Smart Sprayers

High-Tech Features Make Sprayers More Versatile, Increase Farm's Productivity

Jim Patrico
By  Jim Patrico , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Dan Sutton outfitted a Hagie sprayer with drop nozzles that can apply fungicides and nitrogen simultaneously. See "Make Your Machine Multipurpose" for details. (Progressive Farmer photo by Dave Tonge)

Sprayer engineers have been busy. Those clever folks (and their colleagues in related fields) in the last few years have turned a simple idea -- mixing crop-protection chemicals with water and spraying them on fields -- into a high-tech marvel. Today's sprayers read prescriptions, reposition booms to match changes in terrain, run at 35 mph down the road, shut off nozzles to prevent overapplication and, in general, make crop farming more efficient.

In a time of low commodity prices, that is vital.

Efficiency and productivity don't come cheap, of course. A half-million dollar price tag for a new, top-of-the-line sprayer is not rare. So a cost/benefit analysis is important. And cost is one reason new sprayers often come with a la carte pricing. Add this feature; subtract that feature. Find the mix that best fits your operation's needs.

If a new sprayer -- with all its bells and whistles -- is not on your radar right now, take a second look at your old sprayer. Sometimes old dogs can learn new tricks. Or, at least older sprayers can add more productivity features.

Here's a look at some of today's tools to get the most out of a sprayer.

SECTION CONTROL

"The return on investment of section control is a no-brainer. It obviously saves on input costs," says Dave Mulder, product line marketing manager for John Deere. The ability to shut off sections of nozzles in already treated areas saves expensive chemical costs and reduces possible crop damage. It also lessens the chance of overspray onto areas that should not receive treatment.

Section-control hardware and software are readily available as options on new sprayers or as retrofits. Providers include AgLeader, John Deere, Raven, TeeJet, Topcon and Trimble. For automated control, a GPS system and auto-guidance are necessary.

Technology for section control has become more sophisticated, and sprayer manufacturers have made it more precise by increasing the number of sections in booms. Software and the proper equipment even allow the creation of "virtual sections." For those looking for the ultimate in section control, nozzle-by-nozzle shutoff is available. More on this later.

PRESCRIPTION FEATURES

OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) offer factory-installed monitors and displays for nozzle control and prescription application. Apache, for instance, recently introduced a display screen that lets the operator control many machine functions on a touch screen that swipes like a tablet and is configured so that work tasks look like apps.

Some monitors are exclusive to manufacturers, but often what comes in the cab originated from an outside provider, such as AgLeader, Raven and Trimble. Older monitors can easily be updated.

NOZZLE BODIES

To control individual nozzles (those "virtual sections" mentioned earlier) requires pulse-width modulation (PWM) technology. PWM controls nozzle output with electric solenoids to keep pressure and droplet size constant no matter what the speed of a sprayer moving through the field. The same technology can be used for precise section shutoff or nozzle-by-nozzle shutoff. "It's going to change things," says sprayer guru Bob Wolf, Wolf Consulting and Research LLC.

Nozzle maker Capstan Ag Systems brought PWM to the market more than 20 years ago. Acceptance was slow but has picked up speed as other precision-farming technologies such as auto-guidance have taken hold. Case IH has offered PWM as an option since 1999, says Mark Burns, marketing manager. In Patriot application equipment, the systems are named AIM Command and AIM Command Pro.

Besides auto section control, PWM makes using variable rate easier across a field, Burns says. It also allows variability as you make turns. The inside sections of a boom travel slower than the outside sections when turning, and PWM can change application rates to accommodate the difference in speeds of each section.

Raven offers Hawkeye retrofit kits for PWM nozzles.

More traditional nozzle technologies also have exploded during the last few years. Companies like TeeJet, Wilger, Greenleaf and Delavan make nozzles and nozzle bodies for every application. That's important as new chemical compounds hit the market with specific requirements.

"Choosing the right nozzle can make a huge difference in doing a quality job," Deere's Mulder says. Accuracy, coverage and drift control all hinge on proper nozzle selection.

Deere and TeeJet are among the companies that offer online and app-selection guides to match nozzles with tasks.

New Holland offers a unique enhancement to nozzle performance. Its Air Nozzle system features outlets spaced every 10 inches along a boom. They use air pressure to blast spray droplets deep into the crop canopy for more complete top-to-bottom leaf surface coverage.

BOOMS

Proper boom height is another key component in maintaining accuracy, coverage and drift control. Changes in terrain can cause booms to be too high or too low over the target. Auto boom height technologies can minimize such problems and have become "wildly popular," says Conor Bergin, AGCO tactical marketing manager for Challenger RoGators.

