Sensor helps farmers solve cotton picking problem

Cotton farmers could reduce their use of chemicals and boost yield from their crops, thanks to a sensor system developed by researchers at Texas A&M University.

Cotton crops must be carefully managed because even small changes in their environment can drastically alter their growth, making them difficult to harvest by machine. The plants must also be managed to ensure that they produce fruit that turns into usable cotton, rather than growing excess vegetation.

To achieve this farmers apply a specially designed growth-regulating chemical that affects the amount of vegetation produced and the height of the plants. The new sensor system allows farmers to make sure that they do not over or under-apply the regulator.

The system is mounted on a tractor, allowing data about the plants’ height to be collected as the stalks of cotton interrupt the sensor’s beams. ‘An onboard computer compares this information with computerised data on plant physiology,’ said Steve Searcy, a professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. ‘The system can determine the plants’ biomass and ascertain how much growth regulator must be applied to ensure the optimum concentration in plants.’

Over-application of growth regulators can stunt development of the plants, while under-application can cause crops to grow too large, making it difficult to harvest – a particular problem when high rainfall washes away the regulator.

‘If you’re performing tillage, planting or spraying operations, why not invest just a little more to collect information you can use to make management decision to optimise your profits?’ said Searcy. ‘Such techniques could help give cotton producers detailed management information in a manner comparable to systems used in manufacturing.’

The system is currently specific to cotton, but with modifications it could be used for other crops, said Searcy.

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