If you think high-capacity sprayers are made only for custom applicators, David Webster wants to challenge your assumption. Webster, director of sales for AGCO Application Equipment, says sales of self-propelled sprayers have significantly increased in recent years, with growers accounting for the bulk of the growth.

“In 2004 the self-propelled sprayer industry sold 2,500 units, and close to 75% of those went to custom applicators,” says Webster, during the company’s 2010 Product Introduction held recently in Jackson, MN.. “Last year, 4,900 units were sold and 60 to 70% of that market is now made up of growers. The market has really flip-flopped.”

Grower business

The product traditionally aimed for the grower segment has been the SpraCoupe, a light-duty self-propelled sprayer line with tank capacities of 400 to 725 gal. SpraCoupe dominates this class of sprayers. However, in the last few years as farms have grown in size, more farmers have looked to the larger size of sprayers, which are the high-capacity machines used by custom applicators. These machines include the RoGator, with tank capacities up to 1,300 gal., and the even higher-capacity TerraGator, a liquid and dry fertilizer machine.

Steve Koep, AGCO Corporation’s vice president of sales, North America, says three factors ar e driving the recent boom in large-applicator sales: “One is the Asian rust phenomenon that presented itself in 2005. The second is the advent of glyphosate, which made it relatively easy for anyone to spray. And third is increasing farm size, which drives the economics of ownership. So those three factors together created the perfect storm in the mid-2000s, and the industry went from being a commercial business to a much more focused grower business.”

In response to the demand, AGCO launched five new models of its RoGator line for model year 2010. And, for the first time, the company is offering through its dealer network the TerraGator NMS (nutrient management system) high-flotation liquid or dry nutrient applicator that allows for precision application of animal manure. (See www.farmindustrynews.com/tv for an inside look at these new models.)

Webster says the TerraGator model is already being used by farmers in Europe where nutrient application is strictly regulated. “Europe is typically 10 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of its regulations,” says AGCO’s Webster. “So we expect this product to really take off in coming years.”

Economic sense

So how do you know if you should buy a high-capacity applicator? Kevin Dhuyvetter, agricultural economist at Kansas State University Research and Extension, advises farmers to not just do what their neighbor is doing but to calculate whether buying makes economic sense for their farming operations.

“There’s no doubt buying makes sense on a lot of farming operations, especially the larger ones,” Dhuyvetter says. “But smaller [size] farmers may not be able to justify the purchase and may be better off hiring a custom applicator to do the application work for them.”

He says that 10,000 to 12,000 total acres sprayed per year has historically been the break-even level where it makes economic sense for a farmer to buy his own self-propelled sprayer. However, that figure has less meaning lately because of a variety of factors. These factors include the increased availability of used sprayers, whether or not a farmer custom applies, the increased use of fungicides, which warrant a second or third pass across a field, and the quality of service a farmer gets from a custom applicator.

Because of these factors, Dhuyvetter says, you should pencil out the numbers for your own individual situation. You should take the ticket price of the new or used sprayer you want to buy and divide that number by the total number of acres you plan to cover, including multiple trips, to come up with a per-acre cost. You can then compare that cost to what it would cost to have your inputs custom applied.

Dhuyvetter and his colleague Terry Kastens have developed an Excel spreadsheet called Ownspray.xls to help with this calculation. (Go to www.agmanager.info and click on Farm Management and then Machinery.)

Dhuyvetter says there are a number of advantages to owning your own sprayer. One is a saving on chemical costs. “Growers feel they can get chemicals cheaper if they have their own sprayer,” he says. “Another one is ease of use. Sprayer technology is so much easier to use today than in the past. Another advantage is how close their fields are compared to [custom applicators]. Farmers actually have an advantage in terms of efficiency of use. So a number of things come into play.”

In the end, he says, operators of larger farms often can apply herbicides and fungicides cheaper with their own sprayer than a custom applicator can. For smaller operations, Dhuyvetter says that hiring someone else for the application is cheaper. “It often comes down to how efficiently I use that piece of equipment,” he explains. “As a general rule, larger operators can be very competitive with custom applicators, but it’s more difficult for smaller farmers to be competitive.”