It’s fourth time lucky for Nottinghamshire sprayer operator Ian Smith, newly crowned Farm Sprayer Operator of the Year 2006.
But his good fortune is well deserved — for Mr Smith operates a truly inspirational spraying set-up that delivers outputs to suit today’s tough commercial climate and even tougher environmental agenda.
With 6000ha (14,826 acres) of spraying across 700ha (1730 acres) of cropping each year, high workrates are essential.
But the environment and the public are key considerations, too.
At the heart of the system on FW and MJ Kirk’s arable farm at Costock, Nottinghamshire, is a seven-year-old Knight Challenger self-propelled sprayer.
This favoured machine carries a 3000-litre, 30m Airtec sprayer, equipped with GPS guidance and automated boom controls and air-ride suspension.
With 21 years of spraying behind him, Mr Smith makes full use of the technology on offer to squeeze maximum output from the sprayer on available spray days.
On undulating land, with an average field size of just 20 acres, automatic boom height regulation and automatic boom lift at headlands are a real benefit, helping to deliver forward speeds of up to 12kph.
“That’s really travelling with a 30m boom, but we need to keep moving to get round 1000 acres of milling wheat at the key timings,” explains Mr Smith.
Output is further enhanced by application rates down to 70 litres/ha.
“The Airtec is fantastic, allowing us to use low water rates, which is really important with blocks of land all across the Leicestershire/Nottinghamshire border.
At 75 litres/ha we can do 100 acres with each load, saving a lot of downtime running backwards and forwards to refill.”
When the pressure is on, spraying starts at dawn and ends at dusk, with farm owner Tim Kirk sharing the work.
Up to 162ha (400 acres) can be sprayed in a day – vital when 405ha (1000 acres) of milling wheat needs a flag leaf spray in two to three days and an orange blossom midge spray within an optimum window of just two days.
“The Airtec also helps us work with drift more under control,” Mr Smith notes.
Some fields have 6m ELS margins and a coarser spray can be selected around houses at the touch of a button.
“You’ve got to show local people some respect when spraying,” he continues.
“There’s no point working near houses first thing in the morning or on a Saturday evening when people are out having barbecues. It’s common sense really.”
Spraying of stale seed-beds is speeded by an LH Agro retrofit GPS lightbar guidance system, which is accurate to within 2cm, so avoiding the need for blobmarking.
Swapping restrictors in the Airtec nozzles mean the sprayer is also used to apply liquid nitrogen on to milling wheat when it is in ear, to boost proteins.
Mr Smith’s desire to minimise environmental impacts really caught the judges’ attention.
Pack opening, rinsing and disposal have received particular attention, with a dedicated unit for triple-rinsing and drying packs, and a separate basket and hose for rinsing and drying foil seals.
Liquid is collected and returned to the sprayer and clean seals disposed of as non-hazardous waste.
But Mr Smith believes manufacturers can do much more to help him in his job.
He wants five- and 10-litre packs to replace one-litre ones, for example.
“It’s daft spending more time opening packs than it takes to fill a 3000-litre tank.
Autumn herbicides are worst, we just can’t get them in the sprayer fast enough.”
Ideally, he’d like 25-litre returnable containers, with dry-couple closed transfer to the sprayer.
“That would avoid the risk of operator contamination or concentrate spills when filling, and dispense with the need for time-consuming pack rinsing and disposal.
“Manufacturers need to get together and agree a standard,” he argues.
“At the very least they should standardise pack size, pack opening and disposal.”
He currently burns spray packs in a CPA-style drum incinerator, but procedures are in place to comply with the new waste regulations from next May.
“We’re polishing the system in readiness.”
Disposal firm Solway will receive bags of cleaned, crushed packs for recycling.
To ensure packs are pristine a new high pressure, rotating jet has replaced the single low-pressure can washer in the induction hopper.
“It’s fantastic, it really gets into every nook and cranny.”
Mr Smith also helped create the farm’s biobed, the first commercial unit in the UK.
All sprayer filling is done over a bunded concrete pad, which drains to a 1000-litre sump containing a submersible pump that feeds liquid through trickle hose into a 7x5m turfed compost/soil/straw biobed.
The biobed is lined and has a second submersible pump in its sump to move filtered liquid on to a row of trees.
“It took a while to sort out and cost just over £1000, but it has Environment Agency approval and really makes life a lot simpler,” Mr Smith notes.
Tank mixing is used a lot, but needs care given the widespread use of manganese on the light land.
“Dropping one pass across 700ha saves two or three days’ work, which helps when crop prices are low.”
As a spraying enthusiast, it is no surprise to find Mr Smith supports the National Register of Sprayer Operators.
“It’s brilliant, it really gives an idea of what we should be working towards, things like sprayer MOTs to keep machines in top condition.
There are some farmers who don’t seem to care, but I hope messages filter down — it would be a shame for us all to suffer more regulation because of the failings of a few.
Indeed, poor practice infuriates Mr Smith, such as a recent case of local horticultural workers who left packs of chemical in an unlocked trailer while working nearby.
“To be honest if poor operators don’t change their ways I don’t think they should be allowed to spray.”
So where does Britain’s top sprayer operator go from here?
As part of his prize Mr Smith is visiting The Netherlands this summer, where he hopes to pick up some more tips for better spraying.
Watch out for reports in Farmers Weekly and sister title Crops later this summer.