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13 smart sprayer tips

Spring is right around the corner, and preparing equipment for the upcoming season can pay dividends, especially if you own a sprayer.

“It wasn't long ago that sprayers were a niche product,” says Cory Venable, John Deere product manager. “Now they have become an essential product for effective crop production. More and more producers are seeing the value and return on investment that a self-propelled sprayer offers. And as we continue to watch farm size grow, the economics of ownership makes more sense.”

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Disease ignites trend

Mark Sharitz of AGCO Application Equipment agrees. He says the trend of farmers owning their own sprayers really began in 2005 with increased awareness of the Asian soybean rust phenomenon.

“This disease worked its way north from the Mississippi Delta, propelled, in part, by a couple of major hurricanes that year, and farmers were panicked. With timely fungicide applications necessary to bring soybean rust under control, there were not enough sprayers to go around,” he says. “Farmers did not want to be put in a position to have to wait.”

Growers who purchased a sprayer quickly learned it gave them some insurance against soybean rust, but it also offered other benefits.

“They learned that owning a sprayer enabled them to have more control over which crop-protection products were used, when they were applied, and even where they were purchased,” says Sharitz.

There's another factor that has accelerated the trend toward more on-farm sprayers: Today's machines are much easier to operate than their predecessors.

“Ten years ago, you really had to have special training to drive and operate one efficiently,” says Sharitz. “They were much more complicated than they are today. It was almost like flying an airplane. Now, with guidance systems and sophisticated controls and ease of operation, it doesn't take long for you to get up to speed on how to use the unit.”

No matter what color sprayer you purchase, all manufacturers have the same end goal: Making sure the sprayer is doing the appropriate job to enhance yields and to protect crops. Your goal is to make sure your sprayer is in top condition to tackle the season ahead.

Prep time

Because their four Hagie sprayers cover 60,000 acres a year, Erich Hasler knows being proactive is paramount. “When it comes time to look at maintenance and to get them ready for spring, we want machines that are as sound as possible, especially since we're covering so many acres,” says the Atlanta, Indiana, seed corn and soybean grower.

For Hasler, a chemical/fertilizer manager for Beck's Hybrids, sprayer preparation begins in mid-December with top-to-bottom machine inspection. “We go through and check fluids and filters,” he notes. “We also look at the mechanics of the sprayers to make sure bushings aren't out of whack and there are no cracks or places that are worn.”

Before you head to the field, Hasler and industry experts offer their insights to improve your sprayer's performance.

1. Calibrate. “Applying chemicals with a sprayer that is not calibrated and operated accurately could cause insufficient weed, insect, or disease control, which can lead to reduced yields,” says Erdal Ozkan, an agricultural engineer and spraying technology expert with Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

“Calibration should be conducted several times during the application season, not just annually,” says Paul Haefner, AGCO product specialist. “Make sure the machine is measuring distance accurately and each boom section is calculating the correct number of acres as the machine is applying. Make sure the flow meter is calculating gallons accurately. Do a catch test on the nozzles you'll be using to make sure they are in the specified range.”

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Because 90% of their crop is grown for seed corn, Hasler says calibration is key to keeping sprayers spot-on. Rather than rely on meters to help with calibrating, they opt for a different method.

“We actually put the sprayer on a scale that breaks on 5-pound increments rather than use meters, because a meter is one more thing that has to be calibrated,” he says. “Whether it's a nurse tank or the sprayer itself, if we pumped 320 gallons into the sprayer, for example, and went out and sprayed that out and the scale says we used 305 gallons, to me, that is a good enough percentage to get started because we're within 4% to 5%.”

The process is repeated because their goal is 100% accuracy. “But what we also like to see is how many gallons are truly in the hose from the tank to the nozzle,” he continues. “It would take a lot of math to figure that out. Typically, if we're within 1% or 2%, we're Ok. However, we also want to make sure it doesn't go any higher. If it varies any higher than that, we have other issues.”

2. Keep it clean. “A clean sprayer is essential to preventing damage to susceptible crops from herbicide contamination in the spray tank,” cautions Haefner. “Sprayers should be cleaned out as soon as possible after use to prevent deposits of dried spray residue. Never let a sprayer sit overnight without cleaning.”

3. Mind the nozzles. “How the chemical is placed on the target is as important as the amount applied,” says Ozkan. “Know which types of nozzles are on your sprayer and whether or not their patterns need to be overlapped for complete coverage.”

Make sure nozzles aren't partially clogged. Clogging not only changes the flow rate but also can change the spray pattern. “Never use a pin, knife, or any other metal object to unclog nozzles,” cautions Ozkan.

“Typically, we replace the rubber diaphragms on top of the nozzle every year,” says Hasler. “When you shut that nozzle off and it's dripping, you're wasting chemical. If the diaphragm is working correctly, it shuts that nozzle off so no matter what, the chemical will stay within the sprayer. I don't know how many dollars that is. But I know it's more than what it would cost to replace the diaphragms.”

4. Avoid streaks. The most common causes of nonuniform spray patterns are nozzle tips with different fan angles on the boom, uneven boom heights, and clogging. “They can all cause streaks of untreated areas that result in insufficient pest control and economic loss,” says Ozkan.

5. Check the boom. To achieve proper overlap, it's important to set the proper boom height for a given nozzle spacing. “Conventional flat-fan nozzles require 30% to 50% overlapping of adjacent spray patterns,” says Ozkan. “Check catalogs for specific recommendations for different nozzles.”

Hasler adds, “The majority of the time, the boom is sitting there floating and not moving a lot. It goes back to making sure everything is tight so you don't have a lot of vibration, which can carry down to the machine having issues.”

