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Robot-ready 2D orchards

Industry Best Practice

Mark Trzaskoma, the Production Manager at Battunga Orchards, Victoria, is APAL’s 2016 Grower of the Year and has been transforming the orchard’s blocks in the aim to make them all two dimensional and robot-ready.   

Mark has been working at Battunga Orchards for 12 years and received the 2016 Grower of the Year award for his innovative and practical approach to adopting and adapting new orchard designs. In so doing he has lifted orchard productivity, pack out and profitability.

Two dimensional (2D) orchards are the core focus for Mark, and he first started shifting towards that design about five or six years ago after seeing them in the USA and observing some of the early adopters in Victoria.

Starting small

It all started with a single hectare of Pink Lady®, planted on M26 rootstock at 3,600 trees a hectare. But it wasn’t smooth sailing in the beginning with the block costing significantly more to set up and to manage the canopy.

Last season the block was in its fifth leaf, and produced around 70 t/ha and over the first five years it had accumulated a total yield of around 135 t/ha. It’s now producing more than any other Pink Lady block on the orchard and is achieving a Class 1 pack out of 95-96 per cent with excellent consistency in colour and size.

“Our whole aim now is to grow fruit that packs out higher, and to try to squeeze as much of it as you can into the premium size range,” says Mark. “It’s a lot easier to do that on a two dimensional canopy.”

Importantly, the other reason – perhaps the main reason – he prefers 2D blocks is so that the business will be ready for more mechanisation, robots and other technical innovations.

The machines are coming

“I think an automated harvester is only probably two harvests away and we want to be ready for that,” says Mark. “We think that might be able to save about 25 per cent on our harvest cost. I don’t think the machines are going to be able to pick 100 per cent of the fruit, you’re still going to need people, but to a much lesser degree.”

At the moment, Battunga Orchards have two platforms for undertaking work in the orchard, plus another one under construction. The first two are converted rice harvesters that were imported from Japan by Noel Plunkett of Plunkett Orchards, Victoria, and sold to Battunga Orchards. They are now both used as platforms for orchard work including pruning, training and thinning.

A rice harvester converted to a pruning platform - now in operation at Battunga Orchards, Victoria.

A rice harvester converted to a pruning platform – now in operation at Battunga Orchards, Victoria.

Local engineer Ray White of HenRay Machinery Repairs and Maintenance customised the two platforms and is working on the third. Mark has made a useful contact in Japan to send him parts for the machines but the next machine they build will be done locally to make servicing it and sourcing spare parts easier.

“The next one that we want is a harvest-assist machine that picks up the bins. The people would fill the bins, then the bins would go off the back,” says Mark.

The current machines at Battunga Orchards aren’t suited to harvesting according to Mark. And, of the harvesting platforms he has seen, he has recognised that in some it can take a fair bit of time to change over bins.

“That’s why I think we maybe want to build our own, that’ll be fairly simple,” says Mark. “Bins come up and travel over it, people fill them up, they go off the back. And we’re not going to go too heavily into it, because I don’t think we’re going to be using them for that long.

“Twelve months ago, those harvest-assist machines were sort of our end game. Now that we see how quickly automated harvesters are coming along, I don’t think we’re going to be focusing too heavily on harvest-assist machines, because I don’t think they’re going to pick a lot of our crop in the future.”

Moreover, Mark thinks that with all the other technological developments, like determining light interception, automated harvesters won’t just be harvesting fruit – they’ll be doing multiple tasks.

“If a machine can go through there and read the canopy and identify fruit and harvest it, there can’t be too much more involved in turning it into a machine that you can run through there in winter to count buds,” says Mark. “You’ve already got vision software so I don’t think you’re going to end up with 20 different machines. You’re going to end up with machines that do multiple tasks. We’re driving our canopies towards being able to utilise all that sort of technology.”

Getting ready

With a clear vision of a future where multi-functional machines operate in the orchard, Mark has very much committed to designing the orchard blocks to best accommodate this. He has converted about 10 per cent of their mostly spindle orchard blocks to 2D and, by next year, this will have jumped to 27 per cent or an additional 12 hectares of the 72 hectare orchard.

Blocks of both Pink Lady and Gala have already been converted and next season they will have turned more of both of these varieties into 2D along with some Kanzi® and Granny Smith.

“We haven’t put a timeframe on how quickly we will convert the orchard over, but if the Galas perform on that first block, I’d say then it’ll happen as quickly as we can afford it to happen,” says Mark. “We’ll work out how much we can convert each year, and go with it.

