With a constantly increasing workload, replacing the existing self-propelled sprayer needed something quite exceptional
With a constantly increasing workload – much of it in a tough working environment including steep slopes and land areas up to 20 miles apart – meant that a Warwickshire farm replacing its existing self-propelled sprayer needed something quite exceptional to provide the reliability, versatility and performance which was essential. David Williams visited the farm.
Local main dealer Lister Wilder provided a demonstration of the Challenger Rogator in autumn 2013, during which it was tested on some of the most demanding land farmed by the company. Results were impressive and the order was placed.
GW Wilson & Sons farms 1,275ha (3,150 acres) of crops on a mix of owned, rented and contract-farmed land, at Ilmington. The land used to be farmed in block rotations, making management and field operations convenient, but the recent three-crop rule has meant that blocks have had to be split, resulting in more spring cropping, more in-block rotations and increased time spent travelling on roads.
Most of the soils are good and very productive, but tricky to farm, including clay and Cotswold brash, and some easier land, but farmer Paul Wilson explained that at least 80 per cent of it is pretty challenging, with steep slopes adding to the difficulties. The crop rotation is oilseed rape followed by wheat, then beans, winter barley and oilseed rape on the light land, with a second wheat added on the heavier land. Black-grass is an issue, but constant attention to detail managing the weed, including the use of stale seedbeds, is resulting in good control.
There are two full-time staff, plus two additional self-employed including an engineer and a fabricator. A ready-mix concrete company; Eazylay Concrete is also owned by the Wilson family, and run by one full-time member of staff. It supplies concrete for general building work as well as to a large number of farms in the area.
Slopes show any weakness
The Wilson’s previous sprayer was a 4,000-litre self-propelled, with 32m booms, the width chosen to suit the 8m drill, and a size popular with other farms in the area. Performance was adequate, but greater capacity and something better suited to a large amount of roadwork was needed. However, when the time came to update, the main reason for changing was a major breakdown.
The Challenger Rogator RG655B with 32m booms and a 6,000-litre tank sprays a variety of crops, often in challenging working conditions for Cotswold, Warwickshire-based farmer and contractor GW Wilson & Son. Ground clearance is impressive when the suspension is in its raised position, (shown) making it ideal for late spraying of all cereal crops.
Stresses, partly due to operation on the steep slopes of the Cotswolds, had caused a catastrophic failure, and it was only luck which prevented a potentially serious accident. “As the main operator, this was something I was keen to avoid on my next machine,” said employee Paul Beamer (known as Beamer). “The chassis section had cracked right through and I only discovered the breakage after I had problems aligning the wheels as I finished the field. I was extremely lucky that the axle didn’t break away on the slopes during use, causing an overturn. So, a priority for me was looking at the design and construction carefully before giving any new sprayer my approval.”
Several sprayers were considered and trialled and key requirements, along with the ability to stand the working conditions, included; a larger tank, improved road performance and adequate clearance for late season spraying of taller crops as well as a capable traction control system for the slippery slopes. The other important consideration was adequate clearance around the wheels as, during the last season with the previous sprayer when applying late fungicides, wet working conditions had caused mud to build up around the wheels to the extent that the sprayer would not move.
Eventually the choice came down to two machines, including the Challenger. “Out of the two, I preferred the Challenger,” said Beamer. “Both had their good points but the cab of the other sprayer was too high, making it feel unstable on our slopes, whereas the Rogator cab is positioned perfectly for comfort and visibility. I was able to try it for a full day, during which I used it in all sorts of situations, to make sure it did everything needed. Our steep banks will quickly show any weaknesses in a machine.”
Another significant factor was the boom width options; the other sprayer did not have 32m availability, which would have meant altering the farm’s system or operating a wider machine with the end sections shut-off.
“We hadn’t run any Challenger products before,” said Paul, “mainly because our previous local Agco dealer was never able to supply demonstration equipment when we wanted it and this meant we didn’t feel confident in the back-up available. Lister Wilder took over our area a few years ago, and opened a new branch at Southam which is quite near to us. Immediately, demonstrations were no problem and we were impressed by the investment being made by the dealer, and by the attitude of its staff and this gave us the confidence to consider the brand seriously for the first time, and to place the order.”
The Rogator chosen was an RG655B with 32m Chafer triple-fold booms and a 6,000-litre tank. “I was a bit worried about the extra size and weight initially,” said Paul, “as even unladen it is considerably heavier than the previous machine.
