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Chances and future of the technology for organic and hybrid farming

At this year’s Agritechnica HORSCH for the first time presents a special technology for mechanical population control. Michael Horsch explains the background why HORSCH now also develops machines for this sector.

terraHORSCH: How did you get interested in organic farming and what made you develop special machines for this sector?
Michael Horsch:
Since quite some time we have been noticing that many organic farmers have a lot of experience with regard to tillage, rotations and mechanical weed control we can benefit from if we are willing to deal with this subject. At the same time, the share of organically produced food increases and thus, also the need for appropriate machines. This is what is particularly interesting for us.
The knowledge from conventional farming can also have a positive influence on organic farming, e.g. with regard to the subject of humus formation.

Which experiences have you been able to gather in the organic sector?
Michael Horsch:
During the past five years, I, personally, learned a lot about straw rotting, humus formation as well as soil and plant illnesses from good organic farmers.
As I have already mentioned in the beginning, we notice that we can transfer our experiences from the conventional farming sector also to the organic sector. Moreover, we see that another sector might develop that we call hybrid farming and that combines the advantages of conventional farming with those of organic farming. We cannot yet assess how useful this approach is – time will tell.
Some time ago I was in Brazil and visited three of the largest farms in the country. It was striking that all three are sure that bacteria and enzymes are the future. They intend to completely replace their insecticides and fungicides with them. These Brazilian farmers manage some 10,000 hectare of their farms this way. Among others, they use lactobacilli they produce themselves.  
The combination of conventional fertilisers, plant protection with the approach to replace insecticides and fungicides by enzymes and bacteria and the use of hoes and harrows as a replacement of herbicides from today’s point of view still is more a vision than reality. But it would be an approach to push hybrid farming. We know exactly that the reaction of society and the food retailers would be positive. In my opinion, this is one possibility how farming could develop in the future.
It has to be our objective to produce food without residues. We firmly believe that this is also possible by using plant protection agents.

Feedback from a practical expert

Cura ST
The HORSCH Cura ST with 3-point linkage will be available in working widths from 6 to 15 meter. The core elements are the harrow tines that due to their special contour can be set to work very aggressively or passively. Thus, the Cura ST can be used in a very specific way – for protective, reactive work after sowing or for intensely combing out for example cleavers in crops. The spring mechanism has been designed in such a way that the force at the point of the tine is always the same for the whole release range of the tine. This characteristic allows for using it for example on ridges.
The overhead spring above the main frame of the Cura ST guarantees clearance. This design protects the plant and efficiently prevents that plant material is picked up.
The support pressure of the harrow tine can be comfortably adjusted hydraulically.
In the future, carbide coated tines will be used as an option to raise durability and operational reliability to a top level.

Do you think that it will be possible that one day chemical plant protection agents can be replaced completely?
Michael Horsch:
In the long term, I do not think that we will be able to replace chemical plant protection agents. As I have already mentioned the best possibility in my opinion would be to combine the approaches of organic and conventional farming.
At the moment we have to act on the assumption that glyphosate will soon be banned in Western Europe. France and Austria have already done so. And the constantly increasing pressure on European politics in Brussels will finally result in a ban of glyphosate in Germany, too. Right now, we cannot convince the party Alliance 90/The Greens that it makes sense to go on using glyphosate. But I can imagine that this might change when they would get more political power.
However, the conventional sector of farming has to think of a way how to manage without glyphosate. First and foremost, it means an increased use of machines that interfere with the soil. This, however, will cause a conflict of objectives. More mechanical tillage on the one hand means that on the other hand it will get more and more difficult to build up humus in the soil.

Tell us about the first practical experiences with the Transformer (hoe), Cura (harrow) and Finer (fine cultivator)?
Michael Horsch:
We have been dealing with mechanical population management for several years. However, the hoe HORSCH Transformer, the harrow HORSCH Cura and the fine cultivator HORSCH Finer still are relatively new machines. Only a few machines have worked in the field so far, but they have proven their worth.

