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Untangling the netting options

Growers and netting installers share their insights into considerations when choosing the right netting for your orchard needs and situation. 

Key points 

  • Be clear what you want the netting to deliver. 
  • Know your budget. 
  • Consider what suits your region and risks. 
  • Consider capital outlay vs ongoing operational cost. 
  • Ensure it’s properly installed and don’t skimp on net. 
  • Maintenance is a must. 
  • Changing microclimate may require management adjustment.  
  • Factor in packout gains as well as risk mitigation. 

Looking at installing new netting over the winter, but overwhelmed by the range of options? Knowing what you are trying to ‘stop’ with your netting and what you have to spend is the first step, advise some of the industry’s most experienced installers. 

“The first question is, what do you want to stop? What do you want to protect against? Is it hail, is it birds, do you just want some wind or sun protection?” said Dean Gawen, of Adelaide Hills-based JAG Trading. 

“The second one is what’s your budget? There’s no point talking about a flat top that’s running around $60–70,000/hectare, or an apex system at $45,000/ha or a Drape Net that might be around $10–15,000, in rough figures, if you only have the budget for… a throw over bird net. 

“If it’s hail you want to stop, the apex/gable structure is the better way to go, because the hail falls off, but it all comes down to ‘what’s your budget?’.” 

In the wake of devastating hailstorms that hit Victoria’s Goulburn Valley, wiping out entire crops and incomes, and against a background of rising costs and prices that stubbornly refuse to also rise, the answer might well be ‘no budget’. 

Growers who have installed netting around the regions universally speak to netting’s benefits, including packout gains that can contribute to payback periods of as little of 3–4 years for cheaper options. 

“It’s not hard to lift your packout by 10 per cent with netting,” said Brent Reeve, General Manager Orchards, for Goulburn Valley-based Jeftomson. “But you have to have the capital.” 

The higher incidence of serious hail events in recent years has also altered the perception of both risk and expected payback timeframe.

“Without a hail event, our netting would pay back in five years,” said Victorian grower Brad Fankhauser. “With hail, payback is instant.”

Cost recovery will depend on yield and price, with higher yielding blocks of higher value fruit returning faster on investment.

“If you want to cover your key blocks, you can use Drape Net for a couple of years and once you’ve got the funds, you can move to [other options],” Brad said.

Netting options can be very loosely grouped into: 

  • Flat top, quad netting tensioned across a permanent structure, at the top end of expenditure, requiring professional installation – costing $60–70k+/ha. 
  • Apex/pitch/gable-style netting (names and exact styles differ by region), hail net supported on a tensioned wire above the row, stretched to a join in the valley between rows and attached by either clips or bungee ropes, in some cases secured back to the frame, able to be lifted/tied back during pollination – costing $45k+/ha. 
  • Throw over net, including Drape Net, which uses the tree itself for support (or bull horns), falling to closely encase the row on both sides, requiring intensive labour for removal and rolling when not needed – costing approx. $10–15k/ha. 

Within all of these are a wide range of variations on wood or steel support structures, cables, anchors, mesh sizes and fabrications, including knitted and woven, different colours and UV warranty against degradation from damaging ultra violet light. 

Ross Caltabiano, of New South Wales-based Drape Net, knows all too well the obstacles presented by high-cost structured nets. A former grower, Ross said after losing 200ha of apples to hail, he looked at the cost of structured net and chose to exit the industry instead. 

“The obstacle is the upfront cost,” he said. “People get caught with old varieties. Money is short. They can be covered, but is it worth it? The initial outlay stops you doing other things. 

“Drape Net is the cheapest option; it has flexibility where blocks are not uniform, the coverage is fantastic, and you get to do the other things. If you cover your fruit, you will have cash to put net on again next year and keep doing what you do.” 

Alternative short bungee closure on the ‘V5’ system.

The netting applicator and retriever Net Wizz, developed by Drape Net with Crendon Machinery in Western Australia, has simplified putting nets on and off, and the introduction of a bull horn system to hold nets off young trees has addressed concerns the closeness of nets was restricting growth. 

Ross said the near 100 per cent protection delivered better skin finish, less wind damage and cleaner fruit, and protected against insect damage. 

JAG developed the use of bungee ropes tied back to a wire to close nets in the more structured apex-style system. Dean said in some situations, where wind blew across the block, rather than down the row, the overlaps could open up and allow hail in and resulting damage. In response, the business has developed an alternative where short bungees join the nets firmly in the middle. The trade-off was the extra time needed to open and close the nets. 

