Q&A at Battunga Orchards: Harvesting data and pruning by numbers

By Jesse Reader

AgFirst’s Jesse Reader interviews Mark Trzaskoma of Battunga Orchards as part of a grower case study of orchard optimisation in Victoria.

Auvil Fruit Company in the USA: it's not hard to see where Mark's inspiration came from.

Auvil Fruit Company in the USA: it’s not hard to see where Mark’s inspiration came from.

It becomes apparent very quickly when you drive into Battunga Orchards in Gippsland, Victoria, that you haven’t entered your average farm. It’s hard to describe, but I liken it to a large scale research station with systems trials on the right, plant growth regulator trials on the left, people wandering around with clipboards and that instant feeling of excitement as you wonder what Mark Trzaskoma, Orchard Manager, will have to show you this month.

Battunga Orchards Warragul is a 72ha apple orchard around 1hr 15min from Melbourne and is one of two properties that form the business. Battunga have most recently been in the media for their joint venture with Bonview Orchards and the resultant creation of the Nine Mile Fresh packing facility. However, quietly in the background at an orchard level, Mark and the team have been undertaking one of the most successful and radical orchard renovations I have been witness to. I dropped into the farm early in June to discuss Mark’s pruning strategy with him for the season ahead and as usual, there was a plan.

Background

The farm comprises 25ha of high colour Gala strains, 35ha of Granny Smith, 11.5ha of high colour Pink Lady™ strains and 0.86ha of Kanzi®. It has traditionally been grown on a spindle growing system of sorts, predominantly under net and at a density of 1,800 trees/ha. In the early days, the Granny Smith had become quite wild under the net – losing all structure; the Gala had failed to reach full canopy; and the orchard as a whole needed more attention to detail. In Mark’s words “the farm was doing ok… but we weren’t optimising our investment and our yields needed significant improvement to make a viable long term prospect of the farm”. Granny Smith were averaging 60t/ha, Gala 33t/ha and, at that stage, pinks hadn’t been planted.

“Our cost of production was high, we were spending too much money hand thinning and ultimately change was required,” said Mark.

In 2013 when I was working at APAL, I took a group of growers, including Mark, on a study tour to Washington State, USA. I witnessed a lightbulb moment, that moment of sudden realisation, enlightenment, or in Mark’s case, I think, inspiration. While getting off the farm and seeing different things was part of it, like many before him, it was a trip to the Auvil Fruit Company that triggered the change and has ultimately fuelled the future direction of the business.

Battunga Orchards’ canopies are now in a constant state of change and improvement with all original blocks still in the ground producing crops much closer to their ultimate potential. All new blocks are grown on a formal, two-dimensional growing system with all limbs placed on the wires. The overall goal is consistent high yields of high pack out fruit, in three count sizes and managed with platforms. Every block is now on OrchardNet® (an online orchard database) and managed according to the plethora of data gathered from the farm regularly including bud counts, trunk cross sectional area, fruit size monitoring, plant growth regulator programs, limb counts, flower counts… the list goes on.

Strategy

Long, calm and fruitful Gala branches.

Long, calm and fruitful Gala branches.

Like all farms, it is still a work in progress and the strategy to manage the old is different to that of the new. Talking with Mark he is very clear on what the objective is and how he is going to achieve it – it’s a quality that is consistent with all great orchard managers anywhere in the world. He starts with the end goal in mind and works backwards, executing at every step.

With a significant proportion of the orchard still operating as a tall spindle, Mark describes his approach to pruning these blocks:

Explain to me the strategy for pruning Gala this winter?

Basically we are still focused on putting the ‘tall’ back into tall spindle on our old blocks and so there is an emphasis on finishing off the last 10 per cent of the canopy while maintaining fruitfulness in the remainder of the tree. We were losing yield with an incomplete canopy and our renewed focus on crop load management of the leader, spring nutrition and applications of GA3 to promote shoot elongation last season have all but provided the growth required to finish off theses canopies – but we just need a little more. That said, we will still single out leaders this year but carry some crop to help settle them.

What is the plan for the rest of the tree?

Shoot pinching resulting in the formation of a fruit bud.