Feedback from a practical expert

Finer 8 SL
We used the HORSCH Finer 8 SL in spring as well as for stubble and seedbed preparation in summer/autumn. The first use for shallow cutting and drying up the catch crops for sowing maize was extremely successful. The coulters cut all-over and shallowly at a depth of 3 to 4 cm and perform two tasks: On the one hand, catch crops that are still green, volunteer crops, weeds etc. are cut off and on the other hand, during the same pass, a fine crumbled seedbed is prepared. Moreover, the harrow at the Finer SL drags growth to the surface to dry it up.
We additionally prepared our fields with the Finer for summer sowing. Primary cultivation was carried out with a Terrano FM. We then fought emerged accompanying plants mechanically by working shallowly. The crumbling effect of the tools is excellent – a real advantage when preparing the fields for sowing. The shallow cultivation is cost-efficient, water-saving and reduces the depletion of humus.
We adjusted the coulter angle for our site only once and were then able to work without interruptions. Operational speeds up to 10 to 15 km/h are no problem at all.

In your opinion, does it make sense to hoe crops with a row spacing of 25 cm?
Michael Horsch: 
We again and again notice that farms with a high crop ratio in the organic sector sometime reach a point where a harrow alone is not sufficient. There are more and more discussions why we do not extend the row spacing. A hoe can be used for a row spacing of 15 cm, but the operational speed is extremely limited. With a row spacing of 25 cm for crop cultivation it is possible to work at a speed of up to 15 km/h. This is the reason why, in the organic sector, too, the demand for wider rows will increase so that you cannot only go through them with a harrow, but also with a hoe. This is also in line with conventional farming if there are problems with herbicide resistances.

In what way can the HORSCH Finer be considered as a replacement for glyphosate?
Michael Horsch:
The Finer is able to perfectly cut at a depth of 2 to 5 cm in loosened soils. The plant remains stay on the surface and dry up. It is very light and, thus, it is available with a 3-point linkage up to a working width of 12 m. Moreover, it is equipped with a spring tine that is turned to the front. The problem of a normal spring tine is that the optimum cutting angle changes permanently. We solved the problem by deliberately turning the spring tine to the front. This guarantees a perfect cutting of the soil surface.

From your point of view, what are the most important advantages of the harrow HORSCH Cura?
Michael Horsch:
The harrow HORSCH Cura is equipped with an infinitely variable spring adjustment system ranging from 500 g to 5000 g. It thus is ideal for any types of soil. Depending on the adjustment of the spring the Cura can work very aggressively. This is why we attached great importance to stability. We succeeded in equipping the Cura with an extremely stable design. As of next year, it will be available with working widths up to 12 m. An important feature is that the HORSCH Cura works without any electronic system.

What will happen in the sector of mechanical population management in the future? Do you already have plans for further machines in this sector?
Michael Horsch:
The constantly increasing organic sector is the stepping stone towards hybrid farming. Some of the consumers will accept higher food prices, others won’t. Today we do not yet know how many people will do what.
We are continuously working on new machines. In my opinion, in the medium run autonomy can also be integrated in the hoe and harrow sector. In this respect, I think of robot technology that carries out population management autonomously.

Feedback from a practical expert

Transformer 12 VF
This spring we used a prototype of the new HORSCH Transformer 12 VF on our farm. In addition to maize, we mainly hoed soybeans and sorghum. The Transformer was used on a total of 475 hectare. Our objective is to work completely without herbicides. Hoeing in too wet or too humid conditions when the weeds are growing very fast usually is difficult. High efficiency and mainly operational reliability are essential to be able to make optimum use of the window for hoeing quickly and efficiently. In this respect, our first experiences with the Transformer 12 VF have been excellent. The machine is equipped with a 50 cm row spacing, SectionControl for every row and a row guidance camera. The side sliding frame with camera works very exactly, thus allowing for hoeing close to the row.
With regard to the coulters we quickly learned that sharp points and a shallow setting angle are indispensable for an optimum work result.
We used finger hoes as additional tools that allowed for intervening in the row and remove weeds and grass weeds from the row.
When hoeing in soya it turned out to be advantageous to heap up the rows in such a way that the plant stands on a higher level. Thus, harvest losses are reduced considerably. The result was a clean population and the yield for soya so far amounts to an average of 4 tons/hectare.
For the future, we could imagine further equipment options for the Transformer, e.g. a spraying device for foliar fertilisation.