Farm Futures logo

Will a smart sprayer pay off on your farm?

Camera-based targeted spraying can lower herbicide costs, but ROI will vary based on acres covered, weed density, control strategy.

Mike Wilson, Senior Executive Editor

July 5, 2023

10 Min Read
John Deere sprayer with see and spray technology.
SAVINGS OPPORTUNITY: John Deere’s See & Spray targeted spraying technology is available on its own self-propelled dual-tank machine, as a retrofit to existing sprayers, or with green-on-brown capability on fallow fields. “The more passes you make, the more opportunity for savings,” says Tim Deinert, market manager for application equipment at Deere.John Deere

In the past 20 years, farm equipment got bigger, wider and faster. Now it’s getting smarter, driven by artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer or camera visioning, which can identify and spray a weed, leaving the crop untouched and dramatically reducing chemical use.

There’s a raft of these sprayers appearing on farm fields now or next year. But what will it take to make the tech worth it on your farm? The equipment itself is not cheap and includes annual subscription fees.

“There will be greater value for those who run that machine on as many acres as possible,” notes Purdue weed scientist Bryan Young. “So custom applicators who capture value in their per-acre service structure, or very large crop farmers, have the chance to get a quicker ROI for these machines, as well as some higher-value crop situations or when expensive herbicides are being used. In non-GMO soybeans, for example, nobody likes to burn beans with a foliar herbicide application. But last year at Purdue, a foliar broadcast application of a herbicide resulted in 20% to 30% soybean burn, compared with only 5% to 10% soybean injury when using John Deere’s See & Spray, where only small, localized areas with weeds were sprayed.

“Reduced crop stress with the herbicide application while controlling all weeds that have emerged is a win for crop protection and farmers.”

Related:Smart sprayers already here or coming soon

Targeting weeds with a smart sprayer in a growing crop is known as green-on-green capability. Smart sprayers can, for the most part, identify and “see” a weed to spray and leave the crop itself mostly unscathed. In trials, these tools reduced herbicide use anywhere from 60% to 95%. The return on investment comes not from residual herbicides broadcast at preplant, but rather targeted applications at postemergence.

“It will benefit farmers with low weed density at postemergence spraying,” Young says. “You need to have fewer than one weed every 4 feet in your field at post spraying. If it’s anything higher, it becomes a broadcast application, and you’re not saving any money.”

Young believes farmers should consider different situations where targeted spraying may or may not work:

Postemergence. For those who focus most of their weed control on postemergence applications — including a standard total postemergence system, even if performed early postemergence with a residual herbicide — weed densities will normally be way too high and result in broadcast, rather than targeted, applications.

Preemergence. What about reduced preemergence followed by a targeted spray post? It depends on weed populations and herbicide costs. Over the last two years when glyphosate shot up above $15 per acre due to supply chain issues, reducing the coverage area receiving a glyphosate treatment made sense. Today, with glyphosate at about $6 per acre, that scenario is less cost-effective for saving money with a targeted glyphosate spray.

But most post applications in corn and soybeans include multiple herbicide modes of action and can cost over $40 per acre if broadcast. Even if some of the herbicides in that mixture can be applied separately for a targeted application, a 50% reduction in spray can result in savings that can easily surpass the cost of the spray technology.

Crop needs. The ROI from smart spraying will differ based on your crop protection needs. A cotton farmer who applies multiple post-emergence sprays will save more money than a soybean grower who makes one post pass.

Targeted approach. The greatest value of targeted foliar applications will be farmers that use a post-emergence spray as a “cleanup” from weeds that were not controlled with residual herbicides. Perhaps a grower is undecided if a postemergence application is even necessary because the weeds are so sporadic. Having a targeted spray option makes this decision much easier because the herbicide costs will be relative to the weed infestation.

“Lower weed infestation equates to lower herbicide cost,” Young notes. “This should not be confused with a ‘rescue’ treatment, where a previous herbicide application failed and weeds are overgrown. A targeted herbicide application doesn’t make a herbicide more effective on these escaped weeds.”

Weed management specialist Amit Jhala at University of Nebraska Extension tested Greeneye’s AI-enabled precision spraying system against broadcast application of herbicides for corn last season. The results were a 94% reduction in burndown herbicide use during preemergence spraying compared to broadcast, with a cost savings of $24.70 per acre. During post-emergence, non-residual herbicide spraying, there was an 87% reduction compared to broadcast, with a cost savings of $40.50 per acre.

Man with hat posed next to large agricultural sprayer

As a starting point to determine ROI, consider subscription fees. With See & Spray as an example, subscription fees cost $3 per acre for corn, $4 for soybeans and $5 for cotton. That’s above and beyond the equipment cost at purchase and does not include the cost of operator or chemicals.

“There’s two ways to look at how to pay for this technology,” says Tim Deinert, market manager for application equipment at John Deere. “One is a simple reduction in chemicals. We have an ROI calculator our dealers use to understand how much chemical a grower uses per pass, how many dollars per acre you save, and how many years you need to use this to pay for it. The more passes you make, the more opportunity for savings.

