Sask. sprayer takes fertilizer to the skies

Miccar Aerial | Yorkton, Sask., pilot is testing a practice that’s already used in the United States

Michael Yaholnitsky wants farmers to think above the ground and re-imagine how fertilizer can be applied.

Yaholnitsky, who owns Miccar Aerial, a crop spraying company in Yorkton, Sask., expanded his business this spring to include dry fertilizer. He already has a couple of customers for the unique service.

In late May, a Miccar Aerial plane was spreading 125 lb. per acre of dry fertilizer on a field near Canora, Sask., as part of a test run for the company.

About an hour after leaving the field, Yaholnitsky said everything was going smoothly and they were covering about 100 acres per hour.

“We’re putting on ammonium sulfate for a farmer who just can’t get it all (fertilizer) through the drill,” said Yaholnitsky, who also owns Good Spirit Air Service, a charter flight company in Yorkton.

“Our broadcast pattern on the ground is excellent…. The airplane does a very good job of scattering.”

Yaholnitsky said this is Miccar Aerial’s first foray into aerial fertilizer applications, a common service in parts of the U.S.

Rice growers in Arkansas hire aerial applicators for all their fertilizer needs because it’s the only way to get nitrogen and other nutrients onto the waterlogged crop.

With the exception of wild varieties, rice isn’t a commercial crop in Canada, but large farms are becoming the norm on the Prairies.

Yaholnitsky said aerial application of fertilizer might make sense for busy producers.

“As aircraft have gotten bigger… the concept of putting on dry fertilizer by aircraft has always been of interest to me,” he said.

“As these farm sizes continue to grow, guys that are managing them look at ways to get more efficient…. Most of our customers are 8,000 to 10,000 acres and plus, the challenge for them is to get all the product that they need through the (seeding) drill.”

In the field near Canora, Miccar Aerial spread fertilizer before the grower entered the field to seed canola.

Yaholnitsky said the key to aerial fertilizing is a loading cart that can hold 12,000 to 13,000 lb. of dry product. The product is augered from the cart to the plane.

“The scale is extremely accurate. We’re tracking on every load exactly how much we’re putting into the aircraft,” he said. “In this case we’re doing (plane) loads of about 2,900 lb…. The farmer wants it (ammonium sulfate) on at 125 lb. per acre, so we’re doing roughly 22 acres a load.”

When applying dry fertilizer, the plane flies about 10 metres above the ground, compared to four metres for liquid product like fungicide

Yaholnitsky and his employees checked the field following the aerial application for fertilizer distribution.

“We put in an exact amount of poundage and look at the acres we do…. At this point we’re bang on what the target needs to be.”

Ken Degg, education and safety director with the National Agricultural Aviation Association in the U.S., said winter wheat growers in the Midwest occasionally rely on aerial application of fertilizer.

If the ground is too soft in the spring, farmers will hire a company to top dress a winter wheat crop with fertilizer.

American corn growers will also use planes to fertilize in wet years, but it’s not a common practice for most crops, Degg said.

“For the most part, it’s kind of a fallback (approach)… but they do an awful lot of fertilizing of timber, or trees, in the winter.”

Nonetheless, applying fertilizer with planes could become more common in agriculture, Degg said.

“One thing that’s constant in our industry is change.”

Yaholnitsky said new fertilizer technologies might encourage Canadian farmers to give it a try.

“I think it’s going to take a little bit of time, but I think potentially… it’s another tool a farmer has in his toolbox,” he said.

“A few years ago broadcasting urea onto a field there was concern of loss…. But now with product like Agrotain and fertilizers like SUPERU, the loss as the result of surface broadcasting is minimal.”

For now, Miccar Aerial is charging growers per acre to apply fertilizer. Yaholnitsky said charging per pound of fertilizer is the standard in the U.S.

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