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When seed production becomes robotized : meeting with Bejo

On October 9, 2019

When seed production becomes robotized : meeting with Bejo

If there is any agricultural sector where innovation belongs, it must be seed production! For several years now, farmers, multipliers and seed companies have made the choice to use Oz on their plots. Today, we are meeting with Jérôme Pain, deputy director of operations at Bejo to learn more about his experience with Oz.

Bejo and Oz: a long-standing relationship

A long-time partner of Naïo Technologies, Bejo has been able to perform many tests with Oz in different crops and on different sites. Through this article, Jérôme Pain presents us with his work within the Pontigné station (in Maine-et-Loire). But in a future article, we will also focus on the feedback of the team from Saint Martin Lalande (in the Aude department), a site that is also equipped with an Oz!

Bejo is a seed company specialized in vegetable species with extensive experience in selecting and producing varieties for organic and conventional farming. This company of Dutch origin is well established in France with many stations for seed multiplication.

Jérôme Pain is deputy director of operations on the Pontigné site, where the team of thirteen permanent employees can be composed of up to thirty and more employees during the season. He is in charge of managing the various crops and managing the staff as well. It should be noted that within the 9 ha of tunnels and 120 ha of open-field crops, a significant portion of the farm is AB certified (AB for “Agriculture Biologique” in French, meaning “Organic agriculture”). This certified part covers respectively 2 ha under shelters and 40 ha in open fields.

In Pontigné, this is not about selecting but rather about multiplying: indeed, it is the essential step to increase the quantity of seeds of the selected varieties, so as to sufficiently supply market gardeners. This process is not intended for Bejo only, since several partner farmers also carry out the multiplication of seeds under contract with the company which, thereby, provides them with the support of its technicians.

“We must find alternative solutions: workforce or robot”

Jérôme joined the company in 2014. The first contacts with Bejo were the same year. Based on these first tests, the idea is to use Oz in open fields of AB beets and onions. But eventually, the machine is increasingly being used under shelters on crops that were grown conventionally, because it is necessary to overcome deficiencies on authorized herbicides. According to Jérôme “we must find alternative solutions: workforce or robot”. It is true that hoeing can be achieved after the machine passes several times, but it is never enough and a certain time must be devoted to manual work in rows.

The important use of the robot started two years ago on open-fields organic onions and on beets as well. Each of the 75 cm wide spacing was already adapted to the machine and all it took was a good leveling of headlands.

The work on beets was more delicate for it is a less straight crop and takes longer to become visible to the robot sensors. Jérôme thus explains that he will use the robot in manual mode, with the remote control in hand, to guide it for the first passages on these sown crops. He states that this happens when “even on a tractor, it appears difficult to visualize the seed or transplanting rows, while it’s easier on foot with the robot.” Future technical developments that would allow earlier passing are the answer the need for production.

The work carried out with Axel Banon, technical advisor at Naïo, made it possible to include new versions of the robot. According to Jérôme, this benefited guidance, in particular on the beets plots where missing plants are common.

Effective arrangements and protocol

The hoeing machine could not pass in tunnels where the variety of crops is important (cabbage, fennel, leek, carrot, parsley…). It was therefore necessary to work with a small hoe or a wheel hoe. Expectations were high regarding the benefits Oz could bring, but the arrangements were also more complex. Indeed, the characteristic of seed production lies in the obligation to follow strict protocols such as the precise distribution between male and female plants. Space is also valuable under shelters! Under these so-called tunnels, Jérôme chose to go from 50 cm inter-rows (too tight for Oz) to double rows with spacing of 30 cm, which provided the robot with aisles of 80 cm to pass.

The Bejo team hence managed to extensively increase the hoed surface area. Hoe and hand work is now focused on the double row while Oz can handle inter-rows and aisles. This adaptation has been possible on crops such as carrots, celery or fennel. For example, regarding fennel, Jérôme gives us the ‘tip’ about using the comb harrow right on the row with arm extensions, which passes well provided that the plant is rooted and the user is not aggressive. He thinks that this work on the row enabled him to reduce substantially the emergence of weeds on a plant supposedly fragile.

Oz had a considerable impact on reducing working time. Time is still devoted to weeding, but more as part of a work in pairs: someone manages the robot and complements the work on the rows, while the robot works in the tunnel. The need for grassing control is important because the seed producer is concerned with an overwhelming presence of weeds that would disrupt plant pollination and even the work achieved by the teams, as they very often go through the plots and tunnels during harvests.

Organizing work is important when integrating a new tool. The robot being shared with the Auxere site in Maine-et-Loire, it is necessary to plan its use for the two or three weeks we have it, before it goes to work with the colleagues. The planning therefore depends on the production schedule but also on the irrigation frequency to be alternated with hoeing sessions.

This organization has been facilitated by the will to gather a team. Jérôme is not the only user since two of his co-workers know how to operate the machine on site, and they do not hesitate to contact Axel if they have a question.

Our partner concludes the meeting with his assessment on the use of Oz “when you manage to follow the protocol with the robot, you never have to go back for it becomes easy”. According to him, we achieved an optimization of Oz in Pontigné thanks to all the tests and necessary arrangements.

Learn more about the robot Oz: https://www.naio-technologies.com/en/agricultural-equipment/weeding-robot-oz/

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