6. Monitor travel speed. “Increasing the speed by 20% may let you cover the field more quickly, but it also cuts the application rate by 20%,” notes Ozkan. “Similarly, a reduction of speed by 20% causes an overapplication of pesticide by 20%, which is an unnecessary waste of pesticides and money.”

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According to Hasler, conditions play a key role in how quickly they travel across a field. “In the spring, we're anywhere from 8 to 10 mph, but that depends on the conditions in the field,” he says. “We select nozzles so we can get the best coverage for that particular application. So if we're spraying a soil-applied herbicide in the spring, we're going to be looking at a 300-micron level. We want bigger droplets because, typically, there's going to be a lot more wind.”

And having the largest droplets when they reach that 10-mph threshold is critical to proper application.

“When it gets to 10 mph, we want to make sure we have the largest droplets. That's because we know that chemistry works in the field, and it's going to move throughout that soil profile and give us good coverage across the soil,” Hasler says. “When it comes to fungicides, we want a little smaller droplet – a 150- to 200-micron level droplet – because we know that chemistry doesn't move very much on the plant. We want to be able to get that plant covered as much as possible.”

7. Check spray pressure. “Variations in pressure will cause changes in application rate, droplet size, and spray pattern,” says Ozkan. “At very low pressures, the spray angle will be noticeably narrowed, causing insufficient overlap between nozzle patterns and streaks of untreated areas. High pressure will increase the number of drift-prone droplets.”

8. Minimize drift. “This can be addressed in several ways,” says Mark Burns, Case IH sprayer specialist. “For example, you can put a drift retardant product into the chemical mix, which will help minimize the amount of drift. There are different types of nozzle tips you can purchase, which also can change the droplet disposition. Maintaining the correct boom height will help with drift.”

Ozkan says farmers can also spray in early morning and late afternoon when there is less potential for drift.

There is technology available that can aid in minimizing drift. “We have a spray technology called AIM Command, which allows you to hold a consistent pressure even as the speed of the machine changes,” says Burns. “You can speed up and slow down but still maintain the correct size droplet that aids in drift control.”

Burns says there are certain things beyond your control – like wind – that can cause drift. “However, it's also about making a good, conscious effort to know when the wind has picked up and to realize when it's probably time to shut down until conditions improve.”

9. Be ready for repairs. “The window of opportunity can be fairly compressed with a sprayer, and uptime is critical,” says Burns. “Unlike a tractor or combine, you most likely have one piece of equipment when it comes to a sprayer. You probably don't have something else sitting in the shed you can just go grab in case of a breakdown.”

Hagie's Jim Williams says, “Stock up on parts you may need such as extra nozzle bodies, tips, and hose clamps. As long as you're gathering parts, it can also be helpful to put together a small toolbox with the tools you'll need like a utility knife, pliers, nut driver, wire, and zip ties.”

10. Incorporate technology. “Take advantage of all the new technology available to maximize application effectiveness and to minimize problems with drift and under- or overapplication,” says Haefner.

Sharitz says, given the technology available today, “There is simply no reason to not achieve proper placement of the product you are applying, and there's no reason to waste product.”

11. Keep good records. “The new technology available today allows for very precise record keeping,” says Sharitz. “Farmers are very smart. They always learn new things based on what they did last year and the years before that. Having highly accurate records of what was applied where, when, and under what environmental conditions is key to this effort.”

In case there is a problem, Hasler and his team want the most accurate data possible. “We use Watch Dog on the sprayers, and that ties directly into Viper Pro,” he says. “At any given instance during that application, we can hit a button and it will record information on where we are, wind speed, direction, and humidity. We really focus on having the tools and instruments to help document exactly what was going on at any given moment on any given day and being able to replicate that scenario on paper six months later.”

12. Read the manual. “No matter what new piece of equipment you buy, each comes with a manual or user's guide,” says Burns. “If you're like most folks, you tend to not read it unless you run into a problem. And that is probably one of the poorest choices you could make, especially with the type of investment you have in equipment these days.”

To get the most benefit from your sprayer, review the manual annually. “Understanding how your sprayer works and brushing up on the electronics should be done yearly,” says Burns. “For instance, go in and review the rate-control manual. Refresh your memory on how to set it up and what you need to change.”

13. Think safety. “Read and follow all label instructions, especially when it comes to Personal Protective Equipment,” advises Williams.

Tip Talk

Because a spray tip makes the connection between chemistry and targets in the field, Hypro's Mark Mohr says the best results are achieved if you select tips that are right for your application. “A progression of tips should be used as the crop canopy and pests change through the season, shifting the requirements for flow, pattern, and droplet size most effective for the task,” he says.

Thanks to spray tip guides and online selection tools, getting the right flow is no longer difficult. “This allows you to focus more on selecting a spray pattern that penetrates canopies and covers the target, and on using a droplet size that provides the right balance between not-too-small droplets for drift reduction and not-too-large droplets for coverage,” he says.

The tip must do well under various pressures to deliver flows for a range of sprayer speeds. “Tips with pressure capabilities from 15 to 100+ PSI are better able to match these speed ranges than tips with smaller pressure ranges,” he says.

Since tips wear over time, they should be measured or, in the absence of testing, replaced regularly. “Today's plastic tips can outwear stainless tips six to one.”

If you're considering air-induced tips, be aware of a misconception. “This technology moved from tips that produce large droplets to minimize drift to tips that produce much smaller droplets better suited to cover hard-to-control targets,” says Mohr. “Ten years ago many air-induced tips focused primarily on minimizing drift. But today's tips are focused on coverage and efficacy.”

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