At what point9s the cost of owning a sprayer equal to the cost of hiring sprayer services?

The market for self-propelled sprayers is a lot more crowded these days.

This winter, Case IH dealerships began handling the Patriot line of sprayers, which was added when Case Corporation purchased Tyler Industries last year. Willmar and Spra-Coupe sprayers are seeing broader distribution since AGCO bought both lines, also in 1998. And Deere & Company entered the market with its 185-hp 4700 self-propelled sprayer two years ago.

This self-propelled trend is driven by the reality that the number of large-acreage growers is increasing, even as the overall number of farms falls. At the same time, the shift to transgenic crops and more over-the-top products has meant more postemergence spraying and a higher number of treated acres.

"We feel that these industry changes will increase the demand for spraying and sprayers," says Jim Allen, central U.S. regional manager for Case IH Application Equipment. "High-acreage farmers may find it economically feasible to own their own self-propelled sprayers."

Given the state of the farm economy, the timing might not be ideal for introducing new machines with price tags in the six-figure range. But Allen says interest in the new Case IH sprayer lineup has been strong. More than 400 Case IH dealerships are handling the line. Additional sales and service support is being provided through 28 distributor locations, which will continue to handle sprayer and floater sales to the custom application market.

"Obviously, the economy is going to temper demand somewhat," says Allen. "But because of the increased number of acres that have to be sprayed, we expect demand to remain fairly strong compared to other farm equipment categories."

Break-even point. With price tags ranging from $100,000 to $150,000 for most self-propelled sprayers, who can afford these rigs, anyway?

An analysis by Dr. William Edwards, an Iowa State University (ISU) economist, shows that owning a $125,000 spray rig breaks even with Iowa's average $4/acre custom rate at about 6,200 treated acres. The analysis includes ownership costs, as well as repairs, fuel, lubrication and labor at $8/hr.

"The analysis is based on treated acres, not on the number of acres farmed," notes Edwards. "If you run about 3,000 acres and spray them twice, on average, you are roughly at the break-even point." A farmer with 1,500 acres of specialty crops sprayed four times during the season also has 6,000 treated acres and also would be near the break-even point.

The analysis is based on relatively conservative assumptions, including a field capacity of 35 acres/hr. That's about a third of what is theoretically possible with the 90-ft. boom on the example rig, if you exclude travel and fill time.

Maintaining control. Jack Holland, who farms near Alleman, IA, just north of Des Moines, fits the scenario almost to a tee. He and his son Steve manage about 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans, which are sprayed twice, on average. Last year, they purchased a 150-hp Patriot sprayer with a 90-ft. boom. The Hollands also handled spraying chores on 1,000 acres for neighbors.

Holland figures his costs are in the $2 to $3/acre range. That's somewhat lower than the ISU calculation, since his sprayer cost less than the 185-hp rig in the example.

The sprayer was outfitted with a 750-gal. tank, GPS-based swath guidance and a chemical injection system. The self-propelled unit replaced a pull-type sprayer with an 80-ft. boom and a 1,000-gal. tank.

"We purchased the Patriot for speed, accuracy and to free up a tractor," says Holland. "We needed the sprayer tractor to pull a second planter. Our overall investment in the Patriot isn't much more than a similarly equipped pull sprayer and tractor."

The Hollands operate the self-propelled rig 1 to 2 mph faster in the field than they ran their previous sprayer. Road speeds are higher, too, which reduces time back and forth to the nurse tank. The sprayer can move faster, says Holland, because its four-wheel hydrostatic drive has infinitely variable speeds, compared to more restricted ranges on a tractor. The sprayer's superior suspension system also is important.

"The sprayer has a far better ride at higher speeds than a tractor," he says. "It takes out the hard jolts. This sprayer has a better ride than any self-propelled sprayer I have tried."Reducing crop damage was another important factor for the Hollands, who grow corn and beans in 15-in. rows. The self-propelled sprayer has 12-in. rubber. His pull rig had 18-in.-wide tires on the tractor, plus extra wheel tracks from the pull sprayer. "With the other system, we knocked down twice as much crop," he says.

To reduce crop damage, the Hollands spray fields crossways, at 90 to the row. The GPS swath guidance system made that practical.

"Foam will drop down in between the plants, so you can't see it," he says. "With this parallel swathing, you can look ahead all the time with no skips and no overlaps. It's easier on your neck. After I gained confidence, I quit using the foam altogether."

Maintaining as much control over weed management as possible is a critical factor in the Hollands' decision to do their own spraying. "We've always done our own spraying," he says. "Spraying is one of the most important things we do on the farm. We want to be able to decide when to make applications."

Before settling on a Patriot sprayer, Holland compared it with other brands. At the time, the sprayer wasn't available through a farm machinery dealer, but a distributor handling the Patriot - Heartland Agri Supply, Ames, IA - was just a few miles away.

"I have no complaints at all about this sprayer," he says. "It is well-engineered and very user-friendly."

The liability factor. If you decide to shift away from custom-spraying services and purchase your own sprayer, be aware that you are taking on liability in case of drift or poor performance because of misapplication.

"If you are able to do a good job of spraying, handling the job yourself can provide more flexibility in an operation," says Edwards. "But if you are not prepared to do it right, hiring a professional applicator is the best opt ion."