Matt Fuller soaks up knowledge like a sponge absorbs water. In the four years he has been sprayer operator at Heathcote Farms, Toddington, Bedfordshire, the enthusiastic youngster has achieved his BASIS qualification as well as being crowned 2020 FSOOTY champion.
“The competition was mentioned to me, and I saw it as a learning opportunity,” explains Matt. “When I got through to the final six, I thought it was fantastic for a first attempt.”
“And like many who enter FSOOTY, I just wanted to test myself and see what I could learn from other operators,” he says. “When I saw the calibre of other operators I was up against, I never expected to win and so I was fairly relaxed going into the final rounds.
“But I’m really pleased that I took the trouble to enter, and it’s opened my eyes to another level of professionalism. The top tips in this industry are just awesome and everybody gains.”
Clearly one who enjoys raising the bar, Matt works closely with farm manager Andrew Robinson, with both taking part in crop walking across the farm.
Having recently completed his BASIS qualification, Matt says it helps him and Andrew to bounce crop health scenarios off each other, so the business gets the most from its agronomy services.
Heathcote Farm grows 1,150ha of combinable crops, with soil types ranging from heavy clays to green sand. Without the luxury of land being ring-fenced, road travel is an essential part of the farm’s activities, though block-cropping simplifies logistics when making the eight-mile journey north to outlying areas.
As a long-standing Bateman customer, Heathcote Farms was the first to adopt the Devon maker’s option of the Capstan PinPoint PWM system with its 2018-model RB35. Bought to replace a five-year old, 6,000-hour RB35, the new model retains a 4,000-litre tank and 32m wide boom, but came with larger wheel and tyre equipment.
PWM pays for itself
The decision to invest in PWM was straightforward enough, and despite the high capital outlay, the farm believes it will pay for itself in less than five years through a 1-2% reduction in the area sprayed, simply by cutting overlaps.
“PWM has improved the accuracy of spray deposition enormously. I have used water soluble paper to assess droplet size and coverage from various nozzles and settings, when applying through curves.
Matt has four different pre-sets in the PWM system for each nozzle, and one in particular has been assigned to boost application rate by 20% for only those nozzles that sit over the tramlines.
“I also have another boost set for the outer 4m boom section, to help control any weeds encroaching from the headland. I’m still learning and understanding the system’s capabilities and its limitations, and the best way to do that is to make a change, then assess and record the effect,” he explains.
Keeping sprayer performance and productivity at an optimum level calls for a thoughtful approach to mixing and filling.
Field sizes range from 5ha-40ha, and typically he uses water rates from 100-150 litres/ha, with 200 litres adopted for pre-emergence sprays. Access to water storage at different sites improves logistics. Matt operates mostly alone and endeavours to be as self-contained as possible. This improves overall output and spraying efficiency, while avoiding as much downtime as possible by not needing to return to base.
Mix and fill trailer
The key to this is the use of a spray trailer, towed behind a 4×4. It contains everything needed for a day’s spraying and comprises three lockable cabinets. Two are used for active ingredient storage, with different pesticides stored on either the left- or right-hand side, with access available from both sides of the trailer to improve ingredient selection.
The third cabinet carries a spill kit, apron, face shield, a selection of jugs, an assortment of lid spanners and pens, plus petrol for running the transfer pump, along with an emergency supply of diesel.
He also carries a drip tray to deploy beneath the overflow pipe, but with the introduction of electric spray valves, Matt can set the fill volume 10-litres shy of the required volume to reduce the risk of an overflow.
At the back of the trailer, a white board lists the ingredients, the rate and the amount of liquid required per load. This is fixed by the mixing bowl, which includes a can wash for triple-rinsing and means Matt doesn’t need to use the sprayer’s induction hopper.
Opened smaller, 1-litre containers of concentrated pesticides are placed in an old milk crate prior to being poured. This reduces the risk of accidentally knocking one over, when the lids have been removed.
The trailer also has room for an IBC carrying trace elements, and a second IBC with mesh floor guard is used for washed and rinsed can storage. This has the ability to be drained back at the farm, with any liquid residue processed through the farm’s bio-filter.
Foils and lids are transferred into a plastic bag, which is securely held inside a make-shift dustbin, ready for disposal. A further addition is the installation of a 150-litre tank on top of the spray trailer, carrying a water conditioner, to help improve the efficacy of herbicides and avoid lock-up.
The spray store is approached with similar logic and leaves nothing to chance. Racking is clearly labelled, and a large display board offers a detailed analysis of stock. Emergency numbers, farm maps, manufacturer contacts along with Matt’s qualifications and various certificates all illustrate his methodical approach.
But for all the processes and technology at Matt’s fingertips, the farm is still a believer in traditional paper records for its spray applications.
“We don’t have a solid mobile phone signal everywhere across the areas we farm, so I choose to cross-check paper records against my wipe-board in the spray store,” he says.
“With recommendation sheets organised in a folder that’s kept in the sprayer cab, jobs are unlikely to get missed – paperwork from completed fields gets moved into a different section in my folder, so I can work methodically with applications.”