Question of the Week: Fine Sprays for Fungicides?

The following question arrived from one of our prairie clients last week:

“A retailer is promoting the use of hollow cone nozzles to be used on field sprayers (20” spacing) to apply fungicides which he claims out-perform any regular and twin fan tips. Claims:

  • create an extra fine droplet for maximum coverage on the canopy
  • use less water, less time spent filling
  • apply at 3.5 gpa
  • add vegetable oil to reduce drift

“So his direction to a specific customer was to use the TEEJET CONEJET TXA8001VK nozzle at  80 psi – travelling at 10 – 12 mph to achieve a 3.4 gpa application rate with a ‘very fine’ droplet size.

“What are your thoughts?”

Here’s how I answered (edited for clarity):

That recommendation sounds familiar – it originates from a consultant with experience in South America, where this idea is promoted to improve (aerial) spray productivity.

I fundamentally disagree with his approach. Adopting and promoting it is not only illegal (contravenes every modern label’s water volume and spray quality requirements), it also puts a generation’s worth of stewardship efforts on drift management at risk.

To be balanced, let’s explore the attractiveness of this approach. Finer sprays do provide superior coverage and save water. Every child knows this. Finer sprays also go places in the canopy where the coarser sprays can’t, for example very dense lentil canopies.

Over the years, we’ve explored the performance of fine fungicide sprays in canola, pulses, and cereals in research trials with the U of S and AAFC. To our surprise, droplet size played only a small role in fungicide performance. Water volume was much more important. Droplet size management with pressure through a low-drift nozzle was enough to get the best disease control.

The main drawbacks of very fine sprays are:

  1. The fine droplets evaporate to dryness very quickly, in seconds. As they shrink, their drift potential is increased even more, and once dry, the remaining particles work much less well. The proponent corrects for this by adding an oily adjuvant as an evaporation retardant. With oil, the fines remain liquid much longer. Although many products become more effective this way, they also become more phytotoxic and less safe for the applicator and bystander. Completely off label, completely risky for crop safety, unknown effects on MRLs, extremely unsafe for the environment and humans. Remember when people dissolved 2,4-D ester in diesel, back in the 40s and 50s and sprayed it with their brass 6501 tips? That’s what this is.
  2. Cone nozzles are designed for airblast sprayers and do not produce good pattern overlaps for boom sprayers. The proponent of this method actually recommends that the boom be raised to overcome the bad patterns and to (believe it or not) simulate aerial application. If this were done, the spray would be re-distributed by air-currents and come down wherever the wind blows it. Probably far away.  The concept of on-target, uniform application, the practice that makes product use acceptable, and the thing we try to achieve with flat fans at a low boom height, is completely lost.
  3. Producers will not have the support of pesticide manufacturers should a performance issue arise. Even worse, if regulators find out about this off-label practice, significant fines (fines for fines, get it?) can be charged under the Pest Control Products Act.
  4. Airborne spray drift with an air-induced spray like the AirMix, GuardianAir, AIXR and the like, applying 10 gpa, is about 1% of the applied amount, measured at 5 m downwind of the downwind edge of the swath in a 20 km/h wind. We’ve never measured hollow cone drift from a boom sprayer, but when we used a flat fan at 5 gpa, drift increased to about 8% of applied. I’d guess a high pressure hollow cone would easily double or triple that. Illegal and irresponsible.
  5. Travel and boom turbulence is a part of faster travel speeds. This would affect the finer droplets much more than the coarser ones, as we can imagine. It’s similar to drift. With a low-drift spray, the proportion of the total spray volume that is “fine”, say less than 150 microns, is about 5%. For a very fine hollow cone, it might by 50 to 75%. So a much greater proportion of the sprayed dosage would be susceptible to uncontrollable movement. This could be good, when turbulence redirects the spray to places that are unreachable by larger droplets. Or it could be bad, as turbulence pushes droplets away from an important target, creating a miss. On balance, bad. Very bad.

These types of recommendations are concocted by people who want to tell a unique story that is popular with some. Their approach differentiates them from the rest of the crowd, an old and effective marketing trick. But these proponents do not have the best interests of the industry in mind.

Our individual and collective agricultural practices must be respectful of others. Of safety. Of the law. Of the environment. We have lots of opportunities to make shortcuts…nobody’s watching most of the time. But that doesn’t make it right. It’s certainly not in ag’s long-term interest.

When considering our agricultural practices, imagine describing them to a young non-farming person. Can you justify your actions? Do your practices make you proud? If not, you have work to do.

Here’s a task: If your boom sprayer has nozzles that produce very fine sprays, take them off and throw them in the garbage. Might sound radical, but it’s the right thing to do.