Coming out of the coldest, and perhaps harshest, winter in years, it’s probably difficult to get into a spring mindset, yet the crop season is nearing. And that means getting all those tools ready. When it comes to the sprayer parked in your machine shed, the past few years have been a time of unprecedented investment.

“Over the past two years, we’ve seen the market for self-propelled sprayers skyrocket,” says Greg Milstead, director of sales, application equipment, AGCO, who spoke to Farm Industry News during this year’s National Farm Machinery Show. “Industry sales rose 25% in 2012 and about 8% in 2013.” And he adds that sales continue to rise into 2014.

A number of factors have converged to bring focus to farmer ownership of application equipment, including both pull-type and self-propelled sprayers. And while Milstead sees a solid future for custom applicator work, farmers are taking more control of application timing in their operations, as well.

That’s what drove Don Zolman’s move to buy a new sprayer last year. The Warsaw, Ind., producer upgraded his sprayer to a new New Holland rig with a front-mount boom. Along the way, he picked up some top technology for his farm business.

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“We were just looking for improvements in technology,” he says. “We went with a sprayer with a front-mount boom to get better visibility.” He notes that managing wider booms is trickier, and he felt the front-mount position of the boom was what he needed.

He also got swath control, for more precise application, but at this time he is holding off on autosteering for the sprayer. “We keep looking at it, but we have hilly land, and in that ground you have to have the right kind of antenna,” he says.

Zolman’s new sprayer pushes up his capacity since he replaced a 750-gal. machine with a 1,450-gal. model. “It gives you a lot more capacity to spray, and with this rig we can cover more acres in a shorter period of time,” he says.

Major upgrades

The decision to buy a new sprayer does involve a significant investment, but as Zolman notes, a new sprayer can bring along other features, as well. His rig has chemical induction, which reduces his exposure to chemicals, and comes with a flush unit in the tank for easier cleaning and switching chemicals.

Self-propelled sprayers have come a long way in recent years, adding a host of new technologies for improved accuracy.

From enhanced cabs to better suspensions to more accurate spraying systems, companies are engineering their machines for increased productivity and improved performance. However, the question of whether to buy a new sprayer or upgrade the sprayer you have is getting more complicated as well, given some third-party technologies that have come to market in the past few years.

The first step in making that decision is to evaluate the spray rig you have, and while you’re at it, getting it ready for the upcoming season makes sense, too. Eric Spandl, technical marketing manager, WinField, talked with Farm Industry News about a few key steps for maximizing sprayer performance for the 2014 season.

He starts with the fact that you need to get that sprayer ready for spring, but that process probably started last fall.

“Hopefully the sprayer had a thorough cleanout, was checked out and winterized before it was stored, so it’s in good shape for spring,” he says. “But as you look at your sprayer, evaluate a number of things.”

  • Run a plumbing check to make sure fittings are in good shape and there are no leaks.
  • Inspect areas prone to contamination and make sure filters and tanks are truly cleaned out.
  • Do a mechanical check of self-propelled sprayers to make sure the engine and drivetrain are ready to roll.
  • Run a check of your on-board electronics to make sure those are working properly.
  • Check sprayer nozzles for wear and pattern accuracy.
  • Calibrate the sprayer.

“You want to make sure you have your calibration dialed in, and there are a number of ways to do this, from the jar and stop-watch method to SpotOn calibrators,” Spandl says. “You want to make sure you’re getting the right output with a good pattern and there are no skips or worn-out nozzles.”

While engineers are adding more technology to sprayers to enhance accuracy and performance, there’s a key area where the “rubber meets the road” that is still sometimes overlooked: the spray nozzle. The rise of nozzle turrets also means you’re often dealing with multiple nozzles on a sprayer all at once (see story at right, “What’s on your turret?”).

“Do you have the right spray nozzles on that turret?” Spandl asks. “If it’s older equipment, there are newer nozzles out there that do a better job, and even if its new equipment, you need to consider the types of spraying you’re going to do.”

Upgrade old or go new?

You can add plenty of aftermarket tools to enhance your current sprayer (see next page, “Tricking out your sprayer”). But this includes some factors that may need more consideration, as well. Dave Lovell, AGCO application field sales and marketing support manager, notes there are a lot of ways to enhance an existing sprayer. Yet many questions can arise.

“You want to start asking yourself, where are you going with your operation? Am I going to embrace all the technology?” he asks. “It’s fairly easy to upgrade the controller, though it can require some wiring changes. It depends on how old your sprayer is and whether upgrading makes more sense or buying new makes more sense.”

He notes that if you’re going past a controller upgrade to the basic operation of a self-propelled sprayer, perhaps to go to autoguidance, it may be better to trade up. “Some older sprayers are not wired or don’t have the hydraulics to add autosteering easily,” he notes. “Older machines without CANbus may be challenging to upgrade for section and rate control.”

There are third-party add-ons that incorporate solenoid controls and work with ISO-compliant controllers to maximize a sprayer’s performance.

WinField’s Spandl notes that adding pulse width modulation from a third-party firm can improve the operation of a sprayer. “You can add that technology to an existing sprayer relatively easily,” he says. Yet he adds that a newer sprayer may offer bigger boom choices, more comfort in operation and enhanced fill times for better productivity, too.

In the field

Spandl, who has a lot of experience testing how different products move through a sprayer through working with WinField’s Spray Analysis lab in River Falls, Wis., has learned there are ways to maximize the sprayer in the field, and sometimes it starts with one key factor: patience.

“With all the things you might be putting in the tank — as we try to make more efficient passes over the acre — you want to stop and think, what is the right order for mixing, and you want to be patient,” he says. “When you put that chemical into the inductor, give the tank time to mix.”

He says the choice may be more complicated, too, since some products don’t play well with others, or application timing might be different enough that a second pass is needed.

“You want to ask yourself whether you can mix everything or whether you need a couple of passes. The timing may not be right for a fungicide when you need to apply glyphosate; you might have to split those up, and that does add some complexity to the process,” he admits.

The changing makeup of weeds is a driving force for greater farmer ownership of sprayers. Zolman, the Indiana farmer who upgraded in 2013, notes that he wanted better control of his spray timing. It’s no reflection on his local custom applicator, but knowing product was going on when he wanted it was a big deal to him. “Most custom applicators do a good job, but sometimes you’re on a pretty big list, and there’s the timeliness of application to consider,” he says.

Zolman also does his own spraying and sees value in going over his field as part of his scouting program. “I use a scouting service, and along with the farming practices I do, I can see where I can make improvements in control.”

No matter your choice — upgrade your existing sprayer or trade up for a newer machine — you’ll find plenty of options on the market for enhanced performance. As the complexity of crop protection application rises with the opportunity to enhance plant performance with better weed control, spoon-feed crop nutrients, and control insects and diseases throughout the season, that farmer-owned sprayer will play a bigger role.