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Four growers’ share their insights into netting options

As part of the Untangling the netting options story which first featured in the Winter 2023 edition of AFG, APAL spoke with four Australian growers about their approach to netting

Brad Fankhauser

Fankhauser Orchard, Gippsland, VIC

Type – Permanent, flat top, predominantly 12mm quad, European throw over, Drape Net and more.
Netting purpose – Securing crop against bird and hail damage; improving packouts.
Insights – Netting is better than no netting. Start with netting you can afford and upgrade when cash is available. Do some installation yourself, but make sure you do it properly.

Flat top 12mm quad at Fankhauser Apples.

Victorian grower Brad Fankhauser has a pretty good overview of nets, having installed ‘pretty much everything’ on the family’s Gippsland orchard, from flat-top quad net, European Frustar throw over nets, apex-style nets secured with bungee ropes and clips, Drape Net and Gale net. 

Brad said while all netting types had their pros and cons, the key point was to net with something. 

“You’re miles ahead with netting,” he said. “Without a hail event, our netting would pay back in five years. With hail, payback is instant. 

“If you want to cover your key blocks, use Drape Net for a couple of years and, once you’ve got the funds, move to fixed.” 

Birds and hail are the two key threats in Gippsland. Brad said although some small hail does came through fixed quad net, the orchard was moving towards fixed netting as it provided the best balance of reduced labour requirements, longevity, low maintenance and protection.

‘Batlow’/apex netting at Fankhauser Apples.

“Nothing provides 100 per cent protection, whatever anyone says,” he said. “Drape Net gives by far the least damage. Hail bounces off it and drops into the inter row, but you have to get the netting out as soon as the trees have flowered, as a cold front could come through in October, and it does catch the wind, so the trellis needs to be beefed up. 

“In our experience, it definitely works the best, but it has given us some headaches getting it out, blowing off the trellis and catching.” 

Apex/gable-style netting designed to ‘drop hail’ in the inter row was cheaper to put up and provided good mid-range protection, but Brad said the weight of the hail could lead to the nets opening, exposing fruit to damage if further fronts came through before ice could be dropped, or clips refastened.  

Net rolled up and tied to top wire over the winter for ease of releasing after flowering at Fankhauser Apples

“It should drop the hail, but in reality it doesn’t always,” he said. 

Fankhauser Apples do some installation themselves, but Brad advises getting contractor advice to ensure structures are installed properly 

“We’ve put ours up ourselves; it looks daunting, but it isn’t,” he said. “We’ve bought winches and tension meters. It has to be put up properly, especially quad net. Contractors will give you advice and you can do the cables and poles and they will come in and hang the net.” 

As to pollination under nets, he hasn’t had any issues. 

“I wouldn’t panic about pollination,” he said. 

Brent Reeve

Jeftomson, Goulburn Valley, VIC

Type – Permanent, flat top, predominantly 16mm quad.
Netting purpose – Securing crop against bird and hail damage; less sunburn and limb rub; better packouts.
Insights – Packout gains, whether or not it hails, and just one storm protected against pays for the net.

Jeftomson General Orchard Manager Brent Reeve doubts any netting would have held up against the force of the massive hailstorm that hit the business’s North Shepparton farm on 23 March. While netting on blocks where nets were newer, or the hail was less severe, held up, the ferocity and duration of the storm that hit the 30ha orchard shredded the nets, which Brent estimates will cost $900,000 to replace.  

The sheer weight of hail that built up during the prolonged Goulburn Valley March hailstorm tore through these nets at

“We’ve had hail on that farm before and the netting has probably saved us three or four times,” Brent said. “It was just the sheer volume. There were three tonnes of ice in each area, twenty lots of three tonnes down every row and that’s why it’s smashed out. I’ve never seen so much ice in nets. It was 14 years old, but I don’t think any net was going to stand up to that force of hail.” 

Despite failing, Brent said the net had still protected the crop and 20,000 bins of apples, sold as Pink Lady, under nets elsewhere in the region had also been protected.   

Brent said netting had to be considered part of the cost of future plantings and delivered packout gains whether it hailed or not, but was often competing against other potential orchard investments for limited capital. 

“It’s not hard to lift your packout by 10 per cent with netting,” he said. “You’re probably getting a 40 per cent increase in your packout on Granny Smith from less sun-bleaching and limb rub, and in Pink Lady, it is probably an extra 20 per cent. 

“If you don’t net, you are just gambling at the casino every day, waiting for it to happen, but there’s only a certain amount of capital to go around.” 

Netting at Jeftomson is flat top. Brent said while there were cheaper options available, the trade-off was the labour and time needed to get them up and closed in time.   

