Technology that controls weeds in crops by terminating seeds is benefitting the environment and boosting yields while saving grain growers significant time and money as they work to maintain global food supply.
Weeds in paddocks have long caused headaches for grain growers. They compete with crops for sunlight and water and harbour pathogens, leading to lower yields and poorer quality crops. And removing them is an expensive and time-consuming business.
Over time, farmers have relied on a range of methods for control – traditionally through cultivation, and more recently by applying herbicides. But these practices are problematic. Cultivation through tillage reduces biodiversity vital to soil health, herbicide resistance is increasing, and in several countries the use of one of the most prevalent herbicides – glyphosate – has been banned over health concerns. The search for alternatives is on the rise.
Enter Seed Terminator, an Australian start-up providing a weed control option that is not only beneficial for the environment but will also help increase productivity.
The Seed Terminator device is attached to a combine harvester, pulverising weed seeds to a sawdust-style consistency as crops are reaped. Typically, weed seeds are thrown back on to the field with other material as part of the harvesting process, but the Seed Terminator technology ensures they are killed before being returned to the paddock, therefore decreasing the overall seed bank. This reduces or eliminates the need for herbicide application and saves growers time and money in the process.
The technology, developed with the aid of a $300,000 Accelerating Commercialisation grant awarded under the Australian Government’s Entrepreneurs’ Programme in 2016, has been taken up with significant success in Australia.
And now the company is advancing its offering with a new product designed to meet demand from the massive European, Canadian and North American markets and has secured a new Accelerating Commercialisation grant of $1 million, awarded in 2022.
Technology tailored to market
The Accelerating Commercialisation grant has supported the development of a “quantum leap” in the technology, says Seed Terminator co-founder Mark Ashenden. The company’s Seed Terminator 2 (ST2) is made up of 50 per cent less components, takes up 50 per cent less space and is 50 per cent lighter than the original device (ST1).
Ashenden explains that these advances – particularly its lighter weight – will aid a smoother harvest in the Northern Hemisphere, where crops are greener and thicker than in Australia thanks to cooler conditions. A lighter device requires less power to drive it through heavier conditions, making the process more efficient, he says.
“In Australia, as our harvest continues, it generally just gets drier; but in Europe and Canada, it’s not only often wet but it can also actually snow,” he says. “Conditions are completely different, which is why a completely different solution is required.”
In another significant difference from the original terminator, the ST2 has been designed to be built into a combine harvester on the production line as the machinery is made.
To enable this, Seed Terminator has been working closely with a major multinational agricultural machinery manufacturer to ensure its protypes fit within the harvesters.
Ashenden says this development is not only more aesthetically pleasing, but also improves function. “Coming straight from the factory, it operates as part of the entire harvester,” he says. “And the Accelerating Commercialisation grant has allowed us to develop a product of sufficient quality suitable for a factory-fit global product.”
Point of difference
Working in partnership with the global manufacturer, which has more than 5000 branches worldwide and produces thousands of combine harvesters each year, will provide significant market advantage, Ashenden says.
“A factory-fit option has enormous potential and the expectation is that take-up could be between 61 and 65 per cent of orders by 2031,” he says.
The global manufacturer will also benefit in the market thanks to the point of difference the Seed Terminator technology provides, says i4 Connect commercialisation facilitator Dr Kerstin Schütz, who guided the company through the Accelerating Commercialisation service application process.
What she calls “super-smart features” developed by Seed Terminator co-founder Dr Nick Berry – such as an adjustable processing rate that can be changed depending on weed density in paddocks – will ensure the harvester always operates at optimal efficiency. And this offers a unique selling point. “For the manufacturer to be able to release a new combine harvester with features such as this is a real value-add for them,” Schütz says.
Demand will be driven not just by the clear productivity gains associated with reducing the weed seed bank, Ashenden says. It will also be spurred by the growing need to use herbicide alternatives, particularly in European countries where glyphosate has been banned, and globally to combat herbicide resistance.
Plus, there are many environmental advantages of returning crushed and benign seeds (along with other harvest by-products) to the paddocks through the Seed Terminator, he says.
“It provides a natural mulch, protects the subsoil moisture, and you are using less diesel and producing less CO2 because you’re not applying chemicals,” he says. “So it makes a big difference.”
Firming-up food security
The prospects in the market and potential impact on the ground are incredibly exciting, he says. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the Accelerating Commercialisation service and the guidance the company received from Schütz.
In particular, he says, her support as a facilitator was instrumental in helping the company’s proposal meet the funding criteria in the first place. “Kerstin’s guidance ensured we put up a thorough and compelling application,” he says.
Schütz says the company qualified for a new Accelerating Commercialisation grant because the ST2 was a new invention consisting of novel IP with a clear value proposition meeting genuine market need.
Combining Berry’s technical expertise with Ashenden’s business nous, Seed Terminator is an impressive team continually looking to improve and advance their products for the benefit of their users, she says.
As the focus on food security sharpens, Seed Terminator has demonstrated its ability to meet particular needs in the agricultural industry and ultimately, world food production.
“It’s great to see really smart ideas actually get to market, and this is a fantastic, environmentally friendly solution to a significant problem,” Schütz says. “I think this technology will have a huge impact.”