However, on its wider tyres there has been no issue with compaction and it hasn’t been stuck once. The traction control is superb and we have found that on our slopes the wheelings are actually narrower now as there is little wheel slip, whereas our last machine used to spin up the hills and create deeper and wider ruts.”
On cross-slopes Beamer pushes the wheels out to 84in to increase stability and, again, finds this results in less damage than was caused by the previous machine. “The Rogator is rock-solid on side slopes,” he reported. “The previous machine used to crab as its heavier rear slid downhill, resulting in wide and double wheelings but there is no side slip with this machine at all. The 50-50 weight split ensures both axles are under similar loadings and the level of grip is superb.”
The larger size hasn’t been an issue on smaller areas either, and the Rogator is used for game cover crops including maize, triticale and kale, the automatic section control capable of being used with the booms folded to narrower working widths. Small tank loads are easily accommodated when necessary and a 500-litre clean water tank makes it easy to clean out the tank and booms thoroughly between treatments, although Beamer tries to plan operations to include ‘cleaning loads’, reducing time spent rinsing.
The TopCon X30 screen is used to control the applications through the 10-section GPS shut-off and for automatic guidance through Egnos. Currently, the farm is trialling TopCon RTK-based guidance using a signal from Lister Wilder’s network for greater accuracy, and this is proving successful although the Cotswold slopes and valleys remain a concern in terms of ensuring reliable coverage.
“We like the idea of moving to RTK, but feel that before we invest and come to rely on the system, we have to know that the signal is reliable everywhere needed. If it turns out that we need to install our own mast to provide a signal for our more inaccessible areas then we would have to consider our options carefully as the investment would be more significant.” Lister Wilder Challenger sales manager Mark Horlick agrees; “We would far rather proceed with caution, particularly in areas where we know a signal might be affected, so loaning the system for long enough for everyone concerned to be confident makes sense.”
The TopCon X30 screen is straightforward to use. “I’m not a fan of computers, but I get on very well with the TopCon system,” commented Beamer.
The Rogator is the first sprayer on the farm to have automatic section control, the previous machine having relied on manual selection. “We could see significant benefits in terms of accuracy and, as soon as we received the Rogator, we adjusted the working areas on the field maps as auto-control allows smaller switched sections to be used accurately. It is great for our contracting work too, as our customers prefer greater accuracy of applications and see it as quite a benefit.”
Beamer said performance on the road is good; the 50kph transmission saving time between jobs, while a proper foot brake – the first the farm has had on a self-propelled sprayer – means stopping quickly and safely is assured, and it is has also increased confidence when working the steep slopes in the fields. “It is a big machine, and the operator has to be sensible about it,” observed Beamer. “We travel fully loaded to the fields quite often, and take extra care where there are cambers or if we have to mount the verges at any time. The ride quality is excellent, and means the operator can concentrate fully on the road and other traffic. It is a very safe machine.”
Beamer said servicing and daily checks are quick and easy, and that the Adblue tank needs filling only every four or five times the diesel tank is filled. There are a few grease nipples requiring attention, but Paul said he would prefer to see more. “We see daily greasing as good practise although all manufacturers now seem to sell machines with the claim that just a few daily lubrication points is a benefit. Checking around, while a machine is greased, is a great opportunity to check for faults and prevent a breakdown, and we would rather see more grease points on the Challenger, as the booms and their suspension systems are under a lot of stress resulting in wear on the spacer pads.”
Where many farms investing in a larger sprayer would have taken advantage of greater tank capacity to increase the area sprayed with each tank fill, optimising quality of application and performance of the chemicals has been the priority at Larkstoke Farm. “Increasing the dilution rate means we apply more water and improve coverage of the plant, helping ensure performance of the chemical,” explained Beamer. “Margins are under pressure and chemicals are a massive cost to us, so optimising their performance makes sense. Where previously we applied at 100 litres/ha, we are applying now at 120 litres/ha and Paul and our agronomist are in regular contact regarding the best nozzles to use for a particular situation and the anticipated weather conditions.”
“I enjoy spraying and take a pride in seeing the crops looking their best. The system works well, with me forward-planning application options and spray plans with the agronomist and on the day, if weather conditions alter, I will select a more appropriate nozzle,” he said.
