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Improving harvest efficiencies with picking platforms

Research & Extension

AgFirst explores where efficiency gains can be made by using picking platforms that can improve picker productivity and reduce picking costs per bin.

By Craig Hornblow

Harvest is approaching 50 per cent of the labour cost within an orchard and the benefits of reducing this are considerable. Picking platforms have the ability to both improve productivity of pickers and reduce the cost per bin. The gains in efficiency are variable depending on a range of factors.

In this article I’ll try to outline my thoughts by answering a few questions and I’m sure I will create a few more.

Capitalisation of labour

As we mechanise a task within the orchard we tend to capitalise labour. What do I mean by this? We increase productivity through spending money on equipment. We started by replacing horses with tractors and now we can replace some pickers with a harvesting platform. So the result in your financial statement is that the labour cost goes down, the interest and machinery maintenance goes up and, hopefully, your profit goes up.

Labour has been a relatively flexible resource. Yield goes up, we get more people. We have hail, frost or have restructured the orchard, yield goes down so we get less people. It has been a very successful model, but times are changing. The supply of this flexible resource is getting less and we need another solution. Using picking platforms can be up to 30 per cent more efficient than human fruit pickers alone.

Huron picking platform for harvesting apples.

The problem with capitalising labour is that now we have a fixed resource. No matter what happens during the season the platform is still there. It is more important than before, with an increased amount of fixed capital, to manage yield variation and risk. To achieve good yields every year across varieties will help the return on investment of a picking platform. It may be frost and hail but it could be just overcoming bieniality in some varieties. Decisions about restructuring large amounts of an orchard need to consider this increased fixed capital.

Benefits of picking platforms

In most situations picking efficiency goes up 15 to 30 per cent when harvesting is mechanised. This is easy to see with less movements to the bin or up a ladder. The question as to whether this is enough to create a real improvement in picking costs depends on a range of factors. Assuming there is an efficiency gain, the key to reducing costs is the capital cost of the picking platform and the number of bins per year the cost can be spread over. All the factors change with different orchards, but most will say they get a bin picked cheaper or at least at the same cost and other benefits are the real benefits.

A Zucal platform used for pruning.

The work on picking platforms is much less physical than bags and ladders so pickers are less fatigued and can keep their output up for the whole week and are more likely to last the season. During peaks in the season, longer hours are possible at times without burning the pickers out. Several growers comment that a different workforce becomes available: people who could not physically handle ladders and bags work perfectly fine on a platform. We start to change the supply/demand curve for pickers with the ability to increase the pool of pickers and we can now increase the supply.

New pickers get up to speed much faster on picking platforms for two reasons. First, the work is not as physical so they are more focused on learning the skill rather than just getting fit enough to handle the task. Secondly, by working in a team they can see and share experiences around them, which accelerates the learning curve.

Achieving the consistent job you want becomes easier because supervision is much simpler. Visiting one platform you can manage and supervise six pickers per visit rather than walking multiple rows seeing one picker at a time.

Night picking on a Bin Bandit using lights means more picking shifts every day are possible.

All picking platforms I have worked with convert to standard platforms that can be used throughout the season for pruning, thinning, tree training etc. Not all platforms can be used for picking. If you have a need for platforms then making an investment that can be used all year can make all the difference.

In the last two years there has been a move to adding lights to platforms. Initially it seems a simple return on capital equation, more bins per day per platform and the capital cost per bin goes down. The comment though from growers about using lights is that it allows fruit to be picked in a more timely manner allowing them to manage peaks in harvest flows more effectively. One orchard in Washington was running three shifts per day.

A few problems

The high capital cost of picking platforms is a big objection. It is a big commitment of fixed capital to get a return, so scale is a critical consideration in the investment. Not just the overall size of the orchard, but also the area of the orchard that is suitable for platforms. I have seen growers start with one platform but not be able to achieve enough work with it and then sold it.

Orchard terrain will also be a consideration, self-leveling platforms are available but there will be a limit of slope at some point.

Mechanisation by differentiation means more machines, so you need to increase mechanical skills. A platform down means six pickers are waiting. I continually say we need more people and tree skills in this industry but the shift to picking platforms will mean a need for more specific mechanical skills.

Poor fruit distribution in the tree canopy reduces picking efficiency.

Again, poor distribution of fruit through the tree will make the platforms less efficient. Having an expensive platform moving through the orchard only picking tops is not its sweet spot. Fruit distribution throughout the canopy and having varieties that require less picks generally makes a picking platform more efficient.

Two machine options

There is a range of picking platforms under development but there are really only two types that I see in commercial use. Platforms that rely on conveyers positioned close to the pickers (e.g. Zucal) or machines that bring the bin close to the picker (e.g. Bin Bandit). With all picking platforms, excellent distribution of fruit is essential for efficiency so all picking positions are maximised.

Varieties that are picked once or twice would be more efficient than varieties requiring multiple picks. The advantage I see with the bin close to the picker style platform is there is more flexibility with the pickers to move around the platform to where the volume of the picking is. The conveyer style platforms have relatively fixed positions with the canopy and excellent fruit distribution is more critical for efficiency gains.

A Zucal platform used for pruning.

Both types of machines have options of supporting the picking platform with a bin trailer reducing the need to lay bins out ahead of the machine and minimising movements of full bins. As well as reducing tractor movements within the rows, the ratio of tractors to pickers goes down by up to 35 per cent. Fewer tractors over harvest equate to less capital.

How do we start the process?

If you agree with me that the question about moving to picking platforms is not about ‘will I’ or ‘won’t I’, but ‘when?’, then understanding how to make them work efficiently is critical. Here is my quick list of orchard features you need to achieve to get the most out of a picking platform:

  • Simple narrow tree forms: start the journey to narrow canopies on a platform, it’s very hard to reach 1m or further.
  • Distribution of fruit: crop load management from pruning to spray and hand thinning needs to be excellent.
  • Scale: How much of the orchard is platform friendly will drive the return on capital questions.
  • Two is better than one: The size of orchard is a factor, pairing machines up has major advantages in reducing tractor support per bin.

A Bin Bandit picking platform allows more working space for pickers.

Acknowledgements

This article was prepared as part of APAL’s Future Orchards® program that is funded by Horticulture Innovation Australia Ltd using the apple and pear industry levy funds from growers and funds from the Australian Government. AgFirst is a key Future Orchards partner.

About the author

Craig Hornblow, Horticultural Consultant, AgFirst, New Zealand: +64 3 528 0330, +64 27 436 8441, craig.hornblow@agfirst.co.nz.

 

Tagged:
Future Orchards Harvest management Machinery and mechanisation

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