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Whoops… wrong field

How growers and applicators can work together to prevent spraying errors

Technology such as GPS can help avoid errors — as long as the operator has the correct legal land description.

The wrong restaurant order. The wrong order for a replacement part. The wrong medical procedure. Mistakes are part of every profession — including crop spraying.

During a Telus crop protection webinar in June, participants were asked whether they had ever had an incident of spraying the wrong field or the wrong product. Fifty-three per cent answered yes.

“As unfortunate as it may be, spraying errors do occasionally happen,” says Charlie Muller, vice-president of the Manitoba Aerial Applicators Association. “You can sit in your office all winter long and dream up the perfect execution plan to never make a mistake. You can do all the training and studying in the world to be considered an expert and think you’re ready to take on the world. But when the season hits and you’re working 18-hour days, lucky to get five hours of sleep per night for weeks at a time, fatigue sets in and one simple little mistake is all it can take to cause a misapplication.”

Muller notes that the ag industry doesn’t work on a 40-hour work week like most other industries, and that 80- to 100-hour weeks are common for a good half of every year. “And with that, we have to expect fatigue to be an issue,” he says. “Finding ways to get your employees well rested during a busy time can be difficult, but necessary to avoid mistakes.”

Mistakes might stem from an error a farmer makes while filling out paperwork or a judgment call on weather conditions by a spray operator that turns out to be wrong. “It takes a whole team of people to get the work done properly,” says Muller, “and everyone has their own responsibilities to ensure it gets done right.”

In aerial applications, errors can stem from ground personnel giving the wrong legal land description to the pilot, and they are often associated with poor communication with the grower. “You’d be surprised how often a hand-drawn map on a coffee-stained napkin is used to explain where a field is,” Muller says.

Many sources of error

As well as mixing up a field’s location, there are many other sources of error, says Mitch Rezansoff, executive director of the Canadian Association of Agri-Retailers (CAAR). These include poor equipment calibration, worn components, rapid weather changes, unknown or non-visible plant stresses, tank contamination, unregistered use patterns and narrow application windows.

From what Mark Luymes and Todd Frey have seen over their careers, mistakes are most likely to be a miscommunication about crop traits. Luymes is president and Frey is vice-president of the Ontario Professional Agri-Contractors Association (OPACA). Luymes is a partner at Luymes Custom Farming and Frey is a second-generation owner-operator at Clean Field Services. 

They explain, for example, that because GM and non-GM corn look the same, there are many programs that have a colour-coded system that alert an operator to exactly the crop type in the field. 

“In Ontario, there is training and licensing for operators that we are required to have. Part of that requires proper rinsing procedures between products to eliminate the risk of farming the next field with the wrong product,” Frey says.

He recommends that farmers sit down with their custom applicator to communicate the crop plan and make sure everyone, including the agronomist and seed dealer, is on the same page. 

“Write crop plans down and make a contingency plan if you might switch the crop. Let the custom applicator know the moment a crop plan changes.”

And double-check

Luymes advises that both the operator and the farmer double-check everything. 

“Double-check the right seed bags were planted (the labels can be tricky), double-check the right chemical is in the tank and double-check you’re in the right field,” he says. “More and more fields (even without) houses have fire numbers with the road name as well, so this is helping contractors and their employees better know the fields.” 

“We take the approach not to assume anything,” adds a custom-spraying CAAR member in Alberta who does not wish to be named. 

“Always ask questions and confirm fields and what was seeded. Have applicator meetings to discuss proper applicating for different chemistry. Visually confirm the map and crop with the producer, in person or (by) text. Have two people review the spray sheets before it goes out to the field.” 

He also suggests applicators call producers upon field entry to confirm field locations, using specific landmarks. He also advises his peers not to rush the paperwork. An extra 10 minutes can make all the difference. 

Use technology

Muller notes that in the aerial industry, a pilot will have a digital map filled out with all the surrounding crops and necessary information to properly locate the field and any obstacles that may affect the flight pattern. 

“The legal land locations are also entered into their GPS systems which will guide them all the way to the field, and so as long as the information provided to the pilot is right, it’s rare for an aircraft to spray the wrong field,” Muller says. “So, adapting to modern technology is really narrowing down many of the common mistakes made in the past.” 

He adds that with advances in field data and mapping technologies, some sprayers will not work outside of the field boundaries they are set to spray, eliminating any possibility of non-target application. 

Muller says smartphone apps can also help. 

“Most people in the ag industry work with legal land locations, so there are apps available, like Prairie Locator, that will direct you to the exact co-ordinates a sprayer driver or pilot needs. With today’s smartphones combined with satellite imagery, it isn’t difficult to position yourself on the field you’re supposed to spray.” 

But Frey says he and his colleagues are also of the view that technology doesn’t eliminate the need for double-checking. “Sometimes GPS doesn’t cut it, so be sure by staking the field with high visibility posts. Sometimes farmers plant two different traits in the same field, sometimes it’s sweet corn on the last few rows. If this is the case, the boundaries need to be clearly marked.”

Meet you at joking. upstage. attached

Another tool for identifying precise location is what3words, a smartphone app that divides the entire Earth’s surface into three-metre squares and identifies each with three distinct words.

Supposing you’re at the Discovery Farm in Langham, Sask., and want to give directions to someone so they can meet you at a particular crop plot. You check your smartphone, which tells you you’re at “joking.upstage.attached.” You can then send the location to the other person, who can navigate to the spot using Google Maps or Apple Maps.

The tool uses a smartphone’s GPS receiver, so in areas with no phone signal, it can still find the user’s location. The app can also be used for other purposes such as emergency calls or vet calls.

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