Efforts to optimise the spraying operation have included increasing the amount of night-time spraying this season. “This has allowed us to reduce the issue with sun-scorch, when applying Proline (Prothioconazol) and night spraying has environmental benefits including reduced impact on bees when applying to beans,” he added.
The sprayer height is adjustable, providing up to 1.2m ground clearance on standard tyres. Track width is adjustable between 1.80-2.25m, and on the steeper cross-slopes, pushing the wheels out fully and lowering the sprayer to its standard 0.75m clearance greatly improves stability. A comment from the sprayer’s owner, Paul Wilson, is that he would prefer to see more grease nipples, but he admits that this statement could be applied to almost all his modern fleet of farm machinery.
“In October, we will have had the sprayer for two years and it will have worked 3,000 hours. Since we bought it we have taken on extra contract work and increased the workload on our own crops due to the additional black-grass controls and more applications to oilseed rape due to the ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments. For late applications the superb 1.2m clearance is a benefit, ensuring we maintain crop quality. These have included applying desiccant to rape, as well as treatments against aphids and bruchid beetles in the beans, which have been a particular issue this year, necessitating passes every 10-14 days during the past few months. We have estimated total applications by the Rogator to be in excess of 25,000 acres this year.”
Fertiliser applications through the sprayer have been considered but to move totally to liquids would almost certainly require investment in a second machine due to conflicting requirements for pesticides and feeds at the same times, between different crops. Granular fertilisers are used, applied through a disc spreader and variable rate applications have been trialled this season in conjunction with SOYL. An exception has been late applications of liquid fertiliser to oilseed rape, and Proline to the wheats, where the Rogator has been used for its clearance and, in both crops, variable rates have been used.
“We see spraying as something of a speciality and are keen to take on additional work with the current machine,” explained Beamer. “There are relatively few days during the year when it isn’t working, but it is capable of even more, and we see the potential for investing in another sprayer to meet demand if additional regular work can be taken on.”
Paul said that he would have no hesitation in buying another Challenger. “We would probably specify aluminium booms next time, because the lighter weight would allow the boom to adapt more rapidly to the changes in operating angle on our slopes. We would also opt for remote nozzle switching from the cab, as that would allow us to use low-drift nozzles when operating on higher areas of a field but to switch to standard nozzles for better coverage when in lower, sheltered areas. LED boom lighting is something we can see a need for now, where previously we did less spraying at night.”
“I love the Rogator but there are just two improvements I would like to see,” said Beamer. “There is plenty of space in the cab and it is very comfortable, but somewhere to store and protect my spray sheets would be useful. The storage provided is great for my lunch box but there is nowhere to put a folder. The other useful addition would be a built-in pressure washer. The hose reel provided is ok, but isn’t capable of shifting our heavy clay and, when we are applying fertilisers, it is essential that the booms are washed down thoroughly every day and higher pressure and flow would be a help for that too.”
Back-up from Lister Wilder has been excellent, and the Challenger representatives have been keen from the start to ensure we are getting on well with the sprayer,” commented Beamer. “We have had just one fault, with the charging circuit, and that was quickly rectified and nothing has actually prevented me from spraying at any time. The dealer’s service department provides superb back-up; George Wallace, with his previous Rogator experience, and Chris Hallas with mechanical knowledge which is second-to-none. If there is ever an issue, then they are on the farm at dawn to make sure the day’s spraying won’t be affected.”
Pictured with the Challenger sprayer are (l-r) Lister Wilder Challenger sales manager Mark Horlick, farmer Paul Wilson and sprayer operator Beamer.
“Our attitude is that a farm sprayer is just as important to maintain and keep working as a combine harvester or forage harvester,” explained Mark. “The difference is that, rather than being put away in a shed for 10 months of the year, a sprayer is out working most days. We have recruited specialist engineers and invested heavily in the training necessary to provide our customers the back-up they need, and we also run our own Rogator demonstrator which means, in effect, we have every possible part which could be needed, in our yard at all times. We have seen, in recent years, increased use of sprayers throughout the seasons which has created extra pressure on our service department, as there is no longer a two-month period when machines sit idle during winter. Sprayers have many wearing parts, including drive systems, suspension and booms, and checking these thoroughly periodically has a significant benefit in terms of reducing breakdowns during operation.”
“We have found Challenger products popular with farmers and contractors in our area for all sorts of reasons, including tailored finance, service and warranty packages for users, which means they know it isn’t just Lister Wilder looking after them – it is the manufacturer too,” he added.