, distinguishing between the crops we want to thrive and the weeds we want to eliminate. When they spot a weed that steals moisture and nutrients from the soil, they’ll descend on it and apply a small, precisely delivered dose of herbicide, or perhaps an electric laser, eliminating the weed and allowing our crops to flourish.
Another technology that will make our farm even more sustainable was introduced at this year’s Farm Progress Show . Farmers from around the world were introduced to ‘short corn technology’. It’s a plant breeding advancement that isn’t just for short farmers like me! We’re excited about the potential of a high-yield crop that would stay ‘short’, less likely to fall over during summer storms and allowing farmers to use ground sprayers, avoiding the high cost of aerial spraying for weeds that might be needed late in the crop season.
This technology includes access to GM crops, leading to a welcome paradox: We’re simultaneously reducing our reliance on crop-protection products and getting better at killing weeds.
I’m looking forward to this advance for many reasons, including the fact that it will help us overcome a weed that is starting to pose a special problem: tall waterhemp. This weed first appeared in our fields about three years ago. It grows quickly and vigorously and has grown resistant to familiar crop-protection tools. We’ve found ways to control it, from traditional crop-rotation strategies to the application of specific herbicides. We’ve even done things the old-fashioned way, walking our fields and yanking the weeds out of the soil with our hands.
Yet we know the problem presented by tall waterhemp may worsen—and our rescue may come in the form of drones that can identify these intruders as they emerge from the ground, apply a tiny amount of herbicide to specific spots, and eliminate the weeds before they become a menace.
That’s good for me as a farmer because it will keep my crops safe. It’s good for consumers, too, because when crops grow without interference from weeds, food is abundant and prices at grocery stores and restaurants remain reasonable. And finally, it’s good for the environment because we lessen our dependence on herbicides.
Farmers of the future will continue to work the land—but they will be working smarter—thanks to our ability to find balance in nature with good practices and innovative technologies.
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