Winter management critical for fruit quality

Now the pressure has come off after a busy harvesting season, winter is a great time to review the successes of the season and, more importantly, where you didn’t quite hit the home runs you were after. Once this has been done you can plan a new, improved strategy for next season. As you often hear, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.

High-coloured, excellent-quality Pacific Queen apples.

Reviewing the past season’s objectives/goals and then setting out some new ones will help you refocus on what lies ahead. Focusing on three or four key goals/objectives keeps clarity and lessens confusion. Apple businesses nowadays are so diverse that one can easily be distracted from the main prize without clear goals and objectives. Winter ensures clear heads and another opportunity to make significant strides in your business. For more on business planning view APAL’s Future Orchards® archive library.

There can be many goals in orcharding businesses, from succession planning to surviving another season, to increasing orchard gate revenue and profitability, and so on. The goal that Future Orchards is prioritising this winter is improving fruit quality.

Increasing profitability is usually the most common goal orchardists focus on. However, the way to do this often involves spending more, not less. Let me explain.

Too often, cost-cutting becomes the primary goal to increasing profitability. If this is your strategy, be sure it is warranted.

Consider benchmarking your orchard against the APAL Orchard Business Analysis. This report highlights that orchards performing in the upper quartile usually have the highest expenditure per hectare (but the lowest cost per kilogram) because they spend on increasing quality production. This production is built around quality (improved packout/size/colour etc).

In September 2013 I wrote an article titled Future Orchards shows how to improve orchard returns by $18,000/hectare. Improvements made to pruning led to better quality fruit that
attracted a premium in the marketplace. Another example is that price premiums are still being achieved for new innovative varieties (if quality is maintained).

In the June 2017 Future Orchards walks, the following tables were presented on how open (unrestricted) and closed (club/controlled) variety prices responded over time as production
(and competition) increased.

With controlled (club) varieties, as early production increases rapidly, price can often be under pressure initially because of this rapid expansion phase and demand is unable to keep pace. Well-managed club varieties halt this price erosion by utilising several strategies – for example, they cap future  plantings until demand has caught up to (and overtaken) supply, they increase marketing and promotion spend, and they target quality. Once more consumers become familiar with the variety and demand has increased (providing the variety has the attributes that make it stand out from the pack in the marketplace), often the price premium is readjusted upwards.

Often the biggest gains to increasing orchard profitability come from focusing on improvements to only a few areas of your business. Identify which small improvements offer the business the best return. By completing this exercise, you will be less likely to adopt the wrong strategy. Remember, the upper quartile often has the highest expenditure per hectare but some of the lowest costs per Class 1 kilogram of fruit. We see time and again this increase in expenditure leading to increased yield, fruit size, packout and fruit quality, which can lead to a significant increase in orchard income and profitability, if done correctly.

For me, winter is the time to set the quality scene and offers the best bang for your buck. Don’t use the winter months as a time to save a dollar on winter pruning. In truth, the opposite occurs. A poor job done on winter pruning can increase costs later in the season (hand thinning, lower packouts etc). I’m reminded of an article John Wilton wrote in New Zealand’s Orchardist magazine (September 2015): “Generally speaking, the sooner you get crop load down to near optimum, the closer you can drive yield up to genetic yield potential while still retaining high fruit quality”. Again, this reinforces the need to think quality during your winter prune.

Future Orchards has shown many of the different pruning techniques used around the world (artificial spur extension, click and long pruning). Australian growers have been very fortunate to see these demonstrated first hand. Whatever pruning technique you adopt, do it well. These varied pruning techniques have many things in common. All strive to produce quality fruit year after year. All benefit from a calm tree and all try to reduce excessive tree vigour (to lessen its effect on fruit quality).

Modern pruning systems revolve around calm trees. Vigorous growing trees do not encourage fruitful behaviour. Most growers have now adopted simple pruning rules and pendant branches which have encouraged more fruitful trees. The next step is to strive for better quality pruning. Another article by John Wilton (Australian Fruitgrower, June 2012), Pruning – Getting the job done well, still applies today and summarises all that growers and staff need to concentrate on when pruning. Make sure you refresh your memory by reading all the Future Orchards material under the pruning section.

Difficult-to-grow replacement branches beneath bigger branches growing above the branch removed. Target the removal of the  higher, big branch first.

Supervision

However, the last two paragraphs of his article under the heading ‘Communicate and monitor’ are areas that need more attention. Better supervision is a major area everyone can improve on and it will lead to significant gains in fruit quality and orchard performance. Too often pruners are trained and then left on their own for far too long. Regular supervision is a must. I have seen staff let loose with a chainsaw cut all the wrong branches out and, subsequently, yield has suffered. Supervisors should be paid to supervise and ensure all staff are on target all the time. Don’t encourage supervisors to take shortcuts by letting them wander away from the important task of getting a skilled pruning job completed in every row and for every tree. Ensure they have a written objective and job description for each block so they know what you want them to achieve.

