When corn and soybean growers expand their acreages, timely herbicide applications become a bigger challenge. The question for some: Is investing in a self-propelled sprayer a viable solution?

"You have to have a lot of acres to justify one," says Bill Murr, Murrfield Farm, McLouth, KS. His rig sprayed about 30,000 acres last year, a third of that his land and two-thirds custom application.

"The exact number of acres depends on the situation. But a farmer better be able to use such a unit on at least 10,000-12,000 acres," he says. "For example, if you only put 600-700 hours a year on it, annual depreciation is in the $15,000-20,000 range.

"With only 5,000 acres, that's $3-4/acre, and you haven't even begun to add in fuel, insurance, maintenance and labor costs," Murr adds.

Compared to other equipment that doesn't take such a beating from running at high speeds on sometimes rough terrain, these units are usually shorter-lived, too, maybe only about 5,000 hours, Murr says.

Conversely, the self-propelled sprayer he recently traded off after 1,300 hours needed only one hydraulic hose and one boom support replaced. He decided, however, to buy new rather than risk a time-wasting breakdown.

There are important labor considerations when thinking about buying a big self-propelled sprayer, says Murr.

Do you have the help available to man both the sprayer and a nurse truck? Also, do you have help you can trust to be accurate?

If the answer to any of these questions is negative, Murr says locating a well-trained custom applicator would be a better bet. And you won't have to worry about making payments on a six-figure piece of equipment.

On the other hand, he points out that running your own self-propelled sprayer allows you to fine-tune for optimum effectiveness and cost savings. Weather permitting, he says that you can get the critical jobs done without "taking a number" and waiting your turn for the custom applicator to show up.

Although Murr prefers to operate his sprayer himself, he says that almost any good hired man can quickly learn to handle one of the rigs well.

"Anybody who can run a combine or a planter can run a self-propelled sprayer," he states.

Although he needed to handle 3,000 acres of spraying annually, Jim Reinert, Ensign, KS, didn't think he could justify a big self-propelled unit on his own. So he bought one (Melrose) in partnership with a cousin who had even more acres to spray.

The arrangement has worked especially well, according to Reinert. One reason is that their schedules rarely conflict. That's because he's farming irrigated land and his cousin is basically dryland.

In the event that weather forces delays on one farm, the other farmer hires his spraying done commercially until the co-owned sprayer is available.

The men share maintenance and repair expenses based on percentage of annual usage.

Timeliness of application is their big payoff. Plus, they've found they can often apply a lower volume of chemical than when someone else does the spraying for them. Another advantage is that they're more familiar with their land than anyone else.

"I could see maybe three or four farmers getting involved in a self-propelled sprayer partnership," Reinert says. "But because this is kind of like a marriage, it's vital they all get along well together.

"Being able to cover large acreages fast - yourself - makes for an optimum condition," the grower says.