Variable Rate Spraying

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About Tom Wolf (Nozzle_Guy)

Tom Wolf is based in Saskatoon, SK and has 33 years research experience in the spraying business. He obtained his BSA (1987) and M.Sc. (1991) in Plant Science at the University of Manitoba, and his Ph.D. (1996) in Agronomy from the Ohio State University. Tom focuses on practical advice that is research-based to improve the efficiency of producers.

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Variable rate spray application is receiving a lot or attention with our increased ability to farm according to prescription maps.  For dry products such as seed or fertilizer, metering is relatively straight-forward and variable rate application has been possible for many years. However, liquid product application has been more complex and requires special approaches

Hydraulic Pressure and Flow Rate

In conventional liquid metering, the liquid is forced through a metering orifice that is placed in-line.  This could be an orifice plate for liquid fertilizer, or a flat fan nozzle for pesticides.  Rate control is achieved by altering the spray pressure. It is usually impractical to change the nozzle or metering orifice during an application.

The main drawback to this approach is that spray pressure is not very effective at changing flow rates due to the square root relationship between spray pressure and flow rate.

For example, with reference to the table below, one can see that doubling the spray pressure (say, from 30 to 60 psi) only increases the flow rate by 40%. Tripling the pressure (from 30 to 90 psi) increases the application volume by 73% (we can call that a factor of 1.73). As a result, the use of pressure alone doesn’t offer a large range of application rates, and we accept a factor of 2 to be the limit for fertilizer streamer and broadcast nozzles (meaning a four-fold pressure range) and a factor of 1.73 to be practical for broadcast pesticide sprays over a 3-fold pressure range.  Any wider application volume range would require adjustment to travel speed.

Application Chart 2015 cropped

With these inherent limitations in flow rate capacities from hydraulic pressure alone, applicators are often forced to use wide pressure fluctuations to achieve reasonable rate responses.  In some cases, this means that pressure needs can be too low for uniform distribution, or too high for pump or plumbing capacities.

For Variable Rate application, we are less interested in travel speed range, and are more interested in flow rate range. The above chart can be used for both purposes. In the above example, rows under each application volume identify the travel speed range. These headings can be flipped, so the 10 gpa column (with mph values in it) can also be a 10 mph column (with gpa in it). the numbers don’t change. same is true for metric units, except the convenience of being in the same magnitude that makes the flip easy in US units is absent.

There are a few options available that expand the flow rate range of liquid products.  A brief overview of the main options follows:

Greenleaf / Agrotop

TurboDrop Variable Rate (TDVR): This nozzle appears like the traditional TurboDrop family, but has an innovative dual orifice in its venturi. The first stage is always open, but the second orifice is held closed under spring pressure until a certain threshold is reached. This design achieves a 3-fold flow rate range between 40 and 140 psi. Below the 40 psi threshold, the spray pattern fan angle deteriorates quickly.

TurboDrop VR tip provides about 3-fold flow rate range at any given speed, but requires higher pressures.

TurboDrop Variable Rate Fertilizer (TDVFR): Because fertilizer streams do not need to atomize the spray or form a fan, the minimum pressure can be reduced, in this case to 10 psi. From 10 to 140 psi, this design offers a four- to five-fold range of flow rates. Three exits are offered, a streamer, a hose barb, and a quick connect.

Three variants of the variable rate fertilizer orifice are offered by Greenleaf.

VariTarget Nozzle

This nozzle design uses a spring-loaded plunger to exert force on a flexible nozzle cap, deflecting it slightly.  The deflection changes the orifice size, allowing for a change in flow.  As a result, the flow rate response to a pressure change is increased dramatically. A single VariTarget nozzle equipped with a blue or green nozzle cap can deliver flows ranging from 0.2 US gpm at 20 psi to 1.2 gpm at 65 psi, for a stunning 6-fold change in application rate (link).

The VariTarget nozzle body

The main drawback of this nozzle is the poor metering accuracy of the system. In calibration tests, flows from various new VariTarget nozzles operated at the same pressures varied by more than 10%.  While this amount of variability may be acceptable in liquid fertilizer application, it is not considered acceptable for pesticide application. Tightening or loosening the threaded spring cap even a little changes the flow.

VariTarget Flow Chart

TeeJet Variable Rate Fertilizer Assemblies

These metering assemblies, introduced in 2016, offer an elastomer (EPDM) metering plate whose orifice diameter expands with pressure, offering a wider range of flows.  There are no moving parts in the assembly.  Four models are available (link).


PTC-VR:  Using a push-to-connect design for planters and toolbars, it offers versions that accomodate 1/4″, 5/16”, and 3/8” OD tubing diameters

QJ-VR Hose Barb:  This unit offers hose barb diameters for 1/4″ and 3/8” ID hose.

Both units feature a pressure range of 10 psi to 100 psi, within which a flow rate range of approximately 8-fold is possible.

SJ3-VR: This unit generates three streams and operates over a pressure range of 20 to 100 psi, offering a flow rate range of about 3-fold.

GPA ranges for specific travel speeds for TeeJet SJ3 VR

SJ7-VR: Generating seven streams and operating over a pressure range of 30 to 80 psi, this unit allows a flow rate range of about 2.9.

