When it comes to helping farmers win the battle against weeds while reducing reliance on chemicals, you might say one South Australian company is crushing it. Adelaide-based Seed Terminator produces a mechanical device of the same name which pulverises weed seeds at the harvesting stage, before they get the chance to grow up and run riot among crops. This week they manufactured their 500th machine and marks a milestone for South Australian Manufacturing and Australian Farmers alike.
The brainchild of the company’s co-founder, farmer/inventor Dr Nick Berry, the Seed Terminator tackles a problem inherent to crop farming: the fact the harvesting process is the weed’s best friend. Because when the crop is cut, once the chaff and grain have been separated, the harvester flings the chaff back onto the ground. This includes the seeds of weeds that have escaped or resisted the various stages of herbicide spraying – in other words, the toughest customers of all. When these survivors are redistributed, the whole harvesting process has simply set farmers up for problems the following year.
‘Problems’ may be an understatement. In 2016 Australia’s Grain Research Development Council estimated that weeds cost Australian grain growers about $3.3 billion annually, and – because weeds deprive crops of sunlight, water and important nutrients - yield losses of 2.76 million tonnes. They also put the cost of herbicide resistance at $187 million a year, for herbicide treatment and other weed control practices.
Repeated use of the same herbicides has led to herbicide resistance. A small minority of weeds of one particular species, thanks to a slight genetic variation, would be resistant to the herbicide. Over years of using the same herbicide, these survivor weeds would flourish and eventually dominate. The herbicides needed to be used more often and in stronger doses.
Nick’s invention is a smart and cost-effective solution. The Seed Terminator is an attachment that retro-fits to most combine harvester brands, and it uses multi-stage hammer mills to pulverize weed seeds along with the chaff so they can’t sprout. What's left is a fine sawdust-like mulch that actually puts nutrients into any soil that it’s spread upon. Installed on a typical harvester, the system can distribute that mulch up to 14 metres. It’s a one stop weed killer and mulcher as well as grain harvester.
“We’ve got farmers who are anywhere from 600ha to 20,000ha and they all run different brand harvesters and different size ones, but they all have sustainability issues with herbicides. They need an integrated approach, to be using herbicides but to protect them from resistance, and drive down the weed population with something mechanical. Our vision is to reach as many farmers as possible, as quickly as possible and as economically as possible. Affordability is really important. While we develop the tech, we also need to reinvest in making it better.
The first pilot Seed Terminators were introduced in 2016, and now there are 500 machines in operation worldwide, each retailing for around $115,000. The units utilise innovative manufacturing techniques developed in conjunction with manufacturing partners in Adelaide. Director Mark Ashenden shares “we are a proud South Australian company, with the Seed Terminator designed, tested, manufactured and shipped globally from right here in Adelaide.”
Seed Terminator also conducts ongoing trials in a number of universities in both Australia and overseas to test the ability to kill weeds. The University of Adelaide testing found the device able to kill 99% of notoriously tough ryegrass seeds, with this result recently backed up again in 2021. “Seeds come in different shapes and sizes so you need to apply different amounts of energy to kill them.”
While the Seed Terminator is getting uptake in Europe, Canada and the USA, Farmers in Australia are very innovative. “Farmers care deeply about their land and its ability to produce food for the world. That long-term attitude isn’t only in Australia but it is pretty unique.”
“It’s a generational thing – they want to hand down the farm to their kids and grandkids.”
“Farmers see the issue. They see it doesn’t make any sense to spread weeds with their harvester,” says Nick. “With Seed Terminator, they are getting revenge on their weeds."
Meanwhile, Nick sees it as Seed Terminator’s mission to stimulate change, through commitment to R&D and developing further mechanical solutions to help farmers protect their crops. “We’re not only looking at how we can smash seeds but the whole system - how can we mechanically intervene to make farming more sustainable. We want to look at this holistically.”