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Proving grounds

Innovation, technology and stewardship are among MFA’s core values, and all three were on display May 9 during a demonstration of John Deere’s latest precision spraying system, See & Spray Ultimate. The technology uses artificial intelligence, computer vision and machine learning to target in-season weeds in corn, soybeans and cotton.

John Deere introduced See & Spray Ultimate in 2022 and offered limited quanti­ties to farmers and agribusinesses for the 2023 season. MFA was the only company testing the technology on farms in Missouri this spring, working with Sydenstrick­er Nobbe Partners for an eight-week trial run of a John Deere 612R sprayer with a factory-installed See & Spray Ultimate package.

“At MFA, we don’t just talk about innovation and technology. It’s what we do,” said MFA Director of Agronomy Doug Spaunhorst. “That’s why we’re taking a look at this See & Spray technology. We want to see how it works, if it’s going to be a fit for our growers and, ultimately, what it does from a weed control standpoint before making a decision about adding it to our fleet.”

Hosted on the farm of Frank and John Glenn just outside Columbia, Mo., the field day allowed MFA and John Deere personnel, Missouri Department of Agri­culture officials, industry and university representatives and media to see the new technology in action in a real-world situation. The Glenn farm is one of the sites where MFA has tried out the See & Spray Ultimate rig, and the farming brothers had a chance to experience the benefits firsthand.

“We got to see this machine work for us, and seeing is believ­ing,” Frank Glenn said. “They sprayed all our corn acres with it this year, and it was very impressive. As expensive as it is to put in a crop, anytime you can save money on chemicals, you do it. That machine will do it.”

In fact, John Deere’s data shows that See & Spray Ultimate technology can reduce nonresidual herbicide use by 60% to 70%, and MFA’s test runs confirm those estimates, said Cam­eron Horine, MFA precision data manager. In fact, he told field day attendees that after using the See & Spray machine across 600 acres, MFA applicators found that only 22% of the total acreage was sprayed using the targeted application.

John Deere initially launched this technology with See & Spray Select in 2021, providing a system that cut herbicide use in fallow ground by only spraying green material in a brown field. See & Spray Ultimate takes it to the next level with “green-on-green” capabilities, explained Brenton Bartelt, field service representative with John Deere.

“When we’re in a field of corn, soybeans or cotton, it will only target the plants that are identified as weeds, not the crop, so we’re only spraying what is needed,” Bartelt said as he gave attendees a walk-around tour of the machine.

Boom-mounted cameras and vision processing units detect the difference between the desired crop and weeds, then trigger the nozzles to spray the appropriate crop protection product accordingly. There is one camera mounted every 1 meter across the width of the 120-foot boom, which equates to 36 cameras scanning more than 2,100 square feet at once. When a weed is located and identified, a command is sent to the proper nozzle to turn on or off as the sprayer moves through the field at speeds of up to 12 miles per hour.

“As we’re going across the field, we’re creating a weed pres­sure map, which is kind of like a yield map for weeds,” Bartelt said. “We can then overlay an as-applied map to the weed pressure map to make better agronomic decisions, whether it be on chemical programs, putting in some tile or changing tillage practices, things like that.”

The truss-style, carbon-fiber boom is a brand-new feature for the See & Spray Ultimate machine, Bartelt said. The accuracy of the target spray is enhanced by the precision boom control system that keeps the tip within 10 inches of the target height 95% of the time.

“As you watch the demo, notice that the boom almost looks like it floats behind the machine,” he said. “When the sprayer goes over different undulations in the ground, the boom is going to stay extremely steady and stable. The carbon fiber reduces a lot of the flex in the boom, which then gives us a more stable image for the cameras.”

For targeted applications, the machine is opti­mized to spray in rows 30 inches and wider for corn, soybeans and cotton. The maximum crop height that can be sprayed is 16 inches, Bartelt said, but that will vary depending on canopy development.

“If a weed is really tucked under the canopy, we’re not going to be able to spray it at that point,” he said. “The cameras are basically seeing what you can see with your naked eye.”

The 612R machine has a dual-tank configuration with a 1,200-gallon capacity, split into a 450-gallon tank for targeted spraying and a 750-gallon tank for broadcast spraying, Bartelt explained. This allows applicators to combine two passes, which can signifi­cantly lower herbicide costs, reduce tendering stops, help cover more acres per day and battle herbicide resistance. For example, the See & Spray equipment can precisely spray weeds and broadcast fungicide or apply a nonresidual targeted spray and residual broadcast, all in one application.

“The solutions are completely independent of each other all the way from our filling functions out to the boom,” Bartelt said. “So, when we think about products that may be antagonistic against each other that we couldn’t previously combine in a tank mix, we can now split those up and apply them both with one machine instead of running two separate tank mixes and two applications across the field.”

Spaunhorst said he expects the dual-tank capability and targeted spraying technology will allow for more power­ful crop protection combinations that can help growers combat weed resistance while putting fewer chemicals into the environment.

“When we talk about resistance management, this tech­nology should allow us to build programs a little bit more robustly,” Spaunhorst said. “We may be able to use tank mixes that would be tough cost-wise for a grower to spray over an entire field but are more palatable when you can apply exactly where it’s needed. That’s better for the grow­er and better for the environment, and hopefully it’ll help us keep these herbicides around for more years to come.”

While MFA’s trial run of the See & Spray system has shown its value of time, chemical and labor savings, the company is still determining how the technology would fit into its service fleet and how the application cost would be priced to customers, said MFA Vice President of Agri Services Jason Weirich, who has been behind the wheel during most of the test applications this spring.

Weirich also stressed that, even with the system’s high-tech abilities, it will not replace sound agronomics and the need for residual herbicides in weed-control programs.

“It is amazing technology, but from a stewardship standpoint, getting those residual herbicides across all the acres will continue to be extremely important,” he said. “That’s the foundation of having clean fields at the end of the season.”

After Bartelt’s walk-around tour of the machine, Weirich demonstrated the See & Spray by making a few passes through the Glenns’ corn and soybean fields. Blue-dyed water in the tanks gave attendees an easy visual reference to see how the spray targeted the weeds. Missouri Director of Agriculture Chris Chinn rode along to experience the technology firsthand.

“We all know there are fewer acres today available for us to be farming, so we have to make the most of the acreage that we have,” Chinn said. “It’s technology like this that is going to allow us to continue to produce more and to bring the next generation back home to the farm. More importantly, we’re going to have more data that allows us to make better decisions, and that’s a win-win, not just for our family and our farms, but for our communities and the environment.”

Related content:

President and CEO Ernie Verslues discusses this technology in his column: Technology and time grow new realities

The original announcement of this event is here: Proving grounds: MFA demonstrates new See & Spray Ultimate technology
Read the original story as printed in the paper version of the 2023 June/July Today's Farmer magazine  - Click Here.

READ MORE from the June/July 2023 Today’s Farmer’s Magazine, the MFA Incorporated member magazine.

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