Are Farmers Going Back to Aerial Application?

By John Dietz
Aerial application can be more than a quick fix. Some farmers are booking aerial application along with crop inputs. Is this establishing new opportunities?

Aircraft spraying crops are common sights on the southern Prairies. 

Most are booked as needed, a day to a week in advance, according to growing conditions. However, a growing number are booked months in advance, for a variety of reasons. 

Growing Soybeans talked with one customer, who preferred to be anonymous, about his family’s use of pre-booked crop spraying service in the Morris/Rosenort area of southeastern Manitoba. For this article, we’ll call him “Joe.”

The family has been growing soybeans at least 15 years. They’ve had a self-propelled high clearance sprayer nearly as long. But, for at least six years, they have been pre-booking the fungicide work in July with Dale Air Services of Morris. 

Dale Air now is part of the GJ Chemical Group, with retail locations in Altona, Arnaud, Brunkild, Miami, and Morris. The locally-owned, independent retail has 19 agronomists on staff in 2017 and provides a full range of services. 

Joe, the Dale Air customer, normally uses a high clearance sprayer with a 130-foot boom. He cruises fields at about 15 MPH, taking down weeds before seeding and after seeding, desiccating crops before harvest, then doing more weed control after harvest. 

According to Joe, there’s good reason for booking ahead on the July fungicides rather than calling for rescue. It’s all about the timing. 

It is likely that portions of his fields will be wet in July. The soil is mostly Red River clay and the fields need drainage channels. 

In one mid-summer pass, the tall tires on the sprayer could crush two feet of crop that won’t recover. That’s a cost of about 1.5 percent of the yield.  

Meanwhile, the ground sprayer passes over field drains. Those can be dammed off by the tires and, at the next rain, may stop doing their job. That will cost some yield, too. 

As for the quality of the job, Dale Air can match his ground sprayer consistently, as far as he can tell without making a mark in the crops or soils. 

Joe could try doing the fungicide work in July, but already his hands are more than full from April to November. If he tried the fungicide applications, he could miss his timing on other field work. He also needs personal time off, or family time, on nice days in summer – not just a few wet and windy days.  

He admits, he gets a discount by booking aerial applications in advance. He gets a priority status, that the timing will be right, because he’s booked ahead. 

And, if it happens to be so dry that he doesn’t want a fungicide at a planned time, he can cancel without a penalty. 

Reasons like that are pretty typical for his customers who book in advance, says Dale Air Service manager Charlie Muller. “We’re fortunate. We get a lot of regular customers booking well in advance,” says Muller. 

“We bought Dale Air in 2014, but they started spraying in the 1970s and incorporated in 1990 as a retailer. We have quite a bit of business that books ahead every year. The customers who do that haven’t changed. Dale Air has had that kind of business for a while,” Muller says.

Dale Air owns two bright yellow Ag Tractor 502s and half of a third Ag Tractor. The planes carry 500-gallon tanks for applications and specialized nozzle technology. 

The Ag Tractors were spraying spruce budworm in Quebec forests in May and June. 

They return in the last week of June to start the fungicide season in the Red River Valley. They have about four weeks of spraying near home, then move on again until they can do some pre-harvest desiccation spraying. 

Dale Air is part of the Manitoba Aerial Applicators Association. It would “be hard” to get statistics on pre-booking service, Muller speculates, but he believes it is highly variable and that Dale Air is at the high side of the percentage.

“Dale Air probably has a little more of the returning regular customers, but I definitely think it’s picking up for everyone,” he says. “Probably, close to half our business is booked in advance. That’s a high number in the aerial business. Some guys might be less than 20 percent.”

Pre-booking definitely benefits the aerial service, according to Muller. 

“Owning the retail side, too, we can plan ahead, order the product we need. It makes our budgeting a lot easier, so we can pass on a discount to those customers,” he says. 

He adds, “We encourage growers to plan ahead, get ready in the fall for next year. When we’re selling seed and stuff, we work it in with that. We say, book your seed and aerial application at the same time. If you do, we’ll discount you per acre.”

The value of one type of application versus the other can always be debated. 

Water, nozzles, speed are all important variables, assuming that the work is done at the right time and with a careful approach. 

Ground rigs should apply 10 to 15 gallons of water per acre, for instance, to get complete crop coverage. Airplanes should apply 4 to 5 gallons, for the same reason. Either one, if they need to cover more fields in a day, can be tempted to cut the water rate. 

Muller says, “We try to stay close to the 4- or 5-gallon-per-acre range. That’s tough because, when you’re in a big rush, when you have thousands of acres to catch up to, guaranteeing that amount of water means you are doing so many extra loads a day. It is kind of tough, but we want to do a good job.”

One thing that improves the aerial application is new nozzle technology. 

“Nozzles have come a long way over the last 10 to 20 years. We’ve invested in new nozzles that are among the best for in-crop spraying and we’re doing trials with some new atomizer nozzles that may be even better,” he says. 

Delivered at 120 MPH and 6 to 10 feet above the crop, the air turbulence creates a canopy-penetrating mist that reaches through the crop and down to the ground. 

“You’re getting coverage on just about every (wheat) kernel. On soybeans and canola, my applications are hitting the entire stem and all the flowers,” he says. 

Being in the retail business, Muller sees both sides of the application business. 

He admits, “It’s hard to beat a ground sprayer that’s using a high volume, with the right nozzles and travelling at the right speed in good conditions and doing a perfect job.”

Still, Muller says, his pre-booked business is growing. 

“Every year we sign up a couple new customers who want to park the ground sprayer in fungicide season. They’ll contract out the whole farm by air, and we’ll look after everything.”