The Sharp Edge: Robot farming with Mark Richards

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Is it efficient to use autonomous vehicle in row crop agriculture in southwestern Ontario?

That’s a question cash crop farmer Mark Richards is wrestling with on his Dresden, Ont. farm. In 2022, he used a solar-powered FarmDroid robot to plant sugar beets. That machine found it challenging to adapt to the widespread use of strip tillage in Richards’ system so this year he’s putting a different robot to the test.

On this episode of The Sharp Edge, Maizex Seeds agronomist Henry Prinzen visits with Richards to see how his new autonomous vehicle, a Robotti Agrointelli, is taking to the job of planting corn. The small, light unit is powered by a 70-hp Kubota diesel engine and is capable of planting four rows and spraying in a 10-foot pass. In autonomous mode, the robot runs at three miles per hour and has had good success adapting to the strip still system.

In the video, Richards shares the pros and cons he’s observed from working with the robots. One of the biggest challenges is scaleability and whether small robots can cover ground efficiently compared to a traditional 24-row corn planter. He says a robot will not be able to compete on planting speed, but he’s seeing a number of advantages — the ability to get on fields earlier, planting in less ideal conditions that keep bigger implements out of the field, and reducing compaction.

Richards says growers also need to assess the benefits robots could provide for post emergence weed control application and fertilizer applications, including side dressing. (Story continues after the video.)

Richards believes robots do have the potential to make farmers better managers and improve agronomic practices but it will require a radical change in day-to-day operations and how farmers farm.

After some tough 2023 planting conditions and some early moisture stress, Richards’ corn field is looking good. He admits he’s still struggling with whether small autonomous units are the way to go or whether large-scale implements with better boots on the ground is the best choice.

Based on his observations, he feels robots may be a good fit for smaller farmers, 500 to 700 acres, who can plant 50 acres a day and get the crop planted in 10 to 12 days.

Richards says there’s lots to learn and he’s excited to be doing some of the groundwork to see where robots best fit in crop production. He also shares his plans for 2024, which include a robot strip till machine, a customized four-row planter and a fertilizer applicator to combine operations on the the Robotti Agrointelli. As well, he’s also looking to add spraying capability to the robot to incorporate first-pass spraying in the operation.

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