Selecting the Right Water Volume

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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.

See all posts by Tom Wolf (Nozzle_Guy).

Low water volumes can mean less effort to apply pesticides. But there is a limit to how low water volumes can go before problems appear. To understand the reasons why, and help applicators use the right volume for a given situation, we briefly outline what happens to a spray cloud as it reaches the crop canopy.

Basic Principles

To choose the right water volume, we have to remember three criteria for sprays to be effective.

  • First, the spray must reach the target.
  • Second, there must be enough droplets to sufficiently cover the target.
  • Third, the droplets have to be in a form (size and pesticide concentration) that allows the pesticide to be efficiently taken up by the target.

Reaching the target

Let’s start with the first criteria, reaching the target. Droplet size is important for minimizing both spray drift and droplet evaporation. Small droplets move off-target easily, they also evaporate to dryness very quickly and may not have the expected performance as a result. Larger droplets clearly reduce drift, but may bounce off the target and offer less coverage per water volume.

Droplets of various sizes are actually important to cover all parts of a target, so we shouldn’t eliminate all the small ones. For example, penetration of dense broadleaf canopies, or coverage of small targets like stems is best achieved with smaller droplets, while larger droplets are useful for penetrating grassy canopies or targeting the top of a broadleaf canopy.

Target coverage

We need to get the right number of droplets to the target. The more leaf area to be covered (i.e., the taller or denser the crop canopy), the more droplets will be required. Leaf Area Index (LAI), defined as the total leaf area per unit ground area, is a good indicator of canopy density.

To put this in perspective, consider a pre-seed burnoff or an early post-emergent herbicide spray vs. a late season fungicide. In the first case, the canopy can be described as being in a single plane near ground level, with leaf areas of target plants fully exposed and with an LAI of <1. High droplet density on the leaves will be achievable with relatively low volumes.

In the second case, the canopy will have more depth, and will contain large leaf areas in each of the lower, mid, and upper canopy regions, with LAI >>1. Providing the same droplet number to each of the regions in the second case will require more droplets, and therefore more volume.

Taken as a whole, the exclusive use of finer droplets can be counterproductive due to evaporation and drift. Higher water volumes have the advantage of allowing larger average droplet sizes to be used, minimizing evaporation, drift, and enhancing deposition.

Deposit efficacy

The third criteria, maximizing the performance of specific pesticides with droplet size, is more complicated. Typically, contact modes of action and grassy or difficult-to-wet targets require somewhat finer sprays and higher water volumes (Table 1). With tank mixes, such as glyphosate and Heat or AIM, the higher water volume and finer spray criteria should be used. For any specific herbicide, use the higher volume with coarser sprays.

Table 1. Herbicide modes of action, minimum water volumes with low-drift nozzles, and maximum spray quality

Mode of Action and Spray Quality

In practice, an applicator rarely encounters just one type of targeting situation. Most herbicides are either broad-spectrum, or are tank mixed to target both grass and broadleaf weeds. As a result, the same spray operation has to be effective on grass weeds and broadleaf weeds, some of which may be near the top of the canopy, or be more mature, whereas others may be just emerging. In these cases, a number of different droplet sizes will be required.

Low-drift nozzles

A low-drift nozzle can be used for most applications, as long as small adjustments are made for specific conditions. Increases in pressure above 60 psi (for finer droplets, Medium to Coarse spray quality) and volume to at least 7 to 10 US gpa (for better penetration) with this nozzle optimizes performance for grassy weeds. Lower pressures (down to 40 psi, Coarse to Very Coarse spray quality) are sufficient for systemic broadleaf products or when additional drift control is necessary. Higher volumes (12 – 15 US gpa) may be needed to obtain coverage in dense canopies. Always check with nozzle manufacturer information to learn what spray quality is produced by the nozzle you’re using – this will vary with nozzle type, flow rate, and spray pressure.

Droplet sizes in sprays

All nozzles produce a wide variety of droplet sizes ranging from 5 µm to 1000 µm in diameter. The main difference between sprays is the proportion of their volume in any given size fraction, with low-drift sprays having less of their volume in the drift-prone sizes.

Spray Quality Comparison
Size distribution (by volume) of two spray qualities. Not that both of these sprays contain small and large droplets. The difference is the volume (=dosage) in each of these size fractions. Shaded areas highlight drift-prone droplets (left) and bounce-prone droplets (right).

