RCNZ contractor profile: R&S Gray Ltd

By: Vivienne Haldane, Photography by: Vivienne Haldane


Chemical spraying is a core part of pasture and crop care for many NZ farmers. Farm Trader catches up with R&S Gray Ltd to find out more about the industry.

Ron and Clint Gray have a system that works well for them. Son Clint is an owner-driver contracted to Ron and is also a shareholder in the business R&S Gray Ltd. 

As established agricultural spraying operators, there’s plenty of work to keep them both busy. Clint describes Central Hawke’s Bay "as an intensive farming district with lots of switched-on farmers."

The agricultural spraying contractors have developed long-term clients for year-round business.

Ron, who has run his Waipukurau-based business for 34 years, has built up a loyal client base.

"Between us, we have loads of experience and know our clients well. I have some clients whose fathers I used to do work for, so now we are into the second generation of business," he says.

Starting out

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Ron bought an existing agricultural spraying business in 1984 after seeing it for sale in a Wellington newspaper. He and his young family sold up and moved north.

"When I look back, it was a big risk but it’s worked out well," he says.

When the bottom fell out of the economy in the late 1980s, he had to think outside
the square.

"Everything crashed; farm subsidies came off and it went into a real hole. Gorse spraying was subsidised, so that all went as farmers cut back and sheep were worth nothing. It was tough.

"To survive, I worked at Takapau freezing works for a few months each year. We had another dip in the mid-1990s, so I went to work on a mate’s orchard. Eventually, things came right. What helped me was not carrying too much debt."

When glyphosate spraying became huge, Clint joined his father’s business. He started out driving tractors for a local agricultural contractor and then went on to do a diesel apprenticeship with local firm Stevenson and Taylor.

"I got so busy and was going to hire someone else, then thought I’d offer it to him and he jumped at it. That was over 16 years ago now," Ron says.

Changes along the way

Property sizes and crop varieties have changed substantially since Ron began. Peas, gorse, lucerne, and barley used to be the most commonly grown in Hawke’s Bay. "Now there are fewer peas, barley is grown in bigger lots, and it’s mostly malting barley grown for the breweries. There’s hardly any wheat but there’s a lot of green feed maize, and in the last 10 years, dairy has been supporting crops.

"Once, everybody had about 20 acres. Now growers are bigger and they specialise; they realise if you want to go cropping you’ve got to do it on a bigger scale."

The Grays are kept busy spraying glyphosate on a regular basis. "Everything is sprayed out before and after a crop. That didn’t exist when I began," Ron says.

The fleet

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Ron started with two trucks – a specialist one for spraying peas and the other for thistles. Now they have two Mitsubishi Fuso Canters, a Toyota Land Cruiser for smaller jobs, and a Chafer 5000 Multi Drive self-propelled sprayer. They are also building an Isuzu spray truck.

The most recent acquisition is their multi-drive Chafer used on squash crops.

"It’s great for height and vision," Ron says.

The 4WD trucks have extra heavy-duty tyres to handle the hill work. They make excellent platforms for the spraying units they carry.

Safety-wise, especially with hill country, they say it’s a case of picking your day and conditions for spraying.

Technology

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The Grays employ the latest technology for efficient workflow.

"Fortunately, Clint has a handle on that and he’s dragged me into the modern age.

"He usually does the GPS mapping at night so we know exactly what we’re doing ahead of time."

Ron says that although the gear they use now is far more complex compared to when he first started, it’s easier to use.

The father and son duo run two separate GPS systems. Tracmap is used to allocate jobs and map the paddocks, giving proof of placement of chemicals, and Trimble is
used for guidance and auto section control while spraying.

"In the early years, I was one of the first to get a cell phone, but before that, all we had was a radio to home. I had no contact out in the field so if I had a problem or was stuck, that was it. Now a lot of the work is done while we are on the move. It’s a lot more efficient and means we are not up half the night.

"Farmers have cell phones and send us maps or e-mails. So much has happened with technology in the last five years," Ron says.

Seasonal variety

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In July, the Grays do winter weed spraying on lucerne while it’s dormant. This high-yield crop lasts up to 10 years. Additionally, thistle spraying is being done in the dry Tikokino country, west of Waipukurau, and they’re beginning to spray out crops in preparation for spring planting.

Malting barley is big here, too.

"Everybody used to grow feed barley here but the price between that and malted was quite marked," Clint says.

"Then we do a round-up/glyphosate spray all the way through from now until December."
Feed crops start in October. Brassicas go in, which are then sprayed for weeds and insects. Depending on the season, it might be aphids, white butterfly, or Diamondback moth.

"We get a lot of insects right across summer and that’s when the Chafer is kept busy applying fungicide to the squash crops," Ron says.

"Given good lamb prices, there will be lots of lamb feed crops of brassica, plantain, and chicory going in, too," Clint says. "If there’s a drought, it slows down the business, but it’s usually followed by a big season spraying thistles."

Come March, the Grays are usually flat out with three trucks working on spray-out prior to autumn planting.

"Then we go duck shooting and have a breather and Clint does a bit of hunting. All in all, it’s not a bad lifestyle," Ron says.

They also do contract spraying along forestry roads in nearby Gwavas Forest.

Maintenance

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Ron and Clint are big on buying and maintaining everything as locally as possible.

"We don’t go everywhere around the country for our gear. Sometimes, it’s dearer here but it means I can phone everyone and they are handy. They’ll either bring somebody here or we’ll go in. You get good results from those long-term relationships."

Rural Contractors

The Grays are registered chemical applicators with Rural Contractors NZ and as such are obligated to adhere to strict guidelines governing chemical application.

"As a national body, they do a lot of work on our behalf. If we have any problems, we ring them and they are most helpful," Ron says.

The Grays recycle their used chemical containers through AgRecovery.

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