Shoot pinching resulting in the formation of a fruit bud.

We originally had ‘upside down’ trees but as you can see we now have a tree full of nice, long, calm branches pointing to the ground and as a result very little excess vigour to manage in these trees. We will aim to maintain that now and our focus in this part of the tree has shifted towards managing the fruiting sights on those branches to maximise both size and quality. We are aiming for a bud:fruit ratio of 1.2-1.5:1, that means a hand span spacing between bud sites. Furthermore, we want to have our buds off to the side on short terminals or bourse shoots rather than on top of the limb where skin finish related defects are likely to occur.

During the process of finishing off the canopy you created some excess vigour in the trees. Tell us how you used that to your advantage?

With the spring nitrogen and extra light into the trees we ended up with several upright shoots off the back of some of the main fruiting limbs. The first reaction was to cut them out, then we realised that if we did, our branches were going to look too bare, so we set about converting those shoots into fruiting sites. We made a pass over the tree in December ‘pinching out’ the shoots and leaving around a one inch stump. This process both de-vigourated the shoot and, due to the timing coinciding with a bud initiation window, also resulted in the creation of fruit buds.

This renovation seems to have been a huge success. Where does your Gala yield sit now?

Complex forks on the end of thee Granny Smith limbs are leading to poor pack out.

Complex forks on the end of thee Granny Smith limbs are leading to poor pack out.

As mentioned, our Gala yield across the farm three years ago was 33t/ha, this year we have hit 55t/ha average.

So in summary, what were the main drivers for success and what are the ongoing challenges here?

Ultimately a fuller canopy of the right type of wood – greater tree row volume. More light through the canopy, more of the right type of buds and through the guidance of our data – more timely decision making.

The problem in here though, is that tall spindles are still full of inconsistency and setting rules or guidelines based on ten trees is not sufficient. The tree to tree variability in this system drives me insane.

Pruning

Before pruning it is quite dense in the top third of the canopy.

Before pruning it is quite dense in the top third of the canopy.

We drove on down to a Granny Smith block and the pruning gang were mid-flight on a platform designed by the team at Battunga Orchards and Henray Machinery Repairs to increase the efficiency of pruning. It was a great place to stop as I could witness ‘before’ and ‘after’ in motion. Traditionally the Granny Smith blocks are grown a little but ‘woolly’ in Victoria to manage sunburn and subsequent skin finish, but there is a fine line between ‘woolly’ and ‘wild’ as Mark has realised. We discussed the strategy for this block and the reasons for the change in approach.

The approach seems different in here from the Gala block, what’s happening?

We are now growing pretty consistent high yields of Granny Smith in here – they cropped at 92t/ha this year in the size range we targeted. The problem is the market is so fussy on Granny Smith so our pack outs are suffering a little.

What’s causing most of the rejects?

After pruning, clear parcels of light are visible.

After pruning, clear parcels of light are visible.

Generally it’s minor skin defects, not sunburn because we seem to have that pretty well under control with netting and foliar protectants. The defects are from fruit not being adequately spaced and hence causing fruit-fruit rub and limb rub.

So what have you got the workers doing?

Basically we are thinning the tree out a bit, single lining branches a bit more and removing forks at the end of branches. The forks are the main issue. We allowed the branches to get too complex and both the buds get weak and the fruit rubs together – bad result all round.

Being a Granny Smith (prone to blind wood) are you nervous single lining may take out too many buds?

We are watching closely to ensure we don’t over prune, particularly off the back of a big crop. I feel we are just removing inferior buds that are causing our problems and even if we take a hit on yield, our pack out will go up, which is where the dollars are.

How is the platform working out for you? I can see the efficiency gains already.

Fantastic! Great for winter work, gets them off the ground, keeps a consistent pace and allows us to work efficiently in the most expensive part of the tree. Last year it cost us $1,700/ha on the platforms but we haven’t got the numbers in for this year yet.

How do you manage the tops of the trees?

I ask them to finish the tree not more than 30cm above the top wire. If this involves heading the leader, we prune to the next available weaker branch. Sometimes we don’t have that option so we are forced to do some tree training or pulling over of limbs to ensure we don’t fire up the tree. The workers are also applying NAA to the leader if headed.

