Aerial strategy to beat dreaded weed

Patrick Stephenson (left) with Will Atkinson in Pickering. (GL1008/22a)
Patrick Stephenson (left) with Will Atkinson in Pickering. (GL1008/22a)

Blackgrass has become the arable farmer’s nightmare. The weed has been prevalent in East Anglia for years but during the past decade it has gradually increased in proliferation further north.

A problem with tackling it has been a lack of new chemistry sets coming to market that are devoted to its eradication.

Patrick Stephenson is an independent crop consultant based in Pickering. He worked in Suffolk and Bedfordshire before coming back to the north of England in the 90s and has seen the blackgrass problem grow.

He’s currently working with Will Atkinson of Beck Hill Farm, Scorton near Catterick, on how the weed can be recognised early enough so that it can be dealt with each year, controlled and hopefully eradicated in the long term.

The pair are combining the use of drones, Nir infrared cameras and satellite technology in their quest to quell the menace.

“We’ve a generation of farmers who’ve been used to going to a cupboard, opening a door, getting a can and putting it into their sprayer. Every now and again a new tin has arrived because the old product is no longer as effective, but there’s nobody arriving with a tin anymore,” says Patrick.

There are no new products arriving because the UK market and other areas of northern Europe where blackgrass is also a problem are not deemed big enough in terms of acreage for the chemistry set people to earn enough in return for their research and development when they can develop products for markets that are much larger. Patrick doesn’t see that changing soon.

“Over time blackgrass, like any other weed, becomes immune to a chemical and products become redundant. It happened with Isoproturon and it’s been happening with Atlantis. Without an effective chemistry set available you need to look at the action you can take and that’s where Will and I are now starting to make headway, initially tackling the problem on his farm but then aiming to roll it out across the county.”

Will demoed a drone on his fields earlier this year having seen his farm’s blackgrass infestation grow from one or two acres to around 10 per cent of his 1,000 arable acreage. The results should bring about a major cost saving on his own field application.

“On a typical 10-hectare field the drone is capable of taking 100-150 images that are then stitched together to form what is known as an orthamosaic. The Nir infrared camera is best positioned around 70-110 metres above the crop and takes four to five images of each section of the field.

“The infrared signatures, which are beyond our visible limitations, then allow us to recognise blackgrass or any weed via a computer-screen reading that shows the areas that are infected by use of red dots.

“This allows us to identify the areas where we have a problem and treat them immediately. By finding out this information early in the growth of the weed, at ‘one true leaf’ stage there are still chemistry sets available that are effective.

“We’ve moved away from using Atlantis as for us it is so expensive and with other associated costs works out at £150 per hectare and because of its diminishing effectiveness. At best it will stunt the weed but not destroy it. We’re taking a glyphosate approach and now planning to use Roundup in those key areas. Our control costs will be down to £20 per hectare as a result.”

Patrick believes the drone and other new technology is part of the answer but that other basic principles of farming would help too.

“In world terms blackgrass is a bit of a baby and by putting in two spring crops, as many farmers are now doing, you can really nail it down. The product that is being used more at present is Avadex.

“From my experience once Atlantis has been applied three or four times in the same field its level of control is at most 15 per cent. Other than that there is no clear alternative chemically, which is why Will and I are excited about developing the use of the drone.”

Will recognises on his farm where problems with blackgrass may have started: “Like many other farmers we’ve been stacking the crop rotation pretty small – wheat, rape – and blackgrass has become immune. We’ve essentially produced a weed that’s good for our climate but nothing else.

“That’s why I’ve tried to take the bull by the horns and tried to find our own answer. The drone and the field mapping it gives is certainly a step in the right direction.”