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Precision orcharding to manage variability

Industry Best Practice

As part of the AgriFutures Australia Producer Technology Uptake Program, APAL and growers in the Goulburn Valley have been evaluating variable rate fertiliser spreading in two orchard blocks to determine the potential benefits

In early April, Nic Finger and Jason Shields ran the group through the activities to date, highlighting some of the challenges to adoption and potential use cases for the technology.

In this project, a Red Ant auger spreader has been used to variably spread fertiliser across blocks that had previously had the extent of their variability mapped.

Whilst soil maps were used in this project, the group also discussed uses of yield mapping technologies, remote sensing and simple hand drawn maps as potential options for generating input maps for the spreader noting that addressing soil variation is only one part of addressing variability in orchard systems.

Participants at Lenne’s Orchard discussing how the technology works and the results to date

Story so far

  • Two commercial Pink Lady blocks (one at Plunkett Orchards and one at Lenne’s Orchard) were sampled to evaluate variation across the field in Phase 1 of the project:
    • Grid soil sampling (4 per hectare) using Gridfarm
      • Rather than blending 20-30 cores across a block, run as single tests and submit individually
    • Green Atlas Cartographer
      • Assess crop load, fruit colour, fruit size, tree size (height, canopy area, leaf area, canopy density)
  • Variability in both soil and canopy data was identified and Phase 2 of the project began to address this field variation

What has been evaluated in Phase 2?

During the 2024 season, three of the more variable elements were chosen to be included in this pilot activity, namely manganese, potassium and iron based on the soil maps taken in Phase 1 of the project. These activities were undertaken in both blocks during hte growing season with re-sampling of soil and canopy data (same methodology as outlined above) to look at the relative change in each block, particularly in reference to soil and crop data.

From here, correlation analysis of soil and crop data will be completed as well as an evaluation of the impact on overall soil chemistry variance for the elements that were spread.

An example of a variable rate map showing the recommended amount of potassium sulphate to spread in this block (5ha) ranging from 40-200kg/ha

Learnings to date

  • Fertiliser use reductions based on variable rate application are possible
    • There are potential cost savings but largest financial gains are likely to be drawn through improvements to fruit quality
  • The technology (like any) has a relatively steep learning curve for the first few uses but is relatively intuitive once setup
    • Combination of setup, calibration and loading maps etc does require a good understanding of technology
  • Alternative uses, such as variable rate spreading of blended fertiliser based on cropload mapping to replace crop removal was seen by growers as a good potential use case as well as addressing weaker areas

Final reporting on this project will occur in July this year with a webinar on the outcomes to follow.

We wish to thank Matt Lenne, Calimna Orchard, Andrew Plunkett, Jason Shields and Plunkett Orchards, for hosting the trial, field walks and for their work with the spreader to date, as well as Graeme McNeill and the team at GV Crop Protection.

This project was made possible by funding from the Producer Technology Uptake Program facilitated by AgriFutures Australia.

We thank AgriFutures Australia for their support of this project.



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