What is the bud ratio you are pruning to in here in light of last year’s result?

We are pruning back to 0.8:1 in here. Could be a little lean but I have to maximise this pack out. I’m confident there will be enough… there always is.

Canopy management

A two-dimensional canopy with very well managed vigour and branch training.

A two-dimensional canopy with very well managed vigour and branch training.

As we pull up at the last block for discussion – a block of newly planted Pink Lady apples – the first thing you notice is the consistency. Instantly you start to imagine how straight forward the management and instructions are going to be in this block.

The formal canopy we discuss is planted at 3.7 x 0.75m and is a double row, 14 wire, vertical system with the rows 0.7m apart – 3,600 trees/ha. It really is the epitome of a formal canopy with every row being simple, narrow, accessible and productive – not to mention highly consistent. We discuss this block in detail and indulge each other’s passion for the system for quite some time and you can’t help but like what you see the more time you spend in it.

Describe the approach in here?

Ten fruits per limb, which is 20 fruits from tree to tree on that continuous limb if you like. On a hectare basis its essentially seven tonnes per wire, 14 wires – 98 tonnes/ha.

That really is growing fruit by numbers. What is the bud to fruit ratio?

With 25 buds it is 1.25:1 over a 1.5m limb. At 15 buds it is 0.75:1 over a 1.5m limb.

Do you have enough buds heading into winter?

It’s a good question. We had a pollination problem in here last year so I am mindful of carrying a few extra buds. At this stage we have between 18-25 buds per 1.5m so that should be sufficient.

Pollination

At this point a debate started around whether to remove excessive bud sites this winter with the positive effect of naturally increasing fruit set, but at the risk of a pollination issue again which could result in inadequate fruit set and a vigour burst – a 2-D canopy’s worst nightmare.

So what’s it to be Mark?

Perhaps we will leave them, set the crop first, then make a pass in November, see what you have set then remove unwanted sites at a more de-vigourating time.

And what about this pollination issue?

Our strategy is to Dormex nearby Granny Smith, move more hives inside the net and distribute, cut bouquets out and put in buckets to place in the crop, and look at manipulating the Regalis timing for a positive impact on fruit set.

Often where you don’t have buds you have a shoot, is your process for creating buds in this system the same as described in the Gala?

Essentially yes, snapping out shoots in January we get a weaker response and fruit bud development. We see a nice weak shoot form, then we use Regalis to terminate if necessary.

So these bud counts and subsequent targets are pitched at what target yield/ha?

With poor pollination we cropped at 40t/ha this year but the crop pushed a heap off on to the ground also. They are quite modest production figures but the trees have essentially reached full canopy after 4th leaf and look to be set for a 70t/ha crop next season – so I’m quite comfortable given this is our first foray into formal systems.

Back to the pruning – well we can’t really call it pruning can we?

Yes, interestingly there is no real pruning. The odd cut in the top and the rest and there is a little bit of taping down and training etc. Loppers and secateurs are a thing of the past in these blocks. Realistically there will be some removing of excess buds sites that place fruit in poor positions. It’s bud thinning branches for optimal fruit positioning technically. I’m really pleased that its only minor detail now – which not many trees can lay claim to in year four!

Are you undertaking many tasks with your platforms in here?

Absolutely! It’s changed the way we do things on this farm. We will do most tasks in these blocks on the platform. A full pass over the trees including taping, pinching out shoots, shoot ripping etc. – costed out at $3,400/ha. Previously we did this with ladders one season and it cost $22,500/ha!!

Wow, that’s an incredible difference. Did you think you would see such huge gains?

Not as much as that! You can’t do the detail that this system requires on time, the right way and efficiently without a platform – you would have to be mad! But with a platform it’s beautiful, it’s the only way to go.

How are you managing the tops in these formal canopies?

The management for the tops is done by rolling the leader over, taping, then managing any uprights the same way as previously described. Generally the tops are quite calm as by the time you are addressing this part of the canopy you are also cropping so it’s generally not a huge sticking point.

