The phrase “wind tunnel” likely conjures up images of aerodynamic testing for race cars or state-of-the-art airplanes. But at Land O’Lakes, we use high-tech wind tunnels in pursuit of a more down-to-earth goal: creating the perfect spray droplet for crops.
That’s right. Working at the gleaming WinField United Innovation Center in River Falls, Wis., world-class researchers at WinField United -- Land O’Lakes’ agricultural inputs and insights business -- use a massive indoor wind tunnel to study spray dynamics, measuring exactly how and where tiny droplets of crop protection products are dispersed. The goal? To optimize pesticide effectiveness and on target application and, ultimately, allow farmers to be more efficient as they spray their crops.
The need for precision
Because field conditions can be inconsistent and unpredictable, researchers at the Innovation Center have found a way to replicate that environment inside the lab. Specifically, they use a wind tunnel to test various spray nozzles, ingredients, tank mixes, and drift and droplet deposition.
Combining a patented wind tunnel system with cutting-edge diagnostic tools and know-how, world-class scientists gather and analyze data from simulated applications. Spray application variables are all rigorously tested to measure drop size and determine how quickly the droplets move.
“Once we get the results, we can compare how much of the spray would be susceptible to drifting away,” explains wind tunnel engineer Dan Bissell. Minimizing drift, he adds, allows for more targeted application -- which means farmers can use exactly the right amount of product on tolerant crops for optimal performance.
Measuring spray droplets: Wind tunnels, robot arms and lasers
The droplet. It’s not a unit of measure many of us think much about, but for farmers who have to spray acres of fields with costly crop treatments, the droplet is essential. That’s why WinField United scientists use the most advanced equipment available to study how it behaves. And that’s where the nearly 20-feet-high wind tunnel comes in.
In reality, the tunnel is more like a giant loop, straight on top and bottom, and generates speeds up to 20 mph. When the wind tunnel kicks into action, a laser shoots across the bottom section to measure spray droplets as winds hit the set speed. Simultaneously, a robotic arm moves to spray the precise droplet the team is working on. This detailed work all happens under tightly controlled conditions. While the weather outside is typically harsh in the winter, inside the tunnel, it’s 75 degrees and humid -- a constant that allows for optimal measurement.
From lab to field
So, what becomes of all that research and data? The cutting-edge products and tools WinField United’s scientists and researchers develop in the lab go on to be tested in fields – first on-site in Wisconsin, then at farms across the country. Products like InterLock®.
“Before we bring products to a farmer’s fields, we make sure they work in our fields first,” says Mike Vande Logt, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of WinField United. “All of our products are developed with farmers top-of-mind.” He adds that by having boots on the ground -- both in the lab and in the fields -- WinField United is poised to accelerate the typical one- to five-year turnaround time for developing new products, helping get cutting-edge products into the hands of our retail-owners first.
Next up: Wind tunnel #2
As a leader in agronomic R&D, WinField United is already developing a second wind tunnel – this one set up to more closely simulate field conditions and expand testing into aerial applications. This one will be 30 feet tall and reach speeds up to 175 mph.
“Understanding spray drift requires pushing the scientific boundaries and practices of current research,” says Bissell. “Our two wind tunnel facilities help to position WinField United as the technological leader in understanding and resolving spray drift issues for our owners.”
Thanks to rigorous, data-backed research -- and a few massive wind tunnels -- WinField United and Land O’Lakes are poised to lead when it comes to modernizing agribusiness. Our forward-looking approach will not only drive profits; it will ensure that farmers can sustainably grow more food with fewer resources. That’s science for real life.