In all cases, the realized flow rate range is significantly greater than would have been achieved with pressure change alone. TeeJet has tested the flow rate variance among units operating at the same pressure and has found them to be acceptable, according to company representatives.

Fertilizer banding has greater tolerances for application because pattern width is less important, and also because stream stability is less affected by pressure than spray pattern droplet size.

Pulse Width Modulation (PWM)

PWM utilizes conventional plumbing:  a single boom line and a single nozzle at each location.  Liquid flow rate through each nozzle is managed via an intermittent, brief shutoff of the nozzle flow activated by an electric solenoid that replaces the spring-loaded check valve.  Typical systems pulse at 10 or 15 Hz (the solenoid shuts off the nozzle 10 or 15 times per second), and the duration of the nozzle in the “on” position is called the duty cycle (DC) or pulse width.

100% DC means the nozzle is fully on, and 20% DC means the solenoid is open only 20% of the time, resulting in the nozzle flowing at approximately 20% of its capacity. This is illustrated in the figure below.  The ability to control the duty cycle is referred to as pulse width modulation.

PWM Schematic

The system has a theoretical flow rate range of about four- to five-fold. Within this range, spray pressure, and the corresponding spray pattern and droplet size, stay roughly constant.  This makes it ideal for variable rate pesticide application, where spray patterns and spray quality are critical for performance.

The main disadvantage of this system, compared to the variable orifice designs, is cost. Although highly accurate and dependable, commercial sprayer units are priced between $15,000 and $65,000 per sprayer, depending on features and boom widths. The available systems are Capstan PinPoint II and EVO (as a retrofit to any sprayer), Raven Hawkeye (retrofit to any sprayer, available as factory option on Case (AIM Command), New Holland (IntelliSpray) and most other brands, John Deere ExactApply, WEEDit Quadro, Agrifac StrictSprayPlus and TeeJet DynaJet (available as retrofit). See our in-depth article on PWM for more information on these systems.

For ammonia and liquid fertilizer planters or toolbars, Capstan offers three different PWM products, N-Ject NH3, N-Ject LF or EVO LF. These systems offer more control over PWM pulse frequency and duty cycle and can achieve 8-fold rate ranges. 

Flow rate ranges for Capstan N-Ject LF, on 30″ spacing

At low frequencies and duty cycles, the mobiliy of the fertilizer in soil needs to be considered, as significant gaps in a stream can be generated.

A variable rate for liquid fertilizer system for seeders, together with sectional control and turn compensation, is offered by Capstan EVO-LF. This system can generate 10 to 60 gpa at 4.5 mph on 12″ spacing.

Dual Boom Systems

A second boom fitted with different flow nozzles is installed, and is activated when the flow rate requirements can no longer be met with a single set of nozzles.  Once the second boom is activated, the spray pressure drops significantly and additional flow capacity can be realized.

Dual boom system

Dual or Quadruple Nozzle Bodies

A similar approach to the dual boom is available as selectable nozzles in the same body from Arag (Seletron), Hypro (Duo React), John Deere (ExactApply) Amazone (AmaSelect), and others. These systems utilize a single boom and direct the flow through one of any two (Duo React, ExactApply, Seletron) or four (Seletron, others) nozzles, or several nozzles at the same time. 

AmaSelect utilizes a unique switching system that allows the user to select only Nozzle 4, Nozzle 3, Nozzles 3 & 4, and Nozzles 2 & 4, making the placement of certain sized nozzles critical.

Amazone AmaSelect nozzle switching system

Similar pressure fluctuations as with a dual boom would be experienced, requiring careful selection of nozzle flow rates to avoid large pressure jumps. The system can also be used to manually change from one nozzle to another as needed. In the figure below, the pressure changes associated with the sequential use of 015, 02, and 035 flows are shown.

Duo React

Direct Injection

Direct injection is an option for variable application of pesticides.  In this system, undiluted pesticide is placed into canisters on the sprayer, and plain water (or water plus adjuvant) is in the sprayer tank. The chemical is metered and introduced into the water on the pressure side at some distance upstream from the boom sections. The pesticide rate can be varied with the speed of the direct injection pump, offering a very high dynamic range of possible rates. For example, Raven’s Sidekick Pro (available as factory option on Case and John Deere sprayers, or as a retrofit to any sprayer) offers a 40-fold range of flow rates.


After injection, an in-line mixer ensures that products are evenly distributed in the carrier.  The amount of lag in the systems will depend on the amount of spray mixture in the plumbing upstream of the nozzles, the total boom flow rate, as well as the boom section configuration.  With a variable rate map this lag can can be anticipated and accommodated.

Pump technology has improved the metering accuracy over a range of viscosities. However, dry formulations remain a challenge as slurries can settle and create problems for the pump and screen components.


High dynamic flow rate ranges for agricultural sprays are challenging to achieve, but will become more important as interest in site-specific management increases.  Relatively inexpensive solutions are available for liquid fertilizer, whereas pesticide sprays require greater investments in technology to preserve spray pattern integrity. As mapping sophistication continues to grow, these application technologies will be integral to variable input prescriptions.