Wednesday, 16 September 2020 10:45

Apples see the light

Written by  Peter Burke
Plant and Food Research’s Dr Ben van Hooijdonk (L) and Dr Stuart Tustin have been working on an MBIE funded research programme called Future Orchard Planting Systems or FOPS. Plant and Food Research’s Dr Ben van Hooijdonk (L) and Dr Stuart Tustin have been working on an MBIE funded research programme called Future Orchard Planting Systems or FOPS.

A new innovative apple orchard design has seen a doubling of yield, an improvement in fruit quality, promising environmental benefits and ease of fruit picking as well.

For the last six years, scientists from Plant and Food Research, based in Hawkes Bay, have been working on an MBIE funded research programme called Future Orchard Planting Systems (FOPS), led by Dr Stuart Tustin. The goal of the research has been to design an orchard system that allows the fruiting canopy to capture more sunlight with the hope that it would lead to improved production and sustainability.

The present best conventional apple trees and orchard designs only utilise between 60% to 65% of the available sunlight. But according to Dr Ben van Hooijdonk, their new orchard design utilises up to 85% of the sunlight energy, and they hope they can take this to 90%.

“The FOPS programme is based on an accumulation of knowledge over a number of years, but hasn’t been done internationally,” van Hooijdonk told Hort News

“It was well known that there was a limitation in our present orchard designs about how much sunlight they capture. But no one had been daring enough to narrow the spacing of the tree rows, in an attempt to increase sunlight capture and improve yield.” 

He says the important innovation is narrowing of the tree rows.

Van Hooijdonk and his colleagues working on the project decided to carry out trials that would see the rows of trees a mere two metres apart. They also went a stage further and trialled rows 1.5m apart. 

The purpose of the 1.5m spacing was to test the biology of the plant. But van Hooijdonk says it’s clear the 2m spacing is the better option for commercial growers.

In the actual rows, the apple trees are planted three metres apart. Attached to 3.5m tall posts all along the rows are a series of wires to which the apples trees and their stems are firmly attached.

“Each tree is a divided canopy. There are two stems and we lay them down in opposing directions along the row, like a grape vine cordon,” he explains. “From these we take 10 vertical stems per tree and they are spaced 30cm apart in what are in effect mini trees, which allows for maximum light penetration right down into the bottom of the canopies and that is what contributes to higher yields and better quality.” 

Van Hooijdonk says the outcome of the trial thus far has been outstanding and some innovative growers are already converting their orchards to the new system. With a narrower spacing between the rows (2m) and a wider spacing between the trees (3m), only moderate tree densities are required per hectare.

Van Hooijdonk says the optimum planting is 1667 trees per ha. He says, at present, a good grower with a conventional orchard system may expect to have a yield of about 100 tonnes per ha and an average grower between 60 and 80 tonnes per ha.

“But on one FOPS orchard where they are trialling the Jazz variety of apple, the yield was 180 tonnes per hectare,” he says.

Not just yield

While the new orchard design has created some amazing new numbers in terms of yield, it has also revealed some other benefits, of which quality is one. 

Dr Ben van Hooijdonk says normally growers would pick a tree three to four times to ensure that only fruit that has reached the required colour are harvested.

The apple orchard design reduced spaces between plants by half — from three metres to just 1.5.

“What we’ve seen, because of the vastly improved light environment, is much more uniform populations of fruit that ripen and colour more evenly,” he told Hort News. “Consequently, we are picking a lot more fruit in the first two harvests. Overall, the quality is less variable and we are also achieving better size and dry matter, which is a metric for eating quality.” 

Another timely facet of the design is that trees are two metres apart – perfect in terms of social distancing with Covid-19 being around. Because the trees are not bushy they can be picked by staff standing on platforms as opposed to ladders. The platforms are safer and easier for staff to work from.   

The new orchard design will, however, require some rethinking when it comes to the use of technology. For example, many of the robotic harvesting machines are large – smaller ones will need to be designed. Smaller tractors and equipment will also be needed to get down the narrower two-metre rows.

The FOPS programme was not just set up to look at apple orchard design. Pears and summer fruits such as cherries and apricots were included and van Hooijdonk says there are promising outcomes for cherries. He says avocado growers have also expressed interest in the system.

He says while the results to date are positive, the test will be to see how the orchards using this system perform in the next eight to ten years but adds if the results they are achieving now continue they have a winner.

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Lely offerings for the future

Dutch robotic specialist Lely launched a new farm management application called Horizon at its recent Future Farm Days 2020.

Designed to connect data from a range of on-farm equipment and suppliers into one management system, it creates a real-time decision-support platform, to make the farmer’s life easier, the herd healthier and the farm more profitable, says Lely.

Developed over a 24-month period, with over 100 test farmers in seven countries, working with 75 engineers, designers, farm management advisors, veterinarians and AI specialists, the new application will eventually replace the current Lely T4C management system. It uses smart algorithms and the cloud to deliver data that is processed into actionable information that is always accessible on any device in a user-friendly way.

Lely claims the Horizon application unburdens farmers from routine decision making and helps them optimise their workloads, using integrated routines based on easily scheduled cow ‘touches’, create logical and more efficient workflows. It is also possible to assign a certain task to an employee and to schedule a time slot for the cow touch, rather than analysing different reports and filtering long lists.

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To ensure full support in the migration to Lely Horizon, existing Lely T4C customers will be personally informed by their Lely Center before the end of 2020.

The migration is planned in a phased approach, from country to country, over the year 2021.

Also launched at the event, Lely Exos is an autonomous concept for harvesting and feeding fresh grass to the herd.

The company suggests that feeding fresh grass makes better use of available roughage, suggesting “fresh” has between 10 and 20% more nutritional value than grass silage, as there are minimal losses typically seen during mowing, tedding, raking, harvesting and feeding.

Lely suggests that feeding fresh grass over an extended season reduces the amount of silage that has to be conserved, reduces the need for concentrates and bought-in feed and increase the margin made on each litre of milk produced.

Based around an all-electric vehicle that mows and feeds, Exos is light weight and uses soil friendly technology, that can be exploited throughout the growing season. Design to work 24/7 as feed requirements change, the system places no constraints on labour or time, while it is also designed to work in tandem with the Lely Vector automatic feeding systems.

In operation, Exos also collects field data as it goes about its job, giving framers live data on grass supply and lending itself to a further concept of delivering a targeted liquid fertiliser as it passes over a harvested area.

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