“Some we’re re-grafting and some we’re doing where we take that original spindle tree and cut all the limbs off and convert that to the two dimensional canopy.”

In his favourite block of Galas, Mark has done just that and converted the block of originally central leader trees to his robot-ready 2D system. In 2016, when the trees were at second leaf after the conversion, they had already bounced back and were yielding 44 t/ha. This was higher than the pre-conversion yield of the block of around 36 t/ha.

Mark's favourite block of Gala - converted to his robot-ready two dimensional design.

Mark’s favourite block of Gala – converted to his robot-ready two dimensional design.

If the block continues to do well this year, Mark will convert more of the Galas in the same way and with the same canopy design. He expects that this coming season the block will achieve yields of around 60 t/ha and in future years, up to 80 t/ha.

In 2016, the average fruit size was 178 grams and pack out was around 89 per cent, which Mark attributes to the lack of nets that caused some sun damage. He intends to put nets over the block this year and expects to get 95 per cent of Class 1 fruit.

Pruning and training

A unique feature of this Gala block is the double row vertical canopy where limbs are trained to go down one row in one direction.

“When you drive into a row, everything growing in that row faces the same way,” explains Mark. “I don’t like to have the limbs running towards each other in a two dimensional system. Plus, if everything is uniform, it’s got to be easier for the machines to read the canopy.”

Having the limbs running all in one direction also makes for easier management of the canopy and it is easier to track how individual workers are performing.

“Growing the trees like this enables us to carry out tasks like hand thinning much more easily and more accurately than central leader trees,” says Mark. “We can set up for an even crop load, which gives us a more even fruit size that helps us to get more apples into the premium size range.

“All tasks are easier to perform and everyone works on a particular wire so it is easier to track who has done what. People working in the 2D blocks are more accountable and it’s more efficient to get a more accurate result.”

He adds that they don’t prune any of their 2D blocks in winter and instead prune in summer to lessen the vigour response.

Branch training in Mark's robot-ready 2D block where the branches all go one way in one row, and the opposite way in the next row - theoretically making it simpler for machines to operate.

Branch training in Mark’s robot-ready 2D block where the branches all go one way in one row, and the opposite way in the next row – theoretically making it simpler for machines to operate.

Numbers, numbers, numbers… and people

Mark’s colleague Sarah Dunn takes regular measurements and keeps meticulous figures on every block. Looking at the spreadsheet that Sarah helps to manage it is clear that every input and expense is costed out in detail from education to fertiliser and all labour costs. Nothing is left to guesswork.

“Initially we identified that we were paying too much for some of the things that we were buying to use in the business,” says Mark. “So we started to quote things out and check pricing and noticed that we could save a fair bit of money.

“Then we decided it’d be a good idea to apply it to the whole business, so we could make informed decisions about everything we do. So if we could do it for one thing and save money there, well surely we could apply it more broadly to identify what it was costing us to prune different canopies, different blocks, even evaluating how much money every block is making.”

It sounds like the team at Battunga are all now highly effective at recording how much time they spend on each block doing a particular task on the orchard and recording it every day to accurately record all labour and input costs. It’s just part of their daily program and is now central to the whole business.

“If you don’t record what you’re spending and making, you could have certain blocks that lose money every year and you don’t know,” says Mark. “You’d be better off not having them at all. Or if you convert them to something that is making you more money, you’re miles in front. So we applied that to the whole business and we make informed decisions about what we’re doing now.”

Behind Mark’s success with the orchard transformation is a team of great workers and orchard owner Laurie Thompson. Mark says that being able to review the figures on what each block was costing and how much profit each block was making made it easy to demonstrate the opportunity and value of changing block management. He adds that keeping data on everything also makes him accountable.

In a previous Australian Fruitgrower article, APAL’s former Technical Manager Jesse Reader interviewed Mark and highlighted the importance of data collection in helping Mark make decisions (see Q&A at Battunga Orchards: Harvesting data and pruning by numbers). This is an excellent read if you want some more details about what Mark has done.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Mark for coming to work on his holiday to talk to us and show us around, and to Battunga Orchards owner Laurie Thompson.

APAL's 2016 Grower of the Year Mark Trzaskoma (centre) with APAL CEO John Dollisson (lt) and APAL Chair Michele Allan (rt) at the awards ceremony.

APAL’s 2016 Grower of the Year Mark Trzaskoma (centre) with APAL CEO John Dollisson (lt) and APAL Chair Michele Allan (rt) at the awards ceremony.

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Grower of the Year Technology and robotics

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