Drift is… good?

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About Jason Deveau (Spray_Guy)

Jason (@spray_guy) is the OMAFRA Application Technology Specialist. BSc (Biology and Psychology '96), MSc (Plant science '98), PhD (Plant cell electrophysiology '03). Jason studies and teaches methods to improve the safe, effective and efficient application of agricultural inputs. Co-administrator of Sprayers101, co-author of the Airblast101 Textbook, slow cyclist, slower runner.

See all posts by Jason Deveau (Spray_Guy).

OK, fine. We confess to the shameful use of click-bait in our title. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely true: Drift can be good. The reason this statement is unsettling is because of the lack of context, which is really what this article is about.

The majority of sprayer-related information available to ag stakeholders relates to horizontal boom sprayers. Most of it is relevant to broadacre field crops and often pertains to herbicide applications. If you’re unsurprised, or still struggling to grasp our point, it’s likely because you’re part of that world. But consider everyone else.

Agricultural spraying is diverse and many usage patterns are grossly underrepresented. As a result, those operators struggle to find relevant information. And what information is most readily available? Yes – broadacre herbicide spraying. Even the experts (i.e. agronomists, salespeople and consultants) often make the error of responding to specialty crop questions with field crop answers. Or relatedly, they assume their entire audience is comprised of field croppers and fail to use a disclaimer before making sweeping statements. The problem (and it is a problem) is so pervasive that we often hear about specialty crop operators taking training courses intended for field crop applicators… because that’s all that’s available.

So how different can spraying be for a given crop? Surely a droplet is a droplet and the laws of physics don’t care what you grow? This is true, but droplet size, spray volume, distance-to-target, environmental conditions, sprayer type and product formulation combine in complicated ways. The result is that the best advice for one operation can be disastrously wrong for another.

Case in point: Drift is good. If we were persnickety (and we are) we would suggest that moderate drift is the lateral movement of spray with the prevailing wind, and that this helps ground and/or disperse spray in a predictable direction. It’s not a bad thing. But we know that drift quickly becomes bad in high winds and especially when there are sensitive downwind areas. We won’t even talk about dead calm.

However, in controlled environment applications (e.g. greenhouses) operators use very small droplets in high numbers and absolutely rely on air circulation to expose all crop surfaces to the spray. Without drift, most stationary foggers would only have a limited and localized effect. And in airblast operations, a wind that would never deter a field sprayer operator would derail an airblast operator. Wind is much faster with elevation and airblast sprayers use very small droplets that span considerable distances to the tops of tall targets. In their world, droplet size is not the primary means for drift mitigation – it’s air alignment.

The following table is a relative comparison of key factors in spraying. Note how different they are depending on the usage pattern. And if this isn’t diverse enough, recognize that we didn’t include a column for vegetative management (e.g. roadsides, industrial and forestry) or aerial application (which might even be split into piloted and remotely-piloted).

And so where does this leave us? We have two pieces of advice:

  • If you are looking for information on spraying, take the time to find out who your source is and understand the context of the information. More often than not it will have relevance, but in some cases it could be completely wrong for you.
  • If you are providing information on spraying, be clear who the information is intended for. While we don’t propose caveats amending every statement, context is always appreciated. A sentence in an article, or a brief interjection during a presentation, might help someone that doesn’t know what they don’t know.