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Spring always brings renewed interest in sprayer calibration. This is good, because a well-maintained and calibrated sprayer will protect crops more effectively and efficiently, as well as reduce the potential for off-target drift and point source contamination.
Presently, there is no nationally-recognized standard for sprayer calibration in either Canada or the United States. As a result there are many methods, some more stringent than others, spanning activities relating to seasonal maintenance through to precise diagnostic measurements. This means an operator can be in compliance with programs such as CanadaGAP (a food safety traceability standard for fruit and vegetables), and yet only perform the most rudimentary adjustments.
I was first made aware of “compulsory inspections” in 2009 when I started noticing certification stickers on certain European import airblast sprayers. Some Ontario tender fruit and grape growers familiar with the European standards asked why we didn’t enforce standardized calibration program as they do in Europe. I was surprised to hear a farmer ask for more paperwork, so it made me wonder, are Canada and the US overdue for a change?
All sprayers, from large, commercial field and airblast sprayers, to the more humble home-grown sprayers (see below) benefit from regular servicing and calibration. And yet, sprayer calibration in Canada and the US remains largely voluntary and highly variable depending on the size of the operation, sprayer design and the willingness/skill of the operator.
Canada and the US, Then
In the mid 1980’s, University of Nebraska engineers and Successful Farming Magazine published a study showing that un-calibrated spray applications were costing US farmers ~$1,000,000,000 per year. The article was infamously called “The Billion Dollar Blunder”. You can download the original journal article describing the survey here. It was estimated that fewer than 5% of applications were within 5% of the desired rates. Spray overlaps and poor calibration resulted in over-applications of more than 20%.
At the time it was eye-opening and received a lot of attention. In 2006 the original study was revisited (see here), and even with advances in precision application, there was a disappointing lack of improvement. Bill Casady, University of Missouri Extension agricultural engineer, estimated that if 20 minutes of calibration can save 5% on 500 acres in an application sprayed at $25/ac ($61.75/ha), then the 20 minutes of effort worked out to $1,875 / hour. Now that’s a solid return on investment!
Belgium recognized and addressed this issue more than twenty years ago. In 1995, following the lead of the Netherlands and Germany, Belgium’s Ministry of Agriculture mandated that all spraying equipment (save backpacks) be inspected every three years. At the time, other countries such as Sweden, Hungary and Austria had similar, albeit voluntary, programs.
Belgian farmers received letters asking them to make their sprayers available for testing by a Ministry-appointed institution, in locations no more than 10 kilometers from their operations. The institution’s trained technicians would subject the sprayers to a regimented, standardized inspection. When the equipment met the standard, they would receive a permit in the form of a sticker (see below) attached to the sprayer. The growers paid for this service, based in part on the size of the sprayer.
In order to introduce the process to the Belgian farmer, a short documentary was produced. If you would rather not watch the preamble explaining why the prudent use of chemistry is critical to agriculture, and get right to the sprayer inspection process, skip ahead to 3:35.
What follows is a brief outline of that 1995 process, which I’m told is similar to the process currently used in Belgium:
- Administrators perform visual checks to assess the general condition of the sprayer (e.g. obvious maintenance, safety and operational issues).
- Boom balance (where applicable), hinges, boom ends and boom sturdiness is checked.
- Nozzle spacing and orientation of nozzle bodies is inspected.
- All points of filtration are inspected.
- For boom sprayers, a spray pattern distribution used to be performed, but it wasn’t diagnostic enough. Instead, a pressure gauge / nozzle combo is used in each position to check for pressure fluctuation, and to ensure each tip had a flow rate within 5% of the average and no more than 10% deviation from the manufacturer’s rate.
- For airblast sprayers, the overall output of the sprayer is measured to determine nozzle wear using individual collectors clamped onto each position.
- For sprayers with rate controllers, calibrated collection bags are attached to a few nozzles and the sprayer drives a 100 metre course while spraying. The actual output is compared to the expected.
- Finally, the farmer receives a report outlining issues that need to be remedied before the sprayer is certified.
Today, collaborating European countries are members of SPISE – Standardized Procedure for the Inspection of Sprayers in Europe. Established in 2004 by founding members from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, the SPISE Working Group aims to “further the harmonization and mutual acceptance of equipment inspections”. They also work to continually improve the inspection / calibration process.
Their website hosts a number of sprayer-related resources, but the SPICE Advice handbooks are perhaps most valuable to the sprayer operator. Click either image below to download them as PDF for airblast or field sprayers:
This more current video by AAMS-Salvarani goes though the inspection and adjustment process for airblast sprayers. While there is no mention of air speed adjustments, many of the steps in this video correspond with the airblast adjustments relating to Crop-Adapted Spraying which has proven very successful in Canada.
Canada and the US, Tomorrow
Regular, third-party mediated inspections offer many potential benefits to the average operator. But, in order to realize gains in crop protection and environmental stewardship, perhaps there are two programs required: One to certify the sprayer and the other to certify the sprayer operator.
- A sprayer inspection program would focus on sprayer maintenance rather than calibration. Maintenance occurs at regular intervals to ensure spray equipment is operating optimally. Calibration is an ongoing process intended to match the sprayer to the conditions in which it’s operating, and that requires an educated sprayer operator.
- Sprayer operator education programs such as Ontario’s Grower Pesticide Safety Course, or Penn State’s Pesticide Applicator Certification Course already exist, but they are not offered in every state or province, and they are often voluntary or perhaps specific to a particular expertise (e.g. not applying to custom applicators or airblast operators).
They could start as voluntary, pay-for-service pilot programs to see if operators appreciate how much better their sprayers are functioning, and to quantify how much waste is been reduced. They wouldn’t necessarily have to be government-run; Industry or Academia may be better conduits. So, what would be required to develop and implement these two programs?
- We would need to agree on a robust and generic sprayer inspection protocol. We have several European examples to draw on.
- We would need to agree on the minimal content for a sprayer operator course. Again, we have many to draw on, with the obvious understanding that the core curriculum would be amended to reflect various state and provincial requirements.
- We would need a trained, third-party organization to take responsibility for overseeing and implementing the two programs.
- And, of course, we would need the funds to initiate both programs before they would eventually become self-sustaining.
So, are we dreaming in Technicolor? If responses to this article are any indication, there are those in western society that lash out at the idea of mandatory requirements. But there are supporters, too. Maybe we can learn from those European countries that have been doing this for more than 20 years.
Thanks to Jan Langenakens of aams-salvarani for reviewing this article, and providing the videos.