Automation as an alternative to chemicals

Philip Garford, Garford Farm Machinery“Weed control has certainly been changing in the past few years,” says Philip Garford, Managing Director of Garford Farm Machinery. He is set to speak at Agri-Tech East’s annual REAP conference in November. We caught up with Philip for his views on crop management, advancing automation and Garford Farm Machinery.

Peterborough-based ‘Garford Farm Machinery’ develops, manufactures and distributes high quality row equipment products to the UK and world agricultural market.

Q: The theme for REAP 2017 is ‘Today’s Knowledge Meets Tomorrow’s Technology’. What is a current challenge in agriculture that Garford Farm Machinery is helping to overcome?

A: A big challenge in agriculture at the moment is the changing situation with crop management. The herbicides that were available are becoming less prevalent; chemicals have been taken away whenever there has been any risk of them getting into water courses or the food chain. There’s also been build-up in resistance in some weeds to specific chemicals.

We sell equipment to vegetable growers and traditional row crop growers, specialising in sugar beet and maize, for example. It is clear that huge problems have arisen with blackgrass, for which there is no reliable chemical answer for – engineering can be an alternative in weed control.

To combat blackgrass we clean up between crop rows with our Robocrop Inter-Row Weeder. Garford is finding that a number of customers are now considering growing their conventional cereal crops on wider row widths to enable inter-row spraying or inter-row cultivation. Cereal crops are just an example, as other crops such as the likes of oil seed rape can also be controlled with wider width.

Q: The Garford Robocrop InRow Weeder distinguishes weeds from the individual plants – how does this work?

Robocrop InRow eRotor 20 rowA: Our InRow Weeder uses video image analysis techniques to mechanically remove weeds from the inter-row and the crop row between the plants. It can be used on most crops that are planted with regular plant and row spacing, such as lettuce and celery.

All of our camera guidance systems utilise colour recognition and grid matching programmes. A typical cereal crop is grown in rows and is generally green, so you can see a concentration of green pixels in the image relating to where the crop rows are.

We can tell the InRow Weeder that plants will be spaced every 30 centimetres along the row, and it will look for concentrations of the pixels within that spacing. It organises the grid to lock onto them and the implement is hydraulically guarded, to ensure that it stays between the crop rows. If there is a discrepancy, the grid makes an adjustment accordingly. The Weeder uses that information to rotate the weeding rotor around the plants, cutting all of the weeds.

Q: As agri-tech continues to advance, could you see a future where farmers rely on fully autonomous machines or robotics?

Robocrop Eliminator (23)A: We deal with variables such as weed types, weed growth stages, soil type, soil moisture levels and crop growth stage. Although machine learning is coming on leaps and bounds, we’re a long way from a machine that will be able to recognise all these factors and adjust to keep working at 100% without error.

We are currently developing autonomous and robotic machines that have good output, but still have a human operator. It is important that we attend to the fine detail, ensuring that everything is working correctly – our customers require the machines to cover around 5 hectares per hour, so it is high value work.

You also have to think about machines moving from field to field, which requires going out on the road. There have been advances with driverless cars of course, and Case New Holland has an autonomous tractor buzzing away in fields, so one day it could be a possibility.

For now, we are focused on developing machine vision and machine learning. Once we get to the stage where we feel we have 99% reliability, then we can perhaps talk about being a fully autonomous operation. At the moment we can refer to them as robotic machines that increase performance and enable better crop husbandry.

Q: Before the machine vision weeding, Garford started out with a skew bar topper for sugar beet harvesters…

Robocrop Inrow Weeder at work aerial shotA: We designed and manufactured our own sugar beet harvester, which was sold through the late 1980’s, 1990’s and into the 2000’s. The skew bar topper was designed to remove the leaves from the sugar beet, without taking the top off the sugar beet itself, enabling farmers to collect higher tonnage from the crop.

The harvester was unique in not only having skew bar toppers, but also with the ‘Spiroll Cleaning System’, which was used for cleaning the sugar beet. It was very good at taking clods of soil and stones from the lifted crop; this was a big problem for growers in north Norfolk, so the machine quickly took off.

Q: Were you always drawn to the machinery side of things?

A: I started out farming on the Garford family farm. My father had a history in farm machinery; he formed a company to manufacture sugar beet harvesters back in the 1950’s. The company was then sold out, and he set up his own farm.

When he had three sons, he started to diversify again to farm machinery back in the 1970’s. We specialised in hoeing and bran spraying equipment, but still operated under the farm banner.

So yes, all of us – my father, my two brothers and I – were always very interested in machinery. Nothing on the farm would remain as it was for long; we were always changing things and coming up with ideas to make them work better.

To learn more about Garford Farm Machinery, please click here. For further details on the REAP 2017 conference, please click here.

REAP Conference 2017