While early nets were 14mm quad, he said new installations were 16mm quad. “We don’t get rice hail here very often, it is larger hail and the 16mm quad lets more light through for colouring.” 

Murray Collins

 Collins Bros. Orchards, southwest WA

Type – Permanent flat top, hex predominantly 16mm mesh.
Netting purpose – Hail and bird damage protection.
Insights – Plan early to minimise costs; consider regional conditions; manage for pollination and pests; pros outweigh cons.

Netting was first installed at Collins Bros. Orchards in Pemberton, Western Australia, around 2008. 

“We’d had a hailstorm that caused 80–90 per cent damage across the orchard,” said APAL’s 2023 Grower of the Year, Murray Collins. “We didn’t have anything to pick that year and we didn’t have any income, but we thought, worst case scenario, if we get another storm like that, we’re going to lose more than the netting is going to cost. We just had to go to the bank and get money to put up netting.” 

The Collins netted 10ha. The following season the ‘worst case’ scenario eventuated and hail again wiped out crops on the unnetted blocks.  

Netting is part of any new orchard plantings at Collins Bros. Orchards, Pemberton, WA. Photo: Victoria Baker Photography

“But under the nets we had a crop to pick,” Murray said. “Since then, netting has been part of any new orchards we’ve planted.” 

All but 4ha of the 48ha orchards are now netted with permanent, flat top netting, installed by contractors at around $55,000/ha, some of which was funded via the Horticulture Netting Infrastructure Program. 

Murray said while hail protection was the priority, nets also protected against bird damage and sunburn in the more open canopies. 

Netting installed is primarily 16 mm hex net in which finer threads cross over within the main mesh and, for Collins Bros., gives the right balance of protection, light penetration and cost. 

Murray said installing netting had required some adjustments to pest and pollination management. 

“Pollination is potentially an issue,” he said. “We now have to get hives in, which we didn’t have to before netting. Woolly apple aphids are definitely more prevalent under the netting and there is more powdery mildew, but the pros definitely outweigh the cons.” 

Murray said while there was a wide range of different netting that might suit, planning for local conditions and including netting planning early were key to minimising costs. 

“We don’t have too many issues with rice hail here, it’s the larger hail we are trying to stop, but if that was an issue in another area, they might want to alter the type of netting they choose. 

“The main thing is to plan what you’re going to net early, so, as the trees go into the ground, whatever netting structure you go for, it’s built into your plans from day one. The earlier it’s planned for, the less impact it’s going to have and less cost it’s going to be down the track.” 

Drape Net over bull horn at Nightingale Bros. orchard in Batlow, NSW, Future Orchards® walk, November 2022.

Daniel Nicoletti

Nicoletti Orchards, Stanthorpe, QLD

Type – Pitch canopy (NetPro) with hail guard net, and older flat top 12mm quad.
Netting purpose – Initially hail, but benefits from bird, bats, sun and wind protection.
Insights – Pitch nets allow better clearance of heavy hail; select for stronger nets; maintain regularly for greater longevity.

Queensland’s Granite Belt is prone to hail and Stanthorpe grower, and APAL director for Queensland, Daniel Nicoletti said orchards in the region had been netting for 35 years. 

Early installations were flat top net, but Daniel said 90 per cent of new netting was a pitch canopy developed and patented by local company NetPro, with input from growers. Like similar semi-permanent styles in other regions, the pitch canopy directs hail to the valley where selvage edges are clipped to a tensioned wire and can be opened at pollination for bee flow. 

Pitch canopy being installed over a Nicoter block (marketed as Kanzi®) at Nicoletti Orchards under the Horticulture Netting Program in 2021.

Daniel said the selvage edges strengthened the net at one of the most exposed points for wear and tear, reducing maintenance. UV stabilisers were also important to reduce net deterioration and improve longevity. 

Pitch canopy at Nicoletti Orchards protected this Scilate (marketed as Envy®) block during a hail event in January 2023.

Clips are favoured over bungees as longer lasting, Daniel said, and could still be easily opened for bee flow.  

Although bee movement was a little better under the flat top, Daniel said there was nowhere to go for heavy build-ups of hail, which could tear through the net or see it sag onto tree branches that tore holes in the net. 

“There were plenty of times where we spent a lot of money on netting and it fell down to the ground,” he said. “It was just too risky. Pitch net is more secure.” 

While there were clear benefits from netting at Nicoletti Orchards, Daniel said it was hard for growers to fund when they are often selling apples at cost or below cost. 

“Adding net over trees increases the cost of production,” he said. “The prices apples are selling at don’t take into consideration the need to replace nets every 10–20 years and yearly maintenance. We’re sewing up holes and retensioning stretched net. It’s constantly another job, another expense. We need to fund it.”

This article was first published in the Winter 2023 edition of AFG.

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