Science into practice: Computer-guided weeding for vegetables

Diminishing herbicide options, concerns over ground water contamination and customer pressure to minimise herbicide use are all pushing the vegetable and field salads industry away from reliance on herbicides.

However, there is zero tolerance of contamination of product by weeds and weed seeds, particularly for bagged salads, necessitating increased use of unsustainable hand-weeding. The majority of salad crops are hand-weeded once and sometimes twice at a cost of up to £1,000/ha, depending on weed levels. The task leads to back problems.

Brassica production is affected by weed contamination and losses of effective herbicides have increased the requirement for hand-weeding. A HortLink project of which HDC was a funder, FV 266, commissioned Tillett & Hague Technology, with its expertise in precision guidance technology, to come up with a suitable in-row and inter-row vision-guidance system to work with rotary hoe machinery.

A prototype was successfully tested commercially in 2007. Costings proved use of the machine for organics halves the need for hand-weeding, saving £150/ha to £250/ha depending on crop, and that the payback period for a machine would be between one year and 1.6 years. For conventional production, costs were also halved and there was a payback period of 1.6 years on the machinery.

Garford Farm Machinery has developed its Robocrop 2 rotary hoe vision-guided system for accurate, fast inter-row weed control. This utilises a digital video camera to view the crop ahead of the hoe toolbar. Comparing the data with a grid gives a best match scenario used to steer the hoe mechanically, reducing operator fatigue.

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