Spray Like A Pro

Applicators and farmers learn proper techniques at Asmark Institute course.

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Asmark’s KJ Johnson studies a field map projected on the floor. Students learn strategies for approaching each field, Image by Jim Patrico

Training in proper spray techniques has never been more important.

Once upon a time, a spray rig wasn’t much more sophisticated than a garden sprinkler towed behind a lawn tractor. Unfold the boom, climb on and spray.

Not so these days. Today’s self-propelled sprayers have more computing power than a roomful of old-fashioned IBMs. They are packed with high-tech tools such as automatic section control, wireless data transmission and direct injection. These are not your father’s sprayers.

The world in which they work also has changed. Gone are the days of loading glyphosate into the tank and heading out to the field. Today, you have to carefully read the labels for a variety of products; you have to know how to mix those products; and you have to closely follow label directions on how to apply them.

Let’s not forget the cost. You easily can drop $250,000 on a used self-propelled sprayer. Plus, crop-protection products are expensive.

With that much technology and that much investment, are you confident you know how to get the most out of your sprayer and the chemicals? Are you sure you have the training to use them safely?

Your dealer can teach you how to operate the machine and its technology. A chemical rep can give you good information about his company’s products. And, a few community colleges offer classes.

New Option. Here’s a new learning alternative: The Applicator Training Course (ATC), in Bloomington, Illinois, has four-day courses aimed at beginning applicators, both custom operators and farmers. The classes are hands-on and color blind (the facility has four different brand sprayers for students to drive). The courses put heavy emphasis on safety. Because of the turmoil surrounding dicamba products, the program also emphasizes correct handling and application of those chemistries.

The ATC got started last summer when the private, not-for-profit educational organization Asmark Institute received special funding from AGCO. The idea was to fill a learning void for professional applicators.

Allen Summers is president of the Asmark Institute. In making a pitch for ATC, he says, “While spraying mostly glyphosate-based chemicals for the past decade or so has been relatively simple, it has produced a fleet of operators that only know how to spray under the most narrow of parameters.”

As a result, Summers says, “[Applicators] may know which buttons on the sprayer to push, [but] they do not understand how the sprayer system works or what to do if it breaks down. [In the future, they] will need to have the knowledge and skills to spray a wide variety of crop-protection products under some of the most regulated parameters ever faced.”

Intensive Study. This is “not a one-day cram-it-all-in course,” says Bob Wolf, one of the ATC instructors.

Wolf, a spray technology guru and owner of Wolf Consulting and Research, has spent three decades teaching farmers and custom applicators the right ways to spray. At the ATC, Wolf teaches risk management, chemistry, adjuvants, drift reduction and cleanout.

His teaching partner is a farmer and a retired custom applicator with 35 years experience. Greg Yoder’s subject matter at ATC includes recordkeeping, road and personal safety, planning field patterns and calibration. Yoder also teaches the mechanics of application equipment and instructs students on how build their own working sprayer “hose by hose.”

Wolf and Yoder say they do not teach technologies specific to individual brands; there are too many on the market to do the subject justice. Instead, they teach basic technologies such as GPS, radar guns and speed control. Importantly, they also teach the thought processes behind effective spraying.

ATC accepts students who have fewer than three years application experience. Some are brand new to the business. In the first year of ATC, almost all the students were custom applicators. Some also had farming experience.

Wolf, for several years, conducted a sprayer training traveling course aimed primarily at custom applicators. The one-day sessions covered a lot of ground quickly. ATC gives him the chance to slow down and concentrate on the subject matter. That includes reading labels.

Read. Read. Read. Wolf says many students/applicators “don’t read labels as well as they should.” It might not be a big deal if you use only one or two products. But, in the dicamba era, not reading a label correctly can lead to major problems.

Wind and drift also are dicamba-related issues. “A lot of people do not understand the problems they can avoid or drift they can prevent, or situations they might get into driving that machine,” Wolf says.

His students do in-field exercises that require them to measure wind speed and direction. They also receive Wolf’s explanation for the causes and effects of temperature inversions and how to cope with them.

Importance Of Cleanout. Even before dicamba hit the fields, cleanout was a teaching topic for Wolf. At ATC, it is of even higher significance.

To demonstrate the complexity of the science, using direct injection, Wolf injects a blue dye into a simulated 90-foot boom sprayer, starts a water rinse and measures the time it takes the dye to disappear--usually 10 to 12 minutes. Later, he has the students return to the boom and run more water through it. Blue dye almost always reappears. Still later in the day, same process, same result.

The demonstration makes the point, Wolf says, that cleanout must be thorough, or bad consequences may result.

Calibration is another hot topic. It’s key to getting good results from those expensive chemicals. Trouble is, few operators calibrate their equipment as they should, “especially those with relatively new equipment. They think they have all those electronics in the cab, and that makes it OK,” Wolf says.

Manual calibration means using a collection cup and a stopwatch. It can take at least 30 seconds for each nozzle. “Multiply that times 70 nozzles,” Wolf says, and you may have a bored and tired spray operator.

An electronic meter can take one-third the time of manual calibration, but not everyone has that option.

Documentation. “The hardest thing for these guys to grasp is how important recordkeeping is,” Yoder says. “After you do 15 to 20 fields in a day, you are not going to remember details about what you did first thing in the morning.”

He provides students with sample recordkeeping forms but emphasizes each applicator/farmer should customize forms for his own system. “We teach communication,” Yoder says, meaning the sprayer operator must provide others on the farm meaningful records of each application.

Today’s sprayers often come with digital recordkeeping technologies that can cut out the paperwork. An operator can bring a memory stick back to the farm after spraying, or he can transmit application data wirelessly through telematics systems.

While ATC doesn’t teach those technologies, Wolf says, farmers and applicators must find their own best way for better keeping track of their work. “The whole recordkeeping issue is supercritical for farmers. They can be very, very lax in the records they keep, and we have learned that over the last season.”

Results of sloppy recordkeeping can be as minor as a skipped pass or as major as a lawsuit.

Safety. The classroom at the ATC is packed with personal-protection equipment on display. There are masks and gloves, and visors. A mannequin wears goggles and a fluorescent vest. Rubber aprons lie on a counter. You get the idea.

Wolf and Yoder explain how each piece of equipment contributes to personal safety.

Outside the classroom sit five sprayers and a road course that winds through woods, crosses a railroad track and goes over a narrow bridge. Students hop in the sprayers two at a time and drive the course with Yoder, watching via strategically placed video cameras. At one point, the students must navigate safely under a laser beam set up to simulate overhead electrical wires.

Yoder also teaches techniques for safe and effective delivery of chemical to target. That means proper agitation for each product and correct nozzle selection. It also means learning how to discern a worn tip. “A lot of stuff some farmers wouldn’t know,” he says.

Preparation. Yoder also gives instruction on planning a strategy for each field based on its terrain. A proper field pattern can save time and materials, and it can make spraying more effective. For instance, hilly fields create unique problems for a “teeter-totter effect” on the boom. A good strategy for approaching hills can minimize boom tilt and result in applying the spray at proper height above the crop.

The art and science of spraying have become more complex, Yoder says. “This is not just a ‘here we go’ business anymore. You really have to train and learn.”

The ATC offers several sets of courses throughout the year for $575. Last year, about 150 students participated in seven sessions. The schedule for 2018 is not yet established.


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