Precision techniques improve apple orchard management
19 April 2023, UK: In the six years since Herefordshire-based Tillington Top Fruit took over orchards previously managed by the Cooperative Society, the business has made extensive changes.
It has introduced modern “post-and-wire” growing systems and is replacing older orchards with more commercial varieties, mainly Gala, Jazz and Red Prince.
Dessert apple production has increased to 95ha. Within five years Tillington Top Fruit aims to switch to trellis production methods across the entire area, propelling production from 4,000 to 10,000 bins per season.
“We are introducing a more 2-D system, with trees grown up to 3-3.5m on a 3.5m row width,” says production manager Richard Hibbard.
Uniformity of production is the key aim, through reduced shading and more even fruit loading. “The aim is to maximise the percentage of grade 1 fruit within the size profile, whilst still producing volume,” Richard adds.
“At the same time the updated systems are improving the efficiency of operations. They help reduce the amount of hand pruning, and we are now carrying out mechanical pruning on certain varieties both in the winter and the summer.
“They also speed up picking, which ultimately reduces costs, and we have invested in automatic picking platforms to help improve productivity.”
“In addition, all orchards are now planted so they can be sprayed with a three-row Munchkof sprayer, improving efficiency and giving good spray coverage.” This progressive thinking goes hand in hand with the novel precision techniques now available to further improve and simplify orchard management.
Better informed decisions
Launched last year, Agrovista’s blossom counting and vigour mapping services are designed to deliver key orchard data faster and cheaper than traditional methods, helping growers make better-informed decisions to optimise production of first-class fruit.
Accurate blossom thinning is vital to ensure optimum fruit loading, but it relies on reasonably accurate flower counts to target ammonium thiosulphate (ATS) applications, which is labour intensive and slow.
Agrovista’s drone service takes this data to a completely different level, says Agrovista fruit agronomist and fruit precision lead, Tom Johnson.
“The drone can cover about 10ha an hour, assigning a value to each tree that reflects the percentage of blossom load. The resulting analysis and orchard density map, produced by our partners Aurea Imaging, is more than 90% accurate.”
Agronomist and grower can then take account of other factors such as historical records, experience, current weather and planned timings before deciding whether to reduce the number of viable flowers or ensure that all flowers set to produce a crop.
“This means growers can more accurately match ATS applications to need, producing a more uniform fruit set and more consistent quality and yield,” says Tom.
Tillington Top Fruit is aiming for 60-65mm fruit across most varieties. “Trees with poor blossom will need all those flowers to produce fruits to ensure correct fruit size,” he adds.
“But certain varieties such as Gala produce very high levels of flowers which, if they all set, would potentially produce a large crop of small fruits. Accurate assessment, coupled with chemical thinning of blossom and subsequent fruitlets, is very important to reduce the requirement for expensive hand thinning.”
Tillington Top Fruit has traditionally evaluated blossom load by manual assessing a number of trees in each orchard. “We take into account the flowering period and stages of flower development on different ages of wood – certain varieties may have undesirable physiological characteristics on the king fruit, for example,” says Richard.
“We sometimes use ATS to reduce blossom and carry out fruitlet thinning with Brevis, then follow up with hand thinning. We can use mechanical pruning later on if there is too much fruit to be thinned by hand.”
Last season, Richard used the drone across some 30% of the farm, on Gala, Jazz and Junami.
“We are growing Gala on a new site so we carried out the assessment to build up a picture of what was happening on the ground.
“The Jazz was a young orchard that we assessed to ensure it wasn’t going to crop too heavily in formative years.
“Junami can be variable in terms of flowers so it is important to know where we are starting from. We ended up applying ATS to this variety. Currently we use manual applications but from 2024 we will be doing full tree-by-tree variable rate.”
Technology is progressing so fast that Tom plans to trial the Aurea tractor-mounted sensor which will be able to collect even more accurate data from the ground, collected during other operations.
Vigour mapping is being used as an effective tool to balance vegetative growth and fruit bud set.
Excessive shoot growth can reduce flowering potential but can vary widely across orchards, depending on soil type, nutrition, and water availability.
Agrovista’s vigour mapping service measures crop height, vegetation index and vigour using the drone. This offering rapid identification of areas that require attention, either through PGR applications, or variable rate nitrogen inputs and /or root pruning the following spring.
Mapping vigour can also help pinpoint poorer-performing areas of the orchard, which with Agrovista’s Soil Health service can help identify problems and potential solutions.
“We are aiming to improve uniformity within a field,” says Tom. “If a variety is prone to biennial bearing then making interventions can help. We can also overlay vigour maps onto soil scans to see what is causing the variations.”
Richard used the information to root-prune the most vigorous trees to reduce their growth for the following season. “This spring we only needed to prune around 40% of an orchard which would have traditionally all been pruned.
“We will also adjust fertiliser inputs, applying more or less to certain areas depending on what we wish to achieve.
“In addition, the blossom map from 2023 will be overlaid onto the vigour map of autumn 2022 to see whether the most vigorous trees produce the most flowers, or the other way round.”
* Agrovista is working with Aurea Imaging to offer blossom and vigour mapping services to all growers in 2023, with a launch event for the tractor-mounting sensor planned for June in the UK.
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