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Billion dollar blunder review

How good a job of chemical application do you really do?

That's a question Successful Farming magazine first asked farmers in 1980. As reported back then, "we found a painful answer to that plaguing question, and it's nothing to write the EPA about."

The magazine partially funded a study conducted by University of Nebraska engineers where two out of every three pesticide applicators back then made significant application errors. This was due to inaccurate calibration, incorrect mixing, worn equipment, and failure to read the product label.

These application mistakes cost farmers between $2 and $12 per acre in added chemical expense, potential crop damage, and threatened weed competition. Spread across the nation, these blundering techniques cost farmers a billion dollars per year!

The study confirmed a theory held by agricultural engineers, agronomists, and chemical experts that the biggest problem with agricultural chemicals is the people who apply them.

Since then, sprayer technology has taken a rapid leap forward. Tools like sprayer monitors and sensors have put farmers' minds at ease when it comes to chemical application.

Another factor that has changed is the size of sprayers and farms. It's a pressure cooker out there at spraying time. With hundreds -- and for some, thousands -- of acres to spray within a tight time frame, every minute counts. Fact is, it takes lots of time to calibrate a sprayer with a 120-foot boom. Calibration and sprayer maintenance can take a backseat to time concerns.

"When I ask a group of farmers at a workshop how many calibrate their sprayers, maybe 10% to 15% will raise their hand," says Jim Wilson, South Dakota State Extension pesticide education coordinator. "I don't know if that's typical, but I'm concerned that just because we have technology like rate controllers and flow sensors that farmers can be lulled into a false sense of security. Just because the sprayer control panel says you're applying 10 gallons per acre doesn't mean that's what going out through the boom and sprayer nozzles."

Over time, equipment can wear and lose accuracy. "I had one individual tell me he had a speed sensor that had adhesive magnets," says Wilson. "One of the magnets fell off, and it took him a while to realize the speed indicated by the controller was drastically different than he thought. These are mechanical pieces of equipment that can wear and corrode."

How good a job of chemical application do you really do?

That's why Successful Farming magazine has teamed up with several Extension agricultural engineers to see if matters have changed over 26 years. We'll evaluate a number of sprayers in several states for application accuracy in a project that you'll read about in a future issue.

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