A new weed-killing tool is coming to America and its mode of action is, well, quite shocking.
The latest buzz in weed control is called digital herbicide, developed by Zasso, a company based in Aachen, Germany. Digital herbicide zaps weeds with a shot of high voltage electricity, killing them instantly. The system already is deployed in 3,000 main-line farm equipment dealerships across Europe and will begin field testing in the U.S. this year.
It can be used in burndown/field preparation operations prior to planting or in row crops during the season. It’s also used for harvest preparation in crops that have to be desiccated prior to harvest.
While herbicide-resistant weeds like Palmer amaranth and waterhemp have taken on almost mythical reputations for their ability to develop resistance, they are not likely to survive a high voltage electrical shock. The current immediately bursts their chlorophyll cells and destroys their water uptake systems.
“So, we have two modes of action with immediate control of both the chutes and roots,” says Dirk Vandenhirtz, Zasso’s CEO.
Symptoms of weed death are visible immediately after the application, Vandenhirtz adds. “You can see that the plant is drying out. There’s no waiting time.”
The system — see a field-use video at the bottom of this article — can be mounted on most tractors. Electricity is produced by an alternator connected to the tractor’s PTO. A transformer is mounted on the rear of the tractor regulates the current.
The business end of the applicator – which applies the voltage – mounts on the front of the tractor.
Let’s add that this isn’t a cheap machine. Marketed as KPower in Europe, prices range from $134,000 to $222,000, depending on the model.
Vandenhirtz says that digital herbicide applications are largely weather independent. It doesn’t require specific temperature ranges, wind obviously isn’t an issue and it can run day or night
In a manner of speaking, the electrical “application” is rainfast. “Also, there’s no loss of effectiveness when there is rainfall directly after an application other than the germination of weeds that typically occurs after rain,” Vandenhirtz notes. So, herbicides by no means are out of the picture.
A very intense rain, he adds, can reduce efficacy because some electricity flows off the water on the surface, “which means you need more energy to control the weeds than under dry conditions.”
Farmers don’t like to drive under rainy conditions anyway, Vandenhirtz points out, since that promotes rutting and soil compaction.
Vandenhirtz says the primary driver for use of the technology in Europe “is more about consumers asking for chemical-free products than weed resistance.”
In addition, according to an article in Reuters, the German government is seeking an end date for the use of glyphosate in the country. “This is different from North America where we see fast growth in resistant weeds and farmers searching for other solutions,” Vandenhirtz explains.
Zasso’s digital herbicide system is being marketed in Europe through 3,000 Case New Holland Industrial (CNHi) dealerships. Both companies plan to extend the relationship to the U.S. market “very soon,” according to Vandenhirtz.
“We’ve received a lot of requests for information, especially from Canadian and U.S. no-till groups, as well as the potato groups for 2020,” Vandenhirtz says. “In Canada, they have a very short season and they’re looking for something they can apply directly before seeding.”
Adaptable Across Multiple Crops
The technology can be modified for various field operations, in row crops and broadcast. “We also have specific systems that we call swing applicators. These clean underneath trees and stalks in vineyards or olive trees,” Vandenhirtz said.
According to Zasso, the electricity will safely dissipate in the soil and doesn’t transfer in any relevant amount to other plants, either through the soil or from root to root. So, it does not damage untouched plants.
However, just as with the application of herbicides, an inaccurate application can injure a crop plant, Vandenhirtz notes. “If you use the system incorrectly and there is a misalignment between the applicator and row, then you could have a misapplication like you get when you’re spraying herbicides.”
With GPS guidance, those incidents would be rare, Vandenhirtz adds.
Zasso research indicates that woody stems and bark on more mature plants can act as insulators, which is helpful for protecting the crop, trees and shrubs from damage. Most young crop plants may require shielding on the applicator for protection, which Zasso offers.
Zasso also offers a three-wheel model that is about the size of a lawnmower and is designed for professional and household owners to clean around dwellings, in walkways and parking lots.
“It’s battery driven, so you don’t need a cable,” Vandenhirtz says. “The battery has a life of around three hours. It’s used here in Europe because spraying of chemical herbicides is completely prohibited for households and for outdoor space such as parking lots.”
The system also has a very favorable environmental footprint, according to Vandenhirtz. “First, it’s completely chemical-free, so there’s no residue in the soil. We have a positive carbon footprint for our system compared to a chemical system.
“We also take the soil health and environment very seriously, such as the safety of soil organisms, earthworms and bees. We did an extensive three-year program testing the technology’s effect on the soil. We found no negative effects on any of the organisms.”
Safety also is a priority in Germany because the technology is being used in cities to clean walkways and streets.
“Several security features on those systems ensure that there is no harm to a bystander or operator. We follow the highest security regulations.”
Zasso researchers say no weed species have escaped a successful application of digital herbicide, and a list of weeds it has managed is being compiled.