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Strategic planning raises orchard profitability

Research & Extension

Strategic planning has enabled two Focus Orchards within the Future Orchards® program, one in Tasmania and one in Western Australia, to make great strides in lifting the income potential of their properties.

Both provide exciting examples of what can be achieved when sound strategic planning, effective monitoring of progress and good management are combined. These principles can be incorporated into any orchard management programme to ensure that appropriate production targets are put in place and targets are achieved by making informed decisions. Using the approach, both orchards will continue to improve orchard profitability into the future.


Top Qual’s Calthorpe orchard in northern Tasmania is managed by 2013 Grower of the Year, Brad Ashlin. Early on, the Top Qual management team realised that to ensure the future viability of the orchard they needed to identify non profitable ‘passenger blocks’ of trees and replace them with new high value varieties. This strategy has seen apple production at Calthorpe completely transformed since Top Qual acquired the orchard in 2002 and Brad arrived in 2004.

Brad Ashlin

Calthorpe orchard manager Brad Ashlin.

Once non profitable blocks had been identified, the problem was what to replace them with? Top Qual and Brad had a number of things to consider when choosing the new variety mix. In particular, the new varieties needed to be capable of producing high marketable yields and achieving a consistently high market return.

High marketable yield not only increases revenue, it also reduces costs per unit of production because orchard costs not directly related to production such as pest and disease control and pruning are spread over more kilograms of production.

In addition to productivity potential, the new varieties had to have strong consumer demand to ensure they were able to maintain a premium return. After considering all of these variables, Brad and the team at Top Qual chose Jazz™, ‘Royal Gala’ and Envy™ to spearhead the redevelopment of their apple orchard.

However, the challenge with large scale redevelopment is that it puts a strain on capital and cash flow.

High early yields were important to ensure that development costs were recouped as early as possible. In the OrchardNet® production database there is a wide range of block performance. The average accumulated production of Jazz blocks up to their fourth leaf is around 51 tonnes per hectare. The accumulated yield of the average of the lower quartile is around half this yield, while the average accumulated yield of the upper quartile is over double the average at 104 tonnes per hectare, a fourfold difference between the averages of the upper and lower quartiles.

When choosing his growing system Brad’s goal was to create uniform canopies of intensively planted trees that could be easily managed with simple instructions to staff. As a result, all of the apples have been planted intensively on a spindle system at around 3,300 trees per hectare. Since redevelopment began Brad has seen examples of 2D growing systems around the world, most recently at the APAL study tour to North America, and is keen to plant a block in 2D to see how the system performs.

Providing young trees with the best start

Top Qual grows all of their own nursery trees in their Calthorpe orchard. This allows them to both significantly reduce costs and also better manage the quality and variability of their nursery trees.

When redeveloping a block, old trees are removed immediately after harvest and soil preparation begins. All blocks are given a pre-plant soil test. This allows capital fertiliser requirements to be applied and worked into the soil before planting. All replanted areas are fumigated before planting.

When new blocks are planted everything is focussed around building canopy as fast as possible to maximise young tree performance. Good orchard support structures are put in place with eventually six wires spaced every 500mm to support the young trees.

Irrigation and nutrition are all key to maximising canopy development. Tree performance can be significantly enhanced if these inputs are optimised. Irrigation decisions are supported by a network of G Dot, T Bugs and tensiometers throughout the orchard.

A strong emphasis is placed on nutrition management to optimise canopy development in young developing blocks and support productivity in mature blocks, with targeted nutrition programs based around soil, leaf and fruitlet testing.

Nitrogen applications are applied via fertigation with applications in autumn as well as during the growing season to maximise canopy development in young trees. Calthorpe also create their own foliar nutrient mix for each block depending on the results of nutrition testing. This mix, which is applied up to three times, can consist of up to eleven different ingredients. These are primarily the sulphate form of the common nutrients which are much cheaper than the common proprietary products and allow for customisation of the mix where necessary. Applying these in autumn, Brad hasn’t seen any phytotoxicity problems to date.

The old saying that you can’t manage what you don’t measure is applied here with moisture monitoring, as well as shoot and fruit growth measurements which are recorded weekly. This provides an early indication of whether growth is satisfactory or if the trees are under any type of stress.

This attention to detail and focus on building canopy has resulted in all of the young Jazz blocks at Calthorpe performing at well above average to upper quartile levels of productivity. It’s particularly pleasing to see a constant increase in productivity from one year to the next with no evidence of a biennial pattern appearing. It is likely that production in these blocks will continue to rise over the next few years.

Western Australia

Newton Brothers Orchards in Manjimup, WA have been a family owned and operated business for over 80 years, with the third generation now working in the business.

When Paul Good, Finance and Operations Manager, arrived on the orchard in 2008 conventional wisdom in the area suggested it wasn’t possible to grow more than 50 t/ha of apples in the local soils. Later that year Paul attended a Future Orchards meeting where a local grower was regularly achieving world class yields far in excess of that. Seeing this sort of productivity on an Aussie orchard made him realise that there was no reason why they couldn’t aspire to much higher levels of productivity on their own orchards. He started analysing their own crop yields and found that while they thought they were achieving average yields of around 50 t/ha across the orchard business they were in fact more in the vicinity of 35-40 t/ha.

In 2009, Newton Brothers created a Strategic Plan for the business. One of the key objectives outlined in the plan was to change training and pruning techniques to increase tree/row volume to lift fruit production by 15% to reach an average production of 40-50 t/ha by 2015.

To help realise this goal, Key Performance Indicators were established to help measure progress. The productivity of each block was analysed and tools were provided to managers to help them measure improvements.

Paul says it’s not just a coincidence that all of a sudden there’s been a huge lift in productivity since they began taking irrigation and fertigation seriously. All new blocks have drip irrigation systems installed rather than micro sprinklers. Paul is convinced that drippers are far better at directing the fertigation supplied nutrients through the soil profile to the rootzone where they’re needed. Canopy development in the young blocks is going extremely well.

As part of the Future Orchards programme, Martine Combret, WA Department of Agriculture and Food, established a fertigation monitoring trial on a young Kanzi block planted in 2010 and a young Fuji block planted in 2011 on Newton Brothers’ Starkie orchard. The trial will measure the movement of fertilisers (nitrates) down the soil profile to ensure that the duration of each fertigation event is optimised to prevent the applied nutrients leaching below the rootzone.

Historically, Newton Brothers had been quite conservative in their productivity expectations and use of tools to enhance canopy development and support productivity.

Setting higher productivity expectations has been part of the new management programme. During winter, bud counts are used as a way to help determine the density of pruning required and as the first step in establishing the crop load capability for the coming season. During hand thinning in 2012, Paul decided it was time to challenge his managers to leave more fruit on their trees.

As a result, in 2013 the orchard operations team exceeded the 50 t/ha target and produced an average of 58 t/ha. This figure is the average across all orchard blocks and includes young and non- producing blocks.

Future Orchards pre-plant preparation

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