Let Us Spray

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-By John Boley

Those of us who are not farmers are probably only at best dimly conscious of what goes on ‘down on the farm’. Maybe some slight awareness of pesticides or yields, but no real appreciation of the fact that without intensive farming methods, our breakfast bread would cost $20 a loaf.

So the GoldAcres story will come as a bit of an eye-opener, as well as some welcome news on the industrial front: an all-Australian company beating imports hands-down even in these days of the high dollar, having to double production to keep pace with demand and winning innovation awards for products that help farmers to increase yields while reducing consumption of water, chemicals and even diesel. GoldAcres makes crop sprayers.

The company was set up by John Richards in the 1980s and although John is now semi-retired, his two sons Roger and Stephen continue the business and its expansion. St Arnaud, 130km northwest of Ballarat, is where the company was founded and today manufactures sprayers up to 2500 litres and the Pathway range. Since producing the first sprayer from this site over 30 years ago the building has undergone many expansions and improvements and is now spread over 2000 square metres.

The company was built largely on the agricultural trend towards minimum tillage, as GoldAcres’ group general manager Vic Muller explains. Traditionally, farmers had ploughed their entire field, turning the ground over. More recently they broke the large clumps left by the plough into fine particles to provide an ideal seed bed. The seeds were planted in rows that were wide enough for a horse to walk through so that the weeds could be cultivated and killed.

But from the 1960s onwards, scientists and progressive farmers had started asking a fundamental question: if rows are closer, can a seed still germinate and grow? Do we need to prepare the entire field as a seedbed? Research showed that most seeds only need a few centimetres of finely worked, firm soil around them to germinate and grow.

There was the added problem of erosion. Dry, finely-worked open fields can become dust storms very quickly, and some crop residue from the previous year’s crop can protect the fields. Conservation practices had already changed planting practices for most farmers. The industry began questioning the need for turning over 500 to 1,000 tonnes of soil per acre with a plough when less than 10 per cent of it would be used for a seedbed, especially now that herbicides were in widespread use to control the competition to the crop – weeds.

“Without ploughing, you still have to get rid of the weeds, which means spraying,” says Vic. “As cultivation moves towards minimum tillage, the use of sprayers has become more and more important and GoldAcres followed that trend.”

More crop-spraying? Many townies might throw up their hands in horror, assuming that would be anti-environmental, but things have changed. The advent of non-residual chemicals has all but eliminated the potential for damage. Put simply, minimum tillage has increased the productivity of land. So-called ‘organic farming’ is all well and good but at a macro level, land needs to be used more efficiently if that $20 dollar loaf is not to become a reality and that means more spraying (of fungicides and pesticides as well as herbicides), which is now a critically important part of crop-growing.

Enter GoldAcres. “The direction we have taken is to deliver machinery that allows a very accurate application of the chemical, which is safe to use, but needs to be applied correctly – that is, it lands where you want it to land, and also at the correct rate,” explains Vic. Accuracy depends on wind drift and direction, the stability of the boom used to deliver the chemical, how high and how fast the rate of application. The rate depends on the chemical manufacturer’s specified coverage per volume.

Most of us have seen pictures of agriculture in developing countries, of people tramping through fields with backpacks, dispensing sprayed chemicals by wand. Usually these pictures accompany awful tales of the health hazards and environmental damage, but the real tragedy is that such application methods are not even efficient. Patchy coverage is a biohazard in itself, as Vic says: “If you want to breed a chemical-resistant weed, the best way is to give it a dose of herbicide that will hurt it but allow it to recover. That’s another reason why accuracy and correct dosage are so important.”

GoldAcres has long led the field in terms of bringing really accurate application technology to Australian farming, says Vic with undisguised pride. He cites one seemingly simple example: use of aluminium as a material for booms (the equipment is largely made-to-measure for individual applications in both towed and self-propelled formats, with booms up to a massive 44 metres in length). “When you’re hurtling down the paddock, it’s relatively easy to keep the boom under control while the machine goes dead straight, but it’s not so easy when you have to manoeuvre around all the objects you get in a paddock such as posts or odd shapes of fences or all the other reasons why a farmer can’t just drive straight on his farm.”

This introduces yaw in the boom. GoldAcres uses aluminium in conjunction with a specially designed (in-house) and patented hydraulic yaw control suspension in order to keep the weight down, reduce the inertia and the tendency to yaw, and keep the boom – literally – on the straight and narrow, ensuring elimination of over- or under-application of chemical depending on whether the end of the boom is travelling slower or faster than the sprayer itself.

Some time ago GoldAcres saw the potential in a US brand called Raven, which featured direct chemical injection (DCI) of chemicals. Rather than mix chemical with water in a tank and pump it, a DCI system will fill the tank with water and only inject the chemical into the line just in front of the nozzle (or the boom line). Five or six years ago, says Vic, “we took the US parts and built them into our own DCI system” partly because the US versions were not technically evolved enough for Australian requirements.

Using DCI, GoldAcres offers a variety of methods of safely filling a number of chemical hoppers on the sprayer itself without contamination, then allows multi-product spraying with up to perhaps five different chemicals in various concentrations along the length of the sprayer, each to be injected under control of the driver into the boom line – providing extra efficiency through being able to spray selectively. These machines have become very sophisticated, offering the farmer a full range of options to spray individual patches of land with appropriate and helpful chemicals without the need to drive over that land more than once.

Yet more sophistication comes from a variety of extra applications such as GPS to tell the driver precisely what’s needed where or even apply automatically. This means better chemical utilisation (not wasting it on areas of land that don’t need it) and lower water consumption because one “application” of water can deliver the full number of chemicals. Compatibility issues between two chemicals? Easy – just put a second delivery line on the boom. Oh, by the way: it saves the farmer both time and money.

Under such circumstances, it seems hardly surprising that the agricultural community is beating a path to GoldAcres’ door. The latest sprayer, the Crop Cruiser Evolution, has a spacious, European inspired cabin, 10-inch full colour touchscreen control, and an intuitive, multi function joystick to simply manage the machine and sprayer functions in a single CAN based system. It’s also, says Vic, weighing at around 13.5 tonnes, compared to a typical 20-21 tonnes for its imported competitors. Now farmers are saving on fuel costs as well.

GoldAcres is now investing in a second shift to keep pace with production and investigating, with help from Austrade, the export potential for this formidable piece of agricultural kit. No, says Vic, it’s not cheap. But the savings are substantial and the cost benefit analysis compelling – one testimonial on the company website cites a fuel consumption figure of around 10 litres per hour but “it’s not uncommon to hear operators of imported machines talking about 30 litres per hour.” Not only farmers are impressed; earlier this year GoldAcres received an award for industry innovation for the range, presented in Melbourne by the federal minister for innovation, science and technology, Kim Carr.

Vic stresses the company’s ethos of service. “Making the best machinery means no compromises on the quality of the components that go into it. GoldAcres scours the world for the latest and best technology and then adapts it to Australian conditions. This often involves close partnerships with competent Australian suppliers to bring new technology to the farmer at a realistic price. Whether that be electrical upgrades, stronger wheels or custom drive-line parts, our supplier chain is very important to our success”

GoldAcres has a network of retailers, most of which can service the machinery, but factory technicians are sent to a number of (often remote) locations in any case where a local dealer cannot provide adequate backup. This, he says, is much appreciated. It’s the icing on the cake, so to speak. Or, in the context of keeping down the cost of a loaf, the GoldAcres sprayer may just be the best thing since sliced bread!

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 16, 2018, 3:54 PM AEDT