Although some big operations are choosing to buy large spray rigs and apply their own herbicides, the trend seems to be toward custom application.

“Our custom application business has grown about 10% in recent years,” reports Mike Schmitt, Ag View FS, Princeton, IL. “One reason is that farmers are planting more and more Roundup Ready soybeans and they don't want the responsibility for spray drift. They would rather let us handle that.

“Also, many younger farmers hold off-farm jobs and don't have the time to spray,” Schmitt adds. “And in the case of larger, full-time farmers, it's often easier for them to have us do it than to hire additional help.”

The trend toward no-till cropping in the Great Plains has accelerated custom herbicide and fertilizer application in that region, says Terry Phillips of the Scott Co-op, Scott County, KS. There is a growing need for both burndown and postemergence spraying on an increasing number of acres.

“We run three 90' rigs and still can't keep up,” Phillips notes.

“Some bigger farmers have their own large sprayers, usually bought used from a commercial applicator, and do some of their own application,” Phillips explains. “But when they need high gallonages or if they have fieldwork to do, they park their rigs and call us. With today's poor commodity prices, some of them have cut back on the hired labor that would handle other work while the owner runs the sprayer.”

A central Iowa rep for one of the major herbicide manufacturers says that 70-80% of the herbicide sold by some retailers in his area is now custom-applied. That's up from about 50% just 10 years ago.

“Some of the larger, well-informed farmers are making their own decisions on herbicides and buying those herbicides as cheaply as possible,” he notes. “They are doing their own spraying. However, when you look at overall acreage, there is an increase in custom application.”

The rep says most co-ops and retailers can't compete on product price with the cash-and-carry companies that offer no services.

Rather, co-ops and retailers concentrate on service by offering herbicide recommendations, custom spraying by certified operators and crop scouting.

“Herbicide selection gets more complicated every year, and a farmer needs more and more knowledge to keep up,” says the rep. “An increasing number of growers are turning that job, along with the spraying, over to a local dealer.”

Dale Anson, a Monsanto rep in northeastern Illinois, reports that custom application has definitely gone up in his area.

“Five years ago, with most farmers getting bigger, I thought most of them would get their own larger rigs and do their own spraying,” he notes. “But in our area it has been just the opposite.

“The larger a farmer gets, the less time he can afford running a sprayer,” says Anson. “Also, the cost of a self-propelled rig has gotten out of hand. And even those farmers who might do their own spraying don't want the potential liability of spray drift.”