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William Wymer (11) checks out the 2019 wheat crop at Kloster Farm in Lincoln County. The land is leased and farmed by John Wagner and his son, Jordan Wagner.
Photo by Diana Kloster

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FARMER'S TOOLBOX

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Benton County farmers, conservation district team up on precision application project

June 2019
By Trista Crossley


In the ongoing fight against weeds, one Benton County wheat farming family feels like they’ve hit the spot by employing a precision technology that saves them 80 to 90 percent on their chemical costs.

“To me, this is the next best thing after autosteer for a return on investment,” said Devin Moon.

Moon and his brother, Garrett, saw a demonstration of the WEEDit technology last year and were impressed enough that they approached the Benton Conservation District (BCD) with a proposal for a pilot project to test the system in a no-till fallow rotation. The WEEDit system works by detecting small amounts of chlorophyll and precisely applying chemical to just that spot. According to their website, the WEEDit technology was invented in Holland in 2001 as a way to avoid applying a “blanket” of chemicals over roads and footpaths to kill weeds. In 2009, the technology was modified for use in agriculture with the first system sold in Australia that same year. The Moons purchased the system, which mounts on their existing sprayer, and the conservation district provided some financial assistance for the actual work, i.e. labor, fuel and chemicals. The project began in July 2018 and wrapped up in April.

Melissa Pierce, resource conservationist with the BCD, said the project appealed to the conservation district because many farmers in the Horse Heaven Hills are converting to no-till fallow rotations, which means tillage is not an option for weed control. The Moons were targeting Russian thistle, prickly lettuce and horseweed with the system.

“With not using tillage anymore, farmers need to use chemicals to control weeds, and they are starting to notice some chemical resistance,” she explained. While farmers see the savings in chemical costs, the BCD sees potential savings in other areas. “From a conservation district or natural resources point of view, using less chemicals means less impact on natural resources. Another benefit to natural resources is just being able to make no-till fallow rotations a more sustainable practice.” Some of the benefits that the BCD expects to see from this sort of technology are less volatilization of the chemicals and less potential for herbicide drift. Less tillage also means fewer impacts on air quality and soil erosion.

The Moons had previously used weed-seeker technology, but were unimpressed. Devin said he was initially wary of the WEEDit technology until he saw it demonstrated.

“It was an ‘ah ha moment’ watching this thing spray dime-sized weeds in stubble,” he said. “It was impressive. Weeds are tougher now to kill chemically than even five years ago, and it’s only going to get increasingly hard. This made a lot of sense.” He added that he was impressed with how well the system, mounted on his 120-foot sprayer boom, handled turns.

Before he saw it working, Moon said he was skeptical of saving enough money on chemical costs to make WEEDit a sound investment. He explained that it’s easy to overestimate how weedy a field really is when spraying with a traditional sprayer.

“You’d think it is covered with weeds, but it’s really only 20 to 30 percent. I had a field lousy with Russian thistle. I took WEEDit through it and still saved 70 percent on chemicals,” he explained. “It’s just worked better than anticipated.

Moon said the fact that the system works through stripper header stubble is only one of the benefits he can see. Because of the cost savings, he anticipates being able to use different herbicide modes of action that he otherwise might not be able to afford, which will help with weed resistance. Another benefit is that the system can detect weeds when they are very small and easier to kill, helping combat weed resistance. Killing the weeds before they grow also helps keep more moisture in the ground.

Moon said the BCD was good to work with, because unlike the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), conservation districts are generally more flexible and the projects they support tend to have less strings attached.

“Lot of times NRCS programs are very rigid, and the conservation district…you can take an idea to the board, and lot of times, they can decide the same day if they are going to support it or not,” he explained. “Less herbicides…that’s a great thing for the conservation district to get behind. If they are going to pony up money and have to defend to the public why they are supporting something, who’s going to complain that we are using less chemicals?”