Walking the 15 kilometres or so of aisles at Agritechnica in November, one trend was hard to miss. It was in the tillage segment, where the number of options and the sophistication of that technology is obviously on the rise.
Efficiency has always been the driving force behind farm machinery evolution, but it’s clear that farmers in many parts of the world — and Europe in particular — are starting to look for new ways to be efficient in crop production, including in ways that don’t necessarily rely on herbicides and pesticides.
For many, looking to the future involves taking a page from the past. That means treating in-crop weed control with tillage rather than a sprayer. After all, it’s a tried and true method most farmers are still familiar with, and with corn production on the rise in Europe, the opportunities there for row-crop tillage are growing.
But this return to more intensive tillage is being done with equipment that is much more scientific than anything our parents or grandparents ever used.
Technology is remaking in-crop tillage into a viable and efficient option, with this great advantage; it allows producers to stay out of the crosshairs of public opinion.
You don’t have to spend much time on that side of the Atlantic to know the general public there increasingly sees agricultural chemical use as a very bad thing, and given the current state of public opinion, it’s unlikely GMO crops will ever see the light of day there.
“Ag is facing a few major challenges, especially here in Europe with crop protection,” said John Deere’s Simon Schowalter. “That makes us think about alternative solutions. Now we’re thinking about mechanical weed control.”
Schowalter made those remarks as he introduced a group of journalists to a new prototype tillage implement control system that was being introduced at John Deere’s massive Agritechnica display.
The prototype AutoTrac Implement Guidance system that Showalter pointed to was developed jointly with the French tillage and planting equipment manufacturer Monosem. (Deere purchased Monosem in 2016.) The system uses data from mounted cameras to accurately plot the position of the implement shanks between rows of standing crop. Instead of using a shifting frame on the implement to keep it centred, the tractor three-point hitch linkage moves laterally to do that and help keep the shanks from sliding into the rows, thereby preventing crop damage.
Schowalter explained that the system can function at field speeds up to 16 km/hr, and the shank positions are adjustable to match almost any row-crop spacing. In fact, the system can adapt to most field conditions and even compensate for less-than-true row lines.
“The cameras can handle a field not planted with a guidance system,” he confirmed.
To work best, the tillage implement should be matched to the same number of rows as the planter.
Deere’s AutoTrac system won a Silver Innovations medal from Agritechnica this year, making it one of three tillage-specific silver medals awarded. So it’s clear manufacturers in that segment are looking to win farmers over with new technology. It’s important to keep in mind that manufacturers won’t pour R&D dollars and effort into technology that no one is interested in.
It’s also interesting that the total number of short-line brands selling tillage implements globally is large, so the pressure to stay ahead of the pack in the segment is intense.
“We are challenged in Europe with 150 sprayer (manufacturers),” noted Schowalter. “With tillage, it’s a four-digit number.”
One of those competitors, Claas, also took home a Silver Innovations award for its camera guidance system. Working in conjunction with four other European firms, including Einböck of Austria, the company has managed to develop an implement steering system using input from just a single camera, which uses two lenses for stereo and 3D vision.
The Claas system then uses a movable frame to make position adjustments within the rows.
Camera image technology is also used on the Dino robotic weeder that was on display at Agritechnica. The firm that created it, Naïo Technologies, is headquartered in France. Once again, the focus is on tillage with the robots offering a mechanical in-crop weed control function, and one of the marketing reps at Naïo’s display cited the potential to reduce the use of farm chemicals as a driving factor behind the growing number of sales his company is seeing.
Meanwhile, equipment manufacturer Kuhn also introduced a new plow that drops each share into the ground at exactly the right time to create perfectly square headlands.
Obviously, plowing remains very popular in parts of Europe.
Not only do tillage practices go down better with many consumers than applying herbicides, the practice offers some other practical advantages. For example, in-row tillage can be done on windy days, unlike spraying. And although several brands are working on smart sprayer technology that reduces chemical use, the cost of a high-end sprayer can be significantly more than a tillage implement.
Another problem for European farmers is that the public despises GMO crops just as much as chemical applications. This means farmers must find new ways to control not only weeds, but also pests.
For example, the corn borer insect became a serious problem in German corn crops, but growers there cannot use the GMO Bt corn genetics that North America has used to eliminate the borer as a serious concern.
This year John Deere introduced an attachment that mounts under combine headers to break up the standing corn stalk stubble, reducing the available stover that the corn borer needs for overwintering. That, the company claims, will go a long way toward reducing borer populations and reducing harvest losses.
The Stalk Destroyer, as it has been named, was developed in partnership with the German firm Kemper Machinenefabrik GmbH. It garnered another Silver Innovations award for the Green brand this year.
After showing journalists around the brand’s display at Agritechnica, Deere’s senior executives invited a group of us from North America to sit down to a Q & A session over lunch. Senior management believes the trend toward increased in-crop tillage will continue on an upward path, at least in Europe. And there is the definite possibility it could become an attractive option in other regions as well.
“On one side you see the precision farming efforts that are growing here,” said Mark von Pentz, president of the ag and turf division at John Deere. “It’s almost unbelievable. On the other hand, we also see that going back to conventional farming is a trend, because of more and more regulation here in Europe.”
“With mechanical weeding,” von Pentz added, “when you look at the potential there is for that, it brings back a high productivity rate. And when you combine that into the future with high-precision planting, with our ExactEmerge planter for example, you could use lengths (rows) or theoretically squares. So you could weed a field that you had to spray before.”
In other words, what is old is new again. Before herbicides, corn was always planted in hills so it could be cultivated both ways, or “on the square” as it was called.
Only now, instead of smart horses, it’s all down to smart machines.