Sprayer operators recognize the importance of matching their sprayer settings to the crop to optimize efficacy. For example, spraying a protective fungicide in field tomato should require a different approach from spraying a locally systemic insecticide in staked peppers. Knowing this, many operators make ad hoc changes and then wait to “see if it worked”. A process is required that empowers the operator to make systematic changes to their program and assess coverage immediately.
Such a process would require some fundamental understanding of how droplets behave, the location of the target, and the physical structure of the crop. This would be tempered by broader concerns such as weather (e.g. wind, rain and inversions as they affect coverage and spray drift), pest staging, and sprayer capacity (i.e. the sprayer’s ability to cover the crop in the window of time available). Finally, there has to be a mechanism for the operator to make a single change, then assess the impact in a quick, convenient, and yet quantitative manner.
There are always exceptions to a rule, but an operator looking to assess spray coverage might consider the following process:
- Understand how the pesticide works. Not only do certain tank mixes and weather conditions affect pesticide efficacy, but the mode of action plays a big role. A contact product must hit the target, while a locally systemic offers more latitude and can withstand less coverage.
- Use IPM to determine where the pest is, whether it’s at a stage of development where it is susceptible to the spray, and where the spray needs to be to affect it. For example, if the pest is deep in the canopy, or under a leaf, or in the flower, this is where spray coverage should be targeted and assessed.
- Understand droplet behaviour.
- Coarser droplets move in straight lines and are prone to runoff (especially on waxy and vertical targets). They rarely provide acceptable canopy penetration in dense, broadleaf canopies and do not give under-leaf or panoramic stem coverage. The Coarser the droplet, the fewer the sprayer produces, reducing droplet density. However, they are not prone to drift and can tolerate higher winds.
- Finer droplets slow quickly and tend to move in random directions without some form of entrainment (e.g. air-assist). While they are not prone to runoff, they can get caught up on trichomes (leaf hairs) and may not reach the leaf surface. They provide improved canopy penetration and some under-leaf and panoramic stem coverage, but their lack of momentum leads some operators to use higher pressures to “fog them in”. Higher pressures are generally not advisable because they increase the potential for drift and often result in less spray available to the crop.
- Consider the droplets’ point of view. Look along the droplets potential path from nozzle to target. If there’s something in the way, consider re-orienting the nozzle using drop-arms, or a nozzle body that can be adjusted to change the spray direction.
- Understand the impact of water volume and travel speed. Higher volumes improve spray coverage by increasing the number of droplets. Slower speeds give more opportunity for spray to penetrate the canopy and reduce the potential for drift, leaving more spray available to cover the crop.
- Use water-and-oil sensitive paper to assess spray coverage. The operator should pin or clip papers in the crop, in locations and orientations representing the desired target. Wire flags and flagging tape mark their locations:
- Spray using water to establish baseline coverage.
- Retrieve the papers and replace them with a new set in the same locations and orientation.
- Make one change to the sprayer set-up and determine whether or not coverage was improved.
- Continue to tweak the sprayer until coverage is improved. Sometimes, improving spray efficiency means maintaining coverage while using less spray.
- Understand how much is enough. Knowing whether to drench the target, or be satisfied with a low droplet density depends on how the pesticide works and whether or not the pest is mobile. As a general rule for foliar insecticides and fungicides, 85 drops per square centimeter and 10-15% surface coverage should be sufficient.
Now, a few caveats: Know that under-leaf coverage is VERY difficult to achieve and that improved coverage does not necessarily mean improve efficacy. Further, know that a systematic approach requires time and effort, and should only be performed in weather conditions the operator would spray in.