But even low-drift nozzles produce small droplets, and these provide sufficient coverage in most cases. Low-drift sprays do create more larger droplets, and these do not contribute to coverage due to their relatively low number and poor retention.

Our main tools for droplet size selection are spray pressure (higher pressure reduces droplet size) or nozzle choice.

Spray Pressure

Higher pressures are sometimes thought to increase canopy penetration because they force the spray into the canopy. This is not true. While higher pressures create faster moving droplets, this speed quickly diminishes. By the time the spray enters the canopy, the faster velocity is lost, especially for the smaller droplets, and the only effect that remains is the finer spray. Finer droplets will penetrate many canopies further, but only if they are protected from wind. On a windy day, the finer sprays are more likely to blow downstream, or perhaps evaporate. The main benefit of higher pressure is better operation of the nozzle, especially air-induced nozzles, leading to more uniform patterns and better overall results.

Large Droplet Advantages

Although coarser sprays are often thought to work less well, they offer certain advantages.

  • One advantage is that a coarser spray tends to provide the air assist mentioned above (dragging air into the canopy, and giving smaller droplets a greater chance of moving where they’re needed).
  • Larger droplets also take longer to evaporate, increasing opportunities for uptake and translocation within the plant.
  • Larger droplets are more efficient at targeting the exposed, large leaves of plants requiring disease protection, leading to greater deposition and fungicide performance.
  • Most importantly, coarser sprays produce less drift, enabling application under windier conditions and thus ensuring that the timing of the application with respect to the crop or disease stage can be optimized.

Water Volume

Higher water volumes are the single most effective way of increasing dense canopy penetration. Higher volumes will deliver a greater number of droplets to the lower canopy, leading to greater performance when lower canopy coverage is of importance. When used in combination with lower travel speeds, the downward air flow created by sprays can provide significant benefits in forcing the smaller droplets further down. Larger volumes also decrease sensitivity to droplet size, permitting coarser sprays that reduce spray drift.

Nozzle Angling

Research has shown that exposed (upper canopy) vertical targets such as heads or stems will benefit from an angled spray. Forward-pointed sprays offer a slight advantage over backward-pointed sprays. Since angled sprays must maintain this trajectory to be useful, it is recommended that coarser spray qualities be used to minimize fine droplet production. Angled fine droplets will quickly deflect from their initial angled path and move with prevailing winds. Low booms heights also help in maximizing the benefit of angled sprays.  Canopy penetration has not been shown to be improved with forward angled sprays, but backward angled sprays can help place some spray deeper into grassy canopies.

Broadleaf vs Grassy Canopies

How can an applicator decide the most appropriate water volume and spray quality for a specific application scenario? The following guides should help.

First determine the canopy density and form (broadleaf or grassy), and the target site within it (upper, mid, or lower). If the canopy is dense, but fairly vertical (i.e., a cereal), and a significant portion of it needs to be protected, the best strategy is to apply a higher water volume using a reasonably slow ground speed to allow the spray’s built-in air assist to work. If, on the other hand, only the upper layer of leaves, or the heads, are to be targeted, slightly less water can be used. If the water volume is appropriately high for the canopy, larger droplet sizes do not significantly diminish coverage or pesticide performance.

If the canopy is dense but more horizontally oriented (broadleaf crops), similar rules apply for water volume and travel speed, but now the use of a somewhat finer spray may be of benefit. The smaller droplets will be better able to move around and through the leaves to reach deeper into the canopy. Ensuring a downward trajectory of the spray through travel speed and water volume selections will be important.

Nozzle suggestions

A very good starting point for a conventional rate-controlled sprayer is any one of the low-pressure air-induced tips that now form the majority of the market. These tips are similar enough in terms of pressure range (30 – 100 psi), spray quality (Medium-Coarse-Very Coarse, depending on pressure), and spray pattern fan angle (about 100 degrees) to have comparable performance with most pesticides. Such tips are best operated in the middle of their pressure range, which is about 50 – 70 psi, offering some room to move as travel speeds change.

For those with Pulse-Width Modulation (PWM), where most air-induced tips cannot be used, nozzle choice is more limited but growing

All these tips are described in more detail here.

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