Capital outlay vs ongoing cost 

Permanent netting is expensive but, once up, the advantages are it is over the trees whenever it is needed and there is minimal ongoing labour requirement. 

Andrew Arnott, of VGC Netting, in southern Victoria, has installed permanent netting for some of Victoria’s biggest fruit growers. 

He said while permanent quad netting was more expensive than do-it-yourself systems, the additional cost had to be considered in context of additional labour costs required to put netting on and take it off each season, and the risk of not having net deployed when it is needed. 

“The downfall of the do-it-yourself systems is by the time you work in opening and closing it for, say, three or four years you’re probably pretty well breaking even with just having one built and concentrating on growing apples. 

“The advantages permanent netting offers are you get less evaporation, so obviously less irrigation is required, and your sprays are far more effective because you can go into a far less windy environment. Your sprays take better, they sit on the tree slightly longer wet. Sunburn and limb rub are essentially eliminated under net. That’s before you even get to the hail advantages.” 

Longevity and maintenance 

Andrew advocates paying for quad or hex net – knitted and knotted into a fixed structure – over woven net for longevity. 

“While woven nets are cheaper, every time the wind blows, it’s rubbing on itself; all those little fibres are rubbing backwards and forwards and consequently you find holes at the tops of posts, anywhere that the net touches,” he said. “The beauty of the quad system is it’s basically fixed on the edge and the rest of it touches nothing.” 

JAG does not use woven netting either. 

“The woven nets are cheaper, because they are quicker and easier to make,” Dean said. “The problem is if you cut a woven net it frays, there is nothing holding it together. Whereas if you put a hole in a knitted net, the holes will lock off so that the holes don’t run on.  

“Quad has got to be knitted. You can get knitted and woven versions of the rice hail net, but why would you, because if you get a tear in the edge, the yarns aren’t held together, so they can just slide off each other.” 

Protection against damaging UV light that can degrade netting within the year is also important and many nets come with warranties against UV breakdown, although Dean cautions UV warranties don’t cover wear and tear, or hail damage. 

He said ensuring nets were properly secured – and retensioned if they’d stretched – and not flapping loose would also increase longevity.  

“Anything that’s loose, is at risk,” he said. “You’ve got to make sure it’s tightly secured because if you get a constant little wave going across your block and the netting is touching down on a tree, or a wire, or a cable, it’s just rubbing away at the yarns and you can lose half the life of the material just through that.” 

Life expectancy for Drape Net is 10 years, but Ross recommended taking the bottom of the net and placing it on top prior to rolling up to help protect the top. Net ripped by passing machinery should also be mended to avoid it running. 

Netting system comparison.

Adjust for change 

In over 20 years installing nets for some of Victoria’s biggest apple and pear growers, Andrew has heard all the usual arguments against netting, but none that he believes can’t be managed or that outweigh the benefits of protecting the crop. 

“‘You get lousy pollination’, ‘the hail came through the net’, ‘netting’s expensive’; you hear it all,” he said. “You’re changing an environment by putting net on. You need to recognise, if you change an environment, it will have effects on things like pollination and you may need to make changes elsewhere to address those effects. 

“If you are doing five beehives a hectare, you might need to consider doing 10 a hectare. Netting is not causing your problem, it is just causing change and you need to compensate for that change. 

“There is nowhere around the Yarra Valley and southeast Victoria area that doesn’t run permanent net. They’re all pulling off 100 tonnes per hectare, so pollination is obviously not an issue. If you do it properly.” 

Andrew said, in his experience, pollination problems were invariably caused by either not enough beehives in the orchard, not enough pollinisers, pollinisers in the wrong place or walls on the structure that stopped the bees coming in. 

There is considerable research, both available and ongoing, into better understanding the effects of netting on not just pollination, but on factors including colour development and return bloom and how to offset these effects by modifying orchard practices. 

For further information follow the links below or visit the Future Orchards® library. 

Further reading 

Place nets high above the orchard for better fruit set, says Adelaide Uni” (Aug 2022), 

Optimisation of pollination within protected cropping environments” (Nov 2022, video), 

Catching water in a net” (Apr 2023, Good Fruit Grower)

This article was first published in the Winter 2023 edition of AFG.

As part of this story, APAL spoke with four Australian growers about their approach to netting, read more here.

 

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