Let’s talk about the management of the individual limbs for a minute – the key to two dimensional growing.

Limbs are always pulled down onto the wire to keep calliper down, especially on Pink Lady. Shoots get pulled down when they are 100-150mm long to manage that calliper and also to keep the top growing. With a Pink Lady on M26 they still have enough grunt to keep growing and will turn their nose up given any chance. If you don’t have a limb, the opposing limb is simply grown across – it’s really quite forgiving.

This system also makes crop loading easy as it is like having 14 really long branches all the same and so you dial up the numbers and then simply apply it across the orchard. In spindle, you have one tree at 3m high, one at 3.2m, one at 2.9m and you say we want an average of 240 apples per tree for example, but then they have 280, 170 and somewhere along the line something is going to need 300 and then it just doesn’t work out and fruit size variability creeps in. This system allows you to set a number and then roll it out across the block.

Finally, can we talk about vigour control in here? It’s the devil if unmanaged!

Nicely managed canopy in between the wires on the double row.

Nicely managed canopy in between the wires on the double row.

Vigour control is achieved with a combination of shoot pinching, Regalis and crop load. Wires are 390mm apart, so we don’t want shoots taller than 80-100mm. This is achievable. We will also carry some fruit on the trunk/leader on short shoots where they occur naturally. Ultimately, a frost would potentially be your real undoing in this system, but we manage risk every day to ensure this doesn’t happen.

I said that was the final question but one more. What would you do differently in here next time?

Changes for the future include more focus on managing bud sites and spacings as the tree develops as opposed to growing the tree for two years and then come back and start dealing with getting buds and placing them. It’s easier to manipulate the shoots when they are young, but it needs to be a work in progress. Also wire spacings, tree height, tree to tree distance… it all can be tweaked for an improved final result which is why we continue to test systems on the farm, you can’t sit still.

Summary

Note the limb coming down onto the wire to keep the calliper down relative to the trunk.

Note the limb coming down onto the wire to keep the calliper down relative to the trunk.

Leaving Battunga Orchards always leaves you feeling stimulated about their future prospects as a business, the thought of returning again and, to be honest, the industry at large. The culture is good, the strategy is clear and above all they are executing their plan.

It is obvious from spending a few hours with Mark that for Battunga Orchards the tall spindle growing system is not the way forward. The five to six individual growing system trials across the farm lays testament to their determination to find a suitable, long term replacement that can deliver high yields of high quality fruit. They hope that in around two years’ time, when all trials are in full production, they will have a clear direction on ‘the weapon of choice’ to lead them forward. Suffice to say, you get the impression this farm will never stop evolving.

So, what did we learn?

  1. Data is powerful and aids in improved decision making and accuracy of execution. Working with the end goal in mind and putting clear steps in place to achieve it is the only way to go.
  2. Doing things on time, correctly and efficiently is critical in formal canopies.
  3. Traditional or three-dimensional growing systems are layered with inconsistency and provide constant challenges that are hard to manage and articulate to a casual work force.
  4. Under developed canopies in tall spindle systems are yield killers. Put the ‘tall’ back into ‘tall spindle’.
  5. Trialling different processes or systems on your farm is a critical process for business development. Underpin this with real data and you can step forward with confidence.
  6. When working in the highest cost horticultural labour market in the world – efficiency is everything. When planning future systems, plan with platforms in mind to combat rising costs.

Mark will be joining the Future Orchards® team as guest presenter on the Southern Loop when Future Orchards hits the road in late July. Growers have the opportunity to learn a lot from Mark so be sure to get along and hear the extended version of his story. While Mark’s system isn’t the only option, it was driven from the need to change and drive more production per hectare. If this sounds familiar and you too at are this crossroad then book a seat at the table to hear from Mark first hand.

About the author: Jesse Reader is a Senior Horticultural Consultant at AgFirst Australia and can be contacted on 0419 107 245 or jesse.reader@agfirstaustralia.com.au. 

By |June 29th, 2015|Future Orchards, Orchard design and density, Victoria|

About the Author:

Jesse was APAL's Technical Manager from 2011 to 2014.