AGCO sprayers use either Raven or NORAC boom height control systems. Other manufacturers have their own systems as options on new sprayers. Trimble and Bestway also offer boom height control systems for both new and used sprayers. Most systems work with three or more ultrasonic sensors to maintain a preselected height. Others use mechanical systems such as gauge wheels, which work well on very hilly terrain.

Sprayer manufacturers also address the boom height issue with their structural designs. Case IH's Patriot sprayers, for instance, have a center rack to hold the boom assembly. It is two-piece structure that creates a virtual pivot point to reduce tip motion. Deere uses a unique swing-link suspension system to help control boom height and to minimize the "teeter-totter effect" that occurs when a sprayer makes a turn, sending one side of the boom higher than the other.

Breakaway systems are important features to prevent serious damage when booms strike an object or the ground when turning. Deere offers a three-way breakaway system that can move forward, backward or up and away to preserve boom integrity.

RIDE AND COMFORT

Chassis suspension systems play an important part in keeping booms level, but they also make operator experience more pleasant and productive. Over the years, manufacturers have upgraded cab suspensions and added seats that actively minimize jarring from rough terrain. When Equipment Technologies redesigned the cabs of Apache sprayers in 2014, "We put a major emphasis on it. A guy can order leather seats now and get all the comforts," says Jeremy Hurt, Apache, senior application specialist.

Across the industry, manufacturers offer positive pressure cabs to isolate an operator from chemical fumes. Heated and cooled seats are popular options, as are air-cushioned seats.

Visibility is also important, especially as sprayers now work at up to 25 mph and have roading speeds of 35 mph or more. Bob Schnell, specialist program marketing for Guardian sprayers by New Holland, touts the wraparound windows and lack of sight line obstacles: "I can see every nozzle body from the seat of that cab."

BETTER VISIBILITY

Nighttime spraying sometimes can be more efficient because winds diminish when the sun goes down. The difference in visibility between lighting on old-style and newer sprayers is like night and day. Most companies now offer three choices of light sources: halogen, HID (high-intensity discharge, commonly using xenon) and LED (light-emitting diode).

Halogen lights are standard on many machines and come in a variety of configurations and positioning. HID are like "stadium lighting," says Case IH's Burns. LED can light a workstation at a sprayer's side or run in a strip along the length of a boom for maximum visibility from the cab.

All three sources are easily retrofitted on most machines.

PERSONAL PREFERENCE

Boom position has been a subject of debate for as long as there have been self-propelled sprayers. Rear mounts dominate the industry, but front mounts have fierce advocates. New Holland and Hagie are among the companies that make sprayers with front-mount booms. New Holland also sells models with rear-mount booms, and Schnell says 80% of its customers buy the front-mount configuration. They perceive front mounts as being more productive. Given their high-crop clearance, they also offer versatility for use as late-season applicators.

"If you are going to spend $300,000 to $500,000 on a sprayer, why not make it as versatile as possible, which in my mind means front-mounted?" Schnell says.

COMBO USE

Versatility is one of the major trends in sprayers. The ability to work as both crop chemical and fertilizer applicators adds value to the machine and can reduce owner cost per acre (see "Make Your Machine Multipurpose").

Both front-mount and rear-mount sprayers can double as liquid nitrogen applicators by adding drop nozzles. Some machines also can be converted to dry fertilizer applicators by trading a liquid tank for a materials box and adding a spinner spreader. The AirMax 180 dry-delivery system by RoGator uses a materials box to apply dry fertilizer through a boom.

Liquid systems might be limited by weight. For example, not all 135-foot booms can support the added weight of drop nozzles across their full length. And different types of drop nozzles weigh more than others. So before thinking about a retrofit, check with your OEM dealer for specs.

CLEANOUT

In this era of multiple chemical use, rapid and thorough cleanout can save precious time. Many new sprayers offer rapid-rinse systems. Deere, for instance, has an automated system that can single-, double- or triple-rinse with high, medium or low liquid volumes. It sequences valves in the proper order to properly rinse the system.

Deere and other companies offer an air-purge system to push the last drop of chemical from the lines. Owners often can retrofit sprayers with air-purge systems using existing onboard air compressors meant for air ride assistance.

Manufacturers and aftermarket suppliers also offer end-cap aspirators to reduce air traps and ensure quick cleanout from areas that are dead zones in many older-model sprayers.

A direct injection (DI) system is one of the most efficient ways to simplify and speed cleanout. Rather than requiring a large tank to hold premixed chemicals, a DI system uses multiple smaller chemical tanks and a larger water tank. As water comes through pipes toward nozzles, DI systems inject the right amount of chemical into the stream. A result is less plumbing to clean after use. Just as important, DI systems allow a sprayer to carry a larger variety of chemicals.

While not every machine can be retrofitted with DI, many can. It's one more way to get the most from your sprayer.

(BAS)

Jim Patrico