Imagine a world where you could roll into your local farm supply outlet and head to the back of the room where a vending machine sits. There, you’d plug in some basic data.
The machine would ask what you’re planting, how many acres, what major weed species are present and what you’ll be rotating to next season. Based on this information the machine will create, blend and dispense a custom weed-control solution for you field by field.
Something out of “Star Trek”? Not even close. This is science fact, not fiction. It’s technology that’s been available for several years through the DuPont PrecisionPac system, and there are already more than 100 of these machines dotted throughout the agricultural regions of Canada.
Despite its obvious advantages — less fuss and muss in the field, less waste material, better inventory control — it’s also a technology that has never really taken off. Yet.
In no small part that’s because it has largely been limited to DuPont’s own modest portfolio of products, which tilt heavily toward the Group 2 family of weed killers. But one Ontario agri-retailer who has been using PrecisionPac for the past several seasons says it’s too soon to write this system off — and in fact they’re expecting great things from it in coming seasons.
Darryl Acres, of Chesterville, Ont.’s SynAgri, says he’s been told to expect a significantly larger portfolio of active ingredients in coming years — including some from other crop protection companies. He says clients — especially a lot of the custom applicators he deals with — like the simplicity.
“We don’t need to worry about a whole bunch of packages. You can just type in the acres you have and go,” Acres says.
They’ve been using a PrecisionPac system for three years, and at this point, he’s set up to handle only Pinnacle and Classic, and only in soybeans. At some point in 2014, he’s expecting to see SB-01, a blend of Classic and fluioxazin added to his lineup, and that’s where the true potential for this technology starts to take shape, he says.
As more of the other companies begin to add their formulations to the machine — and as corn herbicides enter the picture — the technology’s value will increase, possibly beyond the application of herbicide actives, and into precise measuring and traceability applications.
“Blending is the next step, and that’s the issue where DuPont is working with a lot of Group 2s, which we seem to be trying to get away from, but to be honest, what else do we have for soybeans?” says Acres.
He echoes a sentiment expressed in the early 2000s regarding atrazine resistance, that despite the arrival of Group 2s, atrazine was still a useful herbicide.
“The Group 2s are still an important piece of chemistry but you have to add to them now,” Acres says. “There’s an endless supply with any dry chemistry that you’re working with, and if there’s any way to put that in this machine, it’s going to make it that much more useful across different companies and different retailers.”
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The more companies that make use of these machines, and the more chemistries they employ, the greater the value. Added to that, says Acres, there’s the precise measuring capacity: if a field is 73 acres, there’s the precision of providing exact amounts of different chemistries for those 73 acres.
“We’re starting to do more tank mixes, so if we can do mixtures that are easier for the farmers, then that’s not as difficult, because that is where mistakes can be made,” says Acres. In the heat of the season, he says, applicators and growers can find themselves in the field, scratching their heads and wondering “Did I just put one or two packages in there?”
“If it’s all in one bag, with two or three different ingredients, all they have to do is make sure they put that one bag into the sprayer,” Acres says.
Traceability, inventory management
Such precise measurements also pave the way for traceability protocols, something Mike Cowbrough, the weed management specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, says is just one of the potential benefits of this system. In an era where the default question on weed management has become: “What do you mix with your glyphosate?” Cowbrough agrees that the focus on what DuPont doesn’t have is short-sighted.
“You tend to focus on the chemistry available to an organization, but I think if you were to look at it from a supply-chain perspective — a retailer or large producer, or a producer who does his own spraying — that the potential for customization is there, but inventory management would be the value,” says Cowbrough.
Cowbrough adds that bulk seed provides a similar benefit, where it leaves retailers with less of a concern about the number of bags left in a warehouse at season’s end. The same is true with herbicides, both from a retailer and farmer perspective.
“The last thing you want to be doing is dealing with a lot of half-jugs and quarter-jugs, from a pesticide perspective,” says Cowbrough. “To me, that’s the most obvious benefit, where one year, you decide that this is the weed management program for you, but based on its results, you might want to switch directions next year, but meanwhile, you’re left with half a container, and what are you going to do with that?”
The short-term dismissal of PrecisionPac because of its use of only DuPont herbicides is overlooking what Cowbrough sees as a significant upside, and that’s the time — however long it may take — when every dry active ingredient becomes available for this technology.
Why it also works well for DuPont, says Cowbrough, is that the company is dealing with many active ingredients that are very potent, they don’t require a lot of volume and they come in a dry granular form. That, he notes, is workable with herbicides that are effective at 75 or 100 grams per hectare. His only question is whether the convenience is still a benefit at 900 or 1,000 or 2,000 grams.
Still, Cowbrough maintains the ability to customize crop production starts to become intriguing with this type of technology and he lays out a futuristic vision of a fully integrated system.
“You have done your scouting, and maybe you’re putting that information into an app or a management tool, and that could be synched with your crop adviser at the retail outlet, that goes into PrecisionPac, and comes up with a recommendation,” says Cowbrough. “Then it also sends that data to your field records, then you have a one-stop shop in terms of record-keeping and traceability potential. But this is all easy to say. It’s difficult to execute.”
The main hurdle to overcome, he adds, may not be in accepting DuPont’s herbicide offerings or the use of technology. It might be in the human nature of the grower, and the motivation to change. As an example, Cowbrough has encountered some farmers who haven’t experienced herbicide resistance on their farms. He attended one grower meeting during the early part of 2014, where the incidence of Canada fleabane was shown on a map.
“The farmers were in the county where the weed wasn’t confirmed yet, but they were more or less surrounded by the counties where it was confirmed,” says Cowbrough, adding that they acknowledged it was a problem. “Even when I spoke to a few of them after, there was an attitude that said, ‘I’ll wait until a certain active doesn’t work, and then I’ll use a tank mix.’”
More choices to come
With the planting season, DuPont’s Dave Kloppenburg is focused on increasing the number of PrecisionPac machines in Eastern Canada, as well as increasing the number of actives. In Western Canada in 2013, the technology covered several million acres through 120 outlets.
“We’ve had very good response from the customers who have been using it, and that’s the reason we’re moving ahead to expand, with more machines in Eastern Canada and also looking at corn,” says Kloppenburg, the company’s row crop segment manager.
The company is on a definite growth trajectory in Eastern Canada, not only with the number of systems placed, but also in putting the pieces together for blends — with DuPont chemistries and third-party chemistries, as well. And Kloppenburg notes that how the blends are packaged is almost as important as what’s in the package. Acres and Cowbrough both mentioned the precise blending capabilities for different sized fields. Kloppenburg notes that the machine is capable of dispensing the dry ingredients in weights up to six kilograms.
The situation with herbicide resistance, particularly what’s happening in the U.S., also demands greater flexibility, including keeping active ingredients that some might see as obsolete, viable and accessible.
“We want to put together solutions that have a number of different actives, to be able to put blends together for a number of different situations, whether it be targeting the right weed spectrums, or having multiple actives for weed resistance management,” says Kloppenburg. “That’s the direction we’re going, and in corn, we’re just launching Engarde this year, so in 2015, we’ll be deploying our first corn PrecisionPac systems based on the chemistries we have in that crop.”