Whether you spray your weeds yourself or hire someone to do it for you, there are lessons you can learn from custom applicators. It's their job to know which crop protection products work and which ones don't. They understand how and when to apply chemicals and how to reduce drift. And they know how to buy, calibrate and maintain equipment to get the best performance.

Farm Industry News asked these pros how corn and soybean growers can get the biggest return on their crop protection dollars. The question is important because spraying is a major input cost. It is especially important this year as margins continue to be tight. And although pesticide prices have been relatively flat over the last year, nitrogen costs are up 15 to 20%, putting pressure on growers to cut costs in other areas.

“The cost of nitrogen fertilizer is up tremendously,” says Kent Syth, ag equipment dealer with Ag Systems, a distributor for Case IH sprayer equipment. “So they have to look at every part of their operation to see where they can spend their dollars wisely. If they limit nitrogen, they limit yield. So they need to look at all their inputs, whether it is spray or fertilizer or seed, to see where they are getting the most bang for their buck.”

Here are the tips from the pros.

  1. Maintain your equipment.

    Syth says equipment maintenance is critical to applying your crop protection products accurately and efficiently. “If they own their own sprayer, is it calibrated properly?” he asks. “Do they have the right nozzles? Are they worn?”

    Syth says equipment should be calibrated at least once or twice a year before starting a job. Start by checking ground speed calibration as measured by the tractor or sprayer radar gun. Measure a given distance and compare it to what the onboard computer reads. “If you measure out 400 ft., the computer should read 400 ft.,” he says. “If you get anything less, you must change your calibration constant.”

    Next check the flow rate. Syth recommends you do “catch tests” off the nozzles to see if the rate is the same across all sections. “The computer controller in the cab only reports what is going to the whole boom and doesn't distinguish what is going to individual sections,” he says. If the flow rate is different from what the computer reads, you should inspect the hoses. Hoses can look good on the outside but can collapse on the inside or deteriorate over time.

    Finally, check the nozzles for wear. According to Syth, holes in a nozzle will get bigger, especially with products that require the use of ammonium sulfate, such as Roundup. When holes get 5% bigger, you should change the nozzles. If you are doing high-volume spraying, you should change them every year. “While changing nozzles costs a little money, the cost is minor in comparison to the money you are spending on chemicals,” Syth says.

  2. Use drift agents or drift reduction nozzles.

    If you are in an urban area and concerned about spray drift, Syth recommends you buy drift reduction nozzles that produce larger droplets that don't drift as much. Spray deposition or anti-drift agents, such as Agriliance's Placement or UAP's Target, also can be used to keep the product on the plant rather than in the air. “They used to be hard to mix, and if you put too much on you could screw up the batch,” Syth says. “But product formulations have gotten better. And people are realizing it is worth the money from an environmental standpoint and a chemical effectiveness standpoint by keeping the chemical on the weeds rather than in the air.”

  3. Research generics.

    Dan Keep, agronomist and custom application coordinator with Western Reserve Farm Cooperative, Middlefield, OH, says the hot issue this year in his area is generics versus brand-name chemicals as more products come off patent. “One thing I would tell people is to make sure you are comparing apples to apples,” Keep says. Different formulations of the same product are being sold, and you need to check the labels to see if the product contains the active ingredient amounts and additives you need before buying.

    “For example, there are some generic Biceps that are very low priced,” he says. “But the metolachlor that is in the generic Biceps is the older formulation. And to equal 2.1 qts. of the Bicep 2 Magnum you have to put 2.4 qts. of the generic material. And that is something the manufacturers are not telling people.”

    Generic glyphosate, out for the last five years, is another example. “Some of these generics are not as high quality as name brands and don't have as good a quality of surfactants in them,” Keep says. Growers need to check the labels carefully. “And make sure they are buying it off of a reputable supplier, not off the back of a truck somewhere,” he adds.

  4. Time it right.

    Mike Kaczmarek, agronomist and custom spraying coordinator for Farmers Cooperative Elevator Company in Buffalo Lake, MN, says proper timing is key to good product performance. “By that I mean, know your weed size and make sure the rate of chemical you are using is in accordance to the size of weed you are spraying,” he says.

    Kaczmarek says many growers underestimate the size of their weeds and spray too late. As a result, they have to increase the rate to kill the weeds, which costs more money. The mistake is especially common with growers who use glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide. “People using glyphosate figure it is a cure-all that they can use any time to kill all the weeds, when in effect real critical timing is needed,” Kaczmarek says. On the flip side, some growers spray too early and miss weeds that have not emerged at the time of spraying.

    To avoid mistiming, Kaczmarek recommends you scout your fields starting three to four weeks after planting to determine the type and size of weeds present. You should then recheck the fields once or twice a week for the remaining growing season to monitor rate of growth and better assess when to apply chemicals.

  5. Seek reliable recommendations.

    “When deciding on a weed control program, some growers are bypassing local or university agronomic experts and traveling up to 100 miles to buy product at a discount,” says Roger Breyfogle, agronomy manager at Cottonwood Coop Oil Company, Cottonwood, MN. “However, they may be basing their chemical purchase on information developed for another growing region.”

    He reminds growers to ask suppliers questions before deciding on a control program. “And find out what the bottom-line cost per acre is in each circumstance,” he says. “You may not have to go 100 miles to get recommendations and a good deal.”

  6. Know your risks.

    Generally speaking, the lower the cost of the control program, the greater the performance risk you are accepting, according to Breyfogle. “Usually you get what you pay for,” he says. You need to be aware of the risks and how you will handle them. He adds that the increased risk of lower-cost programs may be overcome by being willing to resort to cultivation or rotary hoeing when needed.

