Auto-steer technology enables 24/7 spraying and opens the way for accurate amenity applications

With less than 15 “perfect spraying days” in 2016, the ability to work around the clock is essential for Derek Cheriton’s busy agricultural and amenity contract spraying business.  For that reason, his farm and amenity sprayers have both been equipped with RTK-based guidance systems and full auto-steer capability.

DRC Contracting, based near Henley-on-Thames, provides a spraying and fertiliser spreading service which covers 14,000 hectares of agricultural land from the Chilterns in the north, to the Isle of Wight in the south. The company also provides a specialist amenity spraying service covering a range of land uses including horse paddocks, playing fields, golf courses, polo pitches and commercial Christmas trees nurseries.

Derek Cheriton operates the company’s farm sprayer, a Bateman R35, with Glenn Petit operating the firm’s amenity sprayer – a Kubota RTV fitted with a 10-metre boom sprayer.  Two additional quad bikes, one equipped with an on-board spraying unit, the other with a trailed sprayer, are also used.

With 10 whole-farm spraying and spreading contracts, plus two more whole-farm contracts and fire brigade coverage for up to 30 additional customers via the Thames and Kennet machinery ring, not to mention a raft of amenity clients, the business is kept busy all year round, with rarely more than a couple of consecutive days’ downtime.

“The nature of our work means we always have to be ready to take advantage of favourable conditions,” Derek describes.  “We had less than 15 perfect spraying days in the whole of last year which meant work kept backing up to the point that we often found ourselves working at night.  Having the right equipment is therefore essential to enabling us to keep up with demand and to keep our customers happy.”

In order to permit the Bateman and RTV to be operated day and night with minimal operator fatigue, both machines have been fitted with RTK-enabled guidance and auto-steer systems receiving correction from fixed radio base stations. These systems also minimise over-laps and miss-sprays, particularly when working on stale seedbeds or irregularly shaped golf fairways.

“We’ve used a range of guidance systems from various OEM and specialist suppliers in the past, working to various accuracies including free non- subscription services, medium accuracy satellite based correction as well as RTK NTRIP delivered over the mobile phone network,” Derek explains.  “They all worked to a certain extent, but we always found their signals to be unreliable or simply not accurate enough.  In contrast, the Topcon RTK radio systems we’re using now let us operate 24 hours a day to a reliable accuracy of 10mm.

The advantages typically associated with guidance and auto-steer systems – being able to operate accurately at pre-emergence or in fields without tramlines – are also of benefit when spraying in low-light or night-time conditions.  “Working at night is the same as working on fields without markings in that the sprayer has to be driven blind,” Derek describes.  “Having an accurate and reliable autosteer system makes it possible to work 24 hours a day and still provide a top-class service.

“I simply couldn’t do my job properly without an accurate auto-steer system as it lets me cover more ground more quickly and means I can keep on top of demand even when the weather tries to throw a spanner in the works.”

The guidance system also makes operating on new ground an easier proposition:

“As a member of the Thames and Kennet machinery ring, I am often called on to spray new ground,” Derek continues.  “In these circumstances, I simply drive around the field’s perimeter to log the its exact shape and size and then let the autosteer system take care of the rest. The technology makes us look more professional which gives customers the confidence that their land and crops are in good hands.  It also gives us extra peace of mind and makes it easier to cover large areas with less eye strain and less mental effort.”

Amenity spraying

DRC Contracting’s sprayer-equipped RTV is also fitted with a full RTK system and has been made auto-steer capable through the installation of a Topcon electronic steering wheel.

“Essentially the equipment on both sprayers is identical so that we can both drive either machine,” Glenn Petit explains.  “The RTV is probably the most technologically advanced all-terrain vehicle in the UK as it has full auto-steer functionality, a speed sensor for improved spraying rate accuracy and a five-section control system.“Using technology which is usually only found on large agricultural machines means we can offer a unique service to a range of amenity customers. It makes it really easy to get consistent coverage, especially on irregularly shaped areas such as golf fairways where the use of a traditional foam blobber isn’t accurate enough, and enables us to cover a much larger area during narrow windows of opportunity, such as when the weather is favourable or when golfers aren’t on course.”

Accurate auto-steer reduces input costs by 5-7%

Chris Limb of LH Agro estimates that an accurate, RTK-based guidance system can save approximately 5-7% in input costs.  “By reducing overlaps and avoiding misses, equipment such as Topcon’s RTK receivers, X-consoles and autosteer systems can quickly pay for itself, even on relatively a small acreage,” he explains.

“When you consider how much time, diesel, chemical and fertiliser can be saved by administering applications to a tolerance of plus or minus 10mm, the latest precision farming systems can deliver significant financial benefits as well as ensuring higher yields from cleaner, better quality crops.”

Derek Cheriton (left) with Topcon agent, Chris Limb of LH Agro: the Bateman sprayer is fitted with a Topcon AGI-4 RTK receiver and X30 console – at three years old, it is due to be replaced by a similar machine with the latest X35 console, individual nozzle control and a Norac boom height controller.

DRC Contracting’s RTV can be operated completely hands-free and even has full automatic section control across the sprayers 10m boom.

The RTV is fitted with the same RTK receiver as the agricultural sprayer and has been upgraded with a Topcon AES-25 electric steering wheel to make it auto-steer capable.