Some of the worst pruning I have ever seen has involved the removal of big branches – the wrong big branches. Nothing drops yield faster than unsupervised staff let loose in a block and told to cut out the biggest branch. This isn’t good enough. More detail needs to be given. Removal of overly strong branches producing way too much vigour is important only if it is affecting the quality of fruit nearby.

The results of lack of staff training and poor supervision can take a long time to recover. Here two big cuts were made when only one was required.

Removing big branches

I have heard it said often that removing a big basal branch allows the tree to grow taller and catch up to its neighbours. Although this is the aim, this does not always happen if the wrong branch is cut. The objective perhaps should have been to never have had that branch left in the tree at all if it was affecting overall tree height. Once a tree is mature (nowadays, that’s at eight years or more) my objective is to grow as much quality fruit as I can. Once a branch produces excessive vigour and affects fruit quality, then it should be removed.

There are several ways to approach the removal of big branches.  First up, strong basal branches should never have been left to develop in the young tree and should have been removed early in the tree’s life. As trees mature and reach full production, removing a strong basal branch can dramatically affect yield. On closer spacings, in more intensive orchards, sometimes a strong dominant basal branch that is removed can easily be replaced by a new shoot encouraged to grow a few years earlier. Or, the gap created by removing the big basal branch can be filled with a neighbouring branch with minimal effect on yield.

The type of cut when removing a big branch can affect replacement shoot growth. A ‘Dutch’ or ‘toilet seat’ cut often encourages a new shoot to grow that is more horizontal and requires minimal training. However, this does not always work. Look at past big pruning cuts in your orchard. If you have achieved eight replacement shoots from every 10 cuts, you have done well. In some varieties this is particularly difficult to achieve. I was also taught early in my career that it is difficult to grow a big branch below another big branch (left higher in the tree directly above it). Therefore, I prefer to remove the biggest branch higher up the tree first and then, over a few years, work my way to cutting out the lower big branches once I have a potential replacement branch to roll over the top and to replace the lower branch. This achieves the same aim of removing strong vigorous branches and helps to improve fruit quality but has less impact on reducing crop load.

Good replacement shoot growing from a ‘Dutch’ or ‘toilet seat’ cut.

Not everyone sees it this way and that’s okay. You must do what works for you in your location, variety, rootstock and, more importantly, growing system. Controlling vigour is predominantly what we are trying to achieve by removing big strong branches. I have a goal over and above that, though: I must maintain or increase yield from calm trees.

In the older, less intensive blocks (MM106 rootstock planted at 4m x 2m spacings) I often ignore removing strong basal branches because I try to determine the impact leaving it in has on neighbouring fruit and fruit quality in general. If there is no fruit below the strong branch, what good can come from cutting it out? I prefer to look up the tree and see what effect higher vigorous branches are having on fruit lower down the tree. Removing branches higher up in the tree will often lead to an increase in fruit next season even though a ‘hole’ might be left in the tree. Removing strong dominant branches higher in the tree will provide lower branches with more sunlight and, in turn, promote more production of quality fruit.

Controlling vigour

There are lots of Future Orchard trials involving vigour control in older trees. Most utilise root pruning, pruning later at flowering time, deficit irrigation, aggressive summer pruning, sprays to reduce tree growth and sprays to encourage fruitfulness, and combinations of these. Whatever the approach, most often the best method is fruit. Pruning the strong wood out and leaving quieter wood will promote fruitfulness. Trees need light all the way to the bottom and this will encourage quality bud development which will produce quality fruit. Leaving too many buds will encourage too much fruit of lower quality.

Working hard with staff and supervisors to ensure everyone is following the same rules and pruning the same way is the first step to achieving orchard consistency. That way, tree row variation can be reduced, and it becomes easier to achieve more uniform chemical and hand thinning results that lead to better quality fruit.

Quality can be undone in so many ways and times throughout the season. Winter is the start to setting the quality scene. Use the relative peace and quiet of winter to set meaningful goals/objectives and then set about implementing them and supervising staff to achieve them. This will pave the way for a better year.

A Fuji block that was once biennial, now with its third consecutive high-yield crop. This block was root pruned both sides for the past two years, pruners were retrained and Ethrel® was applied. Even so, there are still some individual tree vigour issues to address further down the row.


Acknowledgement

This article has been produced as part of the Future Orchards® program. Future Orchards is a strategic levy investment under the Hort Innovation Apple and Pear Fund. It is funded by Hort
Innovation using the apple and pear levy and funds from the Australian Government and is delivered by APAL and AgFirst.

By |June 25th, 2018|Future Orchards, Pruning and training|

About the Author:

Horticultural Consultant, AgFirst, New Zealand