  7. Plan for the future.

    Reducing dollars spent on weed control or oversimplifying your control program may create weed pressure or resistance that will be more expensive to control in the future. According to Breyfogle, continuous use of one family of chemistry or use of excessively reduced rates of a herbicide can cause “species shift” to a population of weeds that are resistant to that chemistry. Instead you should vary the chemicals you use and use the rates recommended for the weed pressures you have to ensure long-term effectiveness.

  8. Preplan and prepay.

    Prepay discounts are usually a higher annual percentage rate than the interest rates on operating loans, Breyfogle says. As a result, early-season prepays usually achieve the best price advantage.

    In turn, preplanning your herbicide requirements reaps two benefits. In the off-season, dealers can spend more time making recommendations. And they can order products ahead to ensure timely delivery.

  9. Read the label.

    Johnny Schaben, owner and custom applicator with Farm Services Center, Ellinwood, KS, says growers have to read labels on new products more carefully. Although many of the new products contain the same ingredients, they may vary in amount of active ingredient and additives.

    “You may think you have an economical product but have to use more of it, or additives may have to be added to it,” Schaben explains. “So you really have to read the label more carefully to be sure you get the proper ingredients at the proper rate for the weeds you need to control.”

    Manufacturer Web sites are a good place to start to make product comparisons. Schaben recommends you start with a product you know and use it as a base to compare other options that may be more economical.

  10. Buy the right nozzles.

    One of the mistakes Schaben sees is buying one nozzle and using it for all applications. “There may be nozzle types that will work for everything,” he says. “But there are some nozzles that may work substantially better for certain applications.” Schaben says you need to be aware of the types of nozzles available and to change nozzles according to the product you are using to enhance performance.

    To facilitate nozzle changing, carousels are being made on sprayers that hold three to four nozzles at one time, according to Dennis Gardisser, professor and associate department head — extension engineer with the University of Arkansas. “You just rotate it to the nozzle that is going to be best suited for that specific application,” he says. “That modification allows growers some flexibility to have different nozzles with them all the time.”

  11. Hire the best.

    Gardisser says the most important tool in any application is the skill and knowledge of the applicator. “We can take old equipment in good repair and operate it efficiently and do a good job and we can take the best equipment and do a very poor job,” he says. “The better the person understands all the parameters, including how the chemical works and what droplet size to use, the better the job is going to be.”

    To ensure you hire the best applicator, Gardisser recommends you look not only at whether the person is licensed but how trained and experienced he is. “Did he go to school?” he asks. “Did he attend agronomy classes during the winter months to stay up on the latest tidbits? Was he knowledgeable on nozzles and why to pick one nozzle over another? Do they have the latest equipment? Is it properly calibrated?”

    Also be sure to check references. “When it is going to cost you as much in the application as the chemicals, you want to make sure that the money is spent effectively,” Gardisser says. “So it is prudent to check around and not to use the person you've always used.”

  12. Keep accurate records.

    Good records are important, Gardisser says, because they can help explain why an application was excellent or poor and can serve as evidence in the event of a drift claim. Records should be detailed enough to tell the full story without further explanation by the applicator.

    They should include start and finish time for jobs and weather parameters, including wind speed and direction, temperature and relative humidity. Weather should be recorded at the start and finish of each job and any time the weather shifts.

    Also record the exact mixture of the chemicals applied. “A lot of times growers will do a tankmix but won't record all the components,” Gardisser says. “For example, if they were putting in atrazine, they would just write it was an atrazine application when in fact it may have included a drift retardant or surfactant that may be important to know later.”

  13. Reduce drift.

    Timothy Weber, seed representative and crop advisor for Myers, Lexington, IL, says drift is becoming more of a liability concern. As a result, growers planning to apply their own chemicals need to be aware of the conditions in which they are operating.

    For example, you need to monitor wind speeds and spray pressures so as not to exceed label recommendations. Use of drift adjuvants at proper rates is also an effective method of reducing drift, Weber says. You also should be aware of temperature inversions and make sure the nozzles are new and up to date to reduce volatilization and particle drift.

  14. Use a seed treatment.

    Tom Wells, branch manager and crop production salesperson for Dakota Coop, Dakota, IL, says the biggest issue in his area of Illinois is low soybean yields in the last three years due to pests and poor weather conditions. “Last year, aphids were the problem,” Wells says. “The year before that it was bean leaf beetles.”

    Because of these problems, Wells is advising his customers to look at the new seed treatments, which are designed to give systemic protection throughout the plant. “It seems to be giving the best control, response and end yield,” Wells says. “The only other option is to spray. But most farmers are not willing to spend the extra dollars for spray when results have been inconclusive.”

  15. Put down a preemerge product.

    Wells says in corn you should use a preemerge herbicide like Lumax or Balance Pro early to control problem weeds like giant ragweed until you come back and make your post application. “Using a grass control product will not control giant ragweed,” he says. “And in a lot of cases the giant ragweed are getting too far ahead of the corn and are causing economic damage to the crop.”

  16. Scout your fields.

    Finally, all of the experts we talked with stressed the importance of scouting fields after planting to look for weeds. “If farmers are proactive instead of reactive about crop scouting, they can catch a problem before it causes an economic loss,” Wells says.

Weed species and pressures can vary from year to year with different growing conditions and the effectiveness of the previous year's weed control, according to Cottonwood Coop's Breyfogle. “So growers need to continually check their fields to identify the weed species and pressures that exist,” he says.