“Second, you have cleaner fields. With See & Spray Ultimate and dual-tank capability, you have two sprayers working at the same time — target spraying with one and broadcasting with another. Cleaner fields lead to better yields.”

Young also notes another wildcard that has yet to play out with smart-spray technology: environmental regulations.

“EPA needs to recognize this technology and change labels,” he says. “If you spray a field and use targeted smart spraying on borders, does it have reduced impact on endangered species? That hasn’t been recognized yet in terms of benefits from this technology. Farmers want to be good stewards of the chemistry and the environment, but if it doesn’t change on the herbicide label, we can’t realize that benefit.”

Sustainability play

“It’s great for reducing chemicals and it’s great for sustainability, as there is no excess chemical going onto the ground, so less waste and runoff,” Deinert says. “The technology will get better over time. There will be more things we can do with this than what we do today.”

Regulations aimed at lower chemical use are already at play in Europe, and similar pressures could be headed to North America. Those regulations will drive sales for smart sprayers, argues Dave Britton, Trimble Agriculture’s vice president of product management.

“The potential addressable market in precision ag is $15 billion, and we see it growing 13.8% annually,” he says. “New regulations in Europe are asking for a 20% reduction in fertilizer and 50% reduction in pesticides. There’s no doubt technology is going to play a big part in meeting those goals.”

Agco is teaming with One Smart Spray, formerly known as Bosch/BASF Smart Farming, and plans to roll out smart spraying on Fendt Rogator sprayers next year. They will have dual-tank capability for green-on-green and green-on-brown spraying, and include strobe lights that enable camera visioning to spray weeds in darkness.

“Night spraying is a tremendous amount of work, and we’re excited to bring that capability to farmers,” says Seth Crawford, senior vice president and general manager of precision ag and digital at Agco. “In prototype testing, we are seeing up to a 90% savings on chemicals. With the amount of chemical reduction regulations we’re seeing come out in Europe, along with the overall sustainability efforts, it seems reduced chemical use is the direction we’re headed.”

Man posed with arms crossed.

Retrofit options

Smart-spray technology is available as a retrofit to existing sprayers, which could speed adoption via a lower entry cost.

“One of the big things we hear is, ‘I don’t want to have to buy a half-million-dollar piece of equipment to get the latest technology,’ ” Crawford says.

Sense-and-act technology as a retrofit is already available at Deere and Greeneye, and will be at Agco next year. Greeneye’s approach is to replace your existing boom with its own sensor-laden boom. It’s set up to simultaneously spray contact herbicides on weeds and residual herbicides on a broadcast basis with a dual spraying system.

Agco’s Precision Planting entered the sprayer market just a year and a half ago with its Symphony Nozzle control, which allows the sprayer to maintain pressure even at changing speed. It is testing Symphony Targeted Spraying, a camera and AI-based hardware and software technology built for existing sprayers that lets you vary the spray rate based on weed size and pressure. 

Adoption ahead?

How targeted sprayers become part of mainstream agriculture is a story yet to be told.

“Retailers won’t necessarily replace all sprayers with See & Spray,” Deinert says. “The retailer could provide a different type of solution to a customer, and they may charge based on outcomes rather than inputs. They may try to bundle services with a targeted spray pass.

“Before, if you were looking at a second or third post pass, you questioned the ROI. As a retailer, you could bundle fungicide with a See & Spray pass to clean up the field as you applied fungicide.”

Smart-sprayer adoption could result in experimental herbicides, once put on the shelf in the discovery process because they were too costly to manufacture, being brought back into consideration for development, since less chemical will be applied, in theory, per acre.

This sprayer technology could enable novel herbicide molecules being developed that were not feasible using broadcast applications. As people learn best practices with targeted spraying, it should also drive higher soil residual herbicide use, Young says.

“That’s what we want anyhow as a best management practice — never let weeds come up,” he says. “We’re going to have to do that to realize the value of targeted sprayers.”

Even if smart sprayers don’t provide a clear ROI, Young predicts they will become part of the commercial agriculture landscape.

“All the major sprayer manufacturers are in this space now,” Young says. “So one way or another, these sprayers are going to be available. If some farmers don’t want them? They will adjust the price until they sell as many as they want.

“A lot of progressive farmers buy sprayers every two years. These sprayers might have targeted spray capability on board, and then two years later, it becomes a used sprayer, and the next owner will adopt it,” Young adds. “Ultimately, it will become prominent, even reaching growers who didn’t ask for it.

“It will be like power windows on your car. You may or may not have wanted them. And then at some point, you had no choice. They were on every vehicle. This will be adopted; it’s just a matter of time.”

Deinert believes the adoption will take place sooner rather than later.

“In five years, people will understand this tech as well as autosteer today,” he predicts. “They don’t question it; they just know it works. It’s going to be the same with camera visioning and sprayer nozzles. “At that point, people will be deciding more and more, what can I optimize? Today we detect crops vs. weeds. But if you look at that pass and that camera going through the field, there’s a lot of value that can be unlocked, and growers will be asking us to unlock that value.”

Curt Arens, editor of sister publication Nebraska Farmer, contributed to this article.

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

Subscribe to receive top agriculture news
Be informed daily with these free e-newsletters

You May Also Like