The Hutchinsons Enhanced Light Interception Orchard System (HELIOS) was established last spring at two sites, in East Kent and on the Herefordshire/Gloucestershire border, to examine how orchards can be cost-effectively re-designed and managed to capture more light, improve yields and allow new mechanical picking systems in future.
Several systems for growing Gala Galaxy clones on different rootstocks are being trialled over 10 years at both sites, with detailed yield and crop grading measurements due to be taken to help identify the most cost-effective options.
The planting configurations are inspired by research in New Zealand that suggests current orchard systems do not intercept as much sunlight as they could, so fall short of their theoretical maximum yield.
Systems being trialled are:
- Photovoltaic configuration which features Gala Galaxy on M9 and the more vigorous M116 rootstock, angled on a 50-degree slope orientated east-west in a similar way to a ground-mounted solar PV array.
- High density alternate leaning V spindle system using Gala Galaxy on M9 rootstock, planted at a tree spacing of O.39m in the standard north-south orientation. Trees are pruned to create a planar canopy no more than 30cm deep to maximise light interception.
- Gala Galaxy on M116 rootstock championed by Nick Dunn of F.P.Matthews, and chosen for its reduced canker levels, and resistance to drought, Phytophthora and woolly aphid. Trees are orientated north-south at a 1.5m spacing, on 3.5m rows, to give a density of 1,904/ha.
Developing orchard designs that will be suitable for robotic mechanical harvesting systems is also a key part of the Hutchinsons trials.
"In the medium term, the availability of labour for picking will become more difficult than it is now and present tree configurations aren't really suitable for the robotic harvesting systems being developed," says Rob Saunders of Hutchinsons.
"If we're going to be picking apples with robots in future, it will be from a planar canopy and fruit wall no more than 30cm thick. Our trials here are designed to see what is, and isn't achievable, with this sort of canopy design, so we can develop cost-effective, future-proof planting and management systems for our growers."
A new and unique soil nutrient scanning and mapping system that revolutionises the way in which soil nutrient mapping is currently undertaken in the UK-setting a new standard for accuracy in precision agriculture across UK farming systems including orchards.
TerraMap uses gamma-ray detection technology that delivers resolutions of over 800 points/ha, providing high definition mapping of all common nutrient properties, pH, soil texture, organic matter and CEC as well as elevation and plant available water.
TerraMap can be used in orchards prior to planting, either on an existing site which is being re-planted, or on a new site.
The information can be used to ensure that the nutrient status of the whole field is satisfactory prior to planting, but also to identify spatial variability in the inherent characteristics of the soil (texture, organic matter content, CEC, water holding capacity) to inform variety and/or rootstock choice together with plant spacing.
In established fruit crops, variable rate fertiliser spreading can be implemented, ensuring evenness of yield and quality.
"Saving fertiliser costs is not a high priority; it is more important in a high value crop to ensure that maximum output of marketable fruit is achieved," explains Hutchinsons horticultural technical manager Jonathan Blackman.
He points out that whilst detailed yield mapping of orchards is not yet possible, it is still possible to determine spatial differences in output across a field for example by counting the number of bins filled in each row.
"It may not be too long before harvesting machinery for fruits such as cider apples or blackcurrants will be able to provide yield maps much as combine harvesters have for many years."
"Using Omnia with yield data and TerraMap information opens up the possibility of mapping field profitability and understanding the soil factors which may be constraining maximum returns for a given plantation."
With turnover in excess of £220 million, the business has grown to become one of the leading national agricultural and horticultural input advice and supply companies. Hutchinsons takes a dynamic, forward thinking approach to supporting grower clients in the production of quality crops and food in a sustainable and responsible manner.
Agriculture and horticulture have always faced fluctuating conditions and prosperity and the industry is once again experiencing a period of significant change.
Hutchinsons recognises that the people working within the business are the most important ingredient in maintaining and enhancing the quality of services offered to their customers.
Hutchinsons employs more than 400 people, more than half of which are directly involved with the provision of professional agronomic services, supported by efficient and dedicated distribution and administration teams, who are committed to the highest levels of customer service and support.