Agrovista Technical Seminar for cider apple growers

Article taken from The Fruit Grower, written by Clive Marlow

More than 90 delegates attended the Agrovista Cider Growers Technical Seminar held in Ledbury, Herefordshire in February.  Chaired by Paul Bennett, Senior Fruit Agronomist at Agrovista, the seminar hosted an impressive line-up of speakers.  The first of which was Lewis McKerrow who gave an overview of AXIS, the Agrovista real-time data hub.

Dr. Michelle Fountain of East Malling Research presented results of work on pollination; this had just been completed and not previously presented.   The work included a study of bee activity that surprisingly showed the great importance of solitary bee species.  Dr Fountain gave a second presentation on pest and pathogen control in orchards.  The humble earwig, long considered a pest, is now seen as a most desirable predator for the control of woolly aphids and codling moths.

Alex Radu presented the results of pollination trials work carried out in 2014.  This focused on the results of a limited trial using Pollibuild to improve pollination and the use of Pollinus that contains aromatic pheromones to attract bees.  Although much more work needs to be done, early results indicate that the application of BOTH Pollibuild and Pollinus gave a yield advantage over using just one of the products.

Leon Jahae discussed the reduction of costs in cider apple production.  The problem appeared to be that the cider apple crop was seen as being of low value and for every additional £10 of inputs a return of at least £12 was required.  This involved looking carefully at nitrogen and potassium applications, using Regalis and gibberellins to improve fruit set, the use of a foliar feed programme, and growing varieties that come into production earlier and crop consistently well.  He stressed the importance of increasing the availability of potassium as this will increase fruit size and therefore yield.  Higher potassium levels will also increase the uptake of other elements.

Roger Umpelby asked the question “Are there more pests attacking orchards and, if so, are they a serious threat?”  First, Roger took a look at the history.  Research going back to 1898 showed that 14 orchard pests were identified and recorded, by 1909 the next piece of research showed 61 and by 1953 this had increased to 105.  In 1984 David Alford indentified 136 and in the latest count of 2005 the same researcher found 221.

Of those found in the 1898 survey the survivors today are woolly aphid, sawfly, green apple aphid, mussel scale, codling moth, apple blossom weevil and ermine moth.  These till present a threat to the cider apple crop, plus a few occasional ones that have the potential to cause yield loss such as apple leaf midge, capsids, clay-covered weevil, flat scarlet mite, leaf hoppers, scale insects and tortix moths.

It is the scale insects, especially the mussel scale, flat scarlet mite and light brown apple moth that have increased in recent years but none, apart from the mussel scale, have caused regular or significant yield losses.  Other new pests that have received much publicity are the spotted wing drosophila (SWD) that poses a serious threat to soft and stone fruits but present no risk to cider apples, and the brown marmorated stinkbug that poses an extremely low threat.  Roger said, “As our climate changes so does orchard management and more alien pests arrive each year.  However, few establish in sufficient numbers to present a problem to the apple crop.

Owners and managers of orchards should encourage naturally-occurring predators and parasitoids by:

  • Minimising pesticide use
  • Reducing the width of herbicide strips
  • Encouraging flowering herbaceous plants within the orchard
  • Avoiding pure grass alley swards
  • Mowing alleys in rotation
  • Having some wild areas
  • Making sure hedges and windbreaks are well structured
  • Providing refuges for over-wintering insects
Many insects that were once considered pests in the orchard are now recognised as being very efficient natural predators, so growers must learn to love earwigs and wasps, for example.

John Thatcher

John Thatcher, Chairman of Thatchers Cider, gave his view of the industry, saying that it had never been in better health.  Cider sales had held up despite the recession but were now starting to plateau.  The position of the main players had stabilised and he was pleased to see new entrants coming into cider production.  To progress, the industry needed new blood with innovative ideas – newcomers are the businesses of the future.

John emphasised the need for a greater partnership between growers and cider-makers.  He wanted to see a fair return and a good profit for those growers who were doing a good job.  “We do not want to penalise bad growers, we just do not want to buy from them, he said.”  In his view prices for cider apples are not static, as some claim – good quality is rewarded.  For instance, lorry loads of a single variety attract a bonus of £10/tonne over loads comprising mixed varieties.  He went on to say, “The cider industry has been very poor at communicating with their growers.  We have a lot to learn from potato processors and sugar beet factories, both of which provide their growers with a ‘specification sheet’ detailing what they require.  Cider-makers should do the same with apple growers, and the specification should include the following:

  • Fruit should be clean
  • Fruit should not be damaged or bruised
  • Varieties should be specified that make good cider but are also good for growers, with high yields and freedom from disease
  • Growers should supply fruit with adequate micronutrients and be prepared to use foliar feeds
  • Growers must use fewer pesticides, as the public demand is for products that are free of chemicals
  • Cider-makers should specify what they want in terms of sugar and tannin content

Growers should be looking to maximising yields, by increasing the size of the apples, pushing yields from 50 tonnes/ha towards 55-60 tonnes/ha.  John explained what measures they had taken on their own ‘Thatchers’ farms.  They have started to grow trees in hedgerows with the objective of producing higher yields of better quality fruit at lower cost.  Each hedge is 6ft (1.83m) wide, 10ft (3m) high with 16ft (4.0m) between the rows.  This enables the trees to be shaped with a hedge trimmer, facilities the use of a tunnel sprayer, resulting in 40% less spray being applied, and permits harvesting with a conventional machine.  However, future plantings will be in 13ft (3.9) row widths.

As with many farms in the West Country, Thatchers have experienced a disproportionate rainfall during the winter months.  This has resulted in waterlogged orchards and the loss of trees.  They have decided upon remedial measures including the incorporation of gypsum into the soil and drainage with plastic pipes and stone backfill.  But with clean stone costing £20/tonne this is costing £2000/acre.  One of the more innovative measures is the return of the centuries old ‘ridge and furrow’, known in Somerset as ‘gripes and bends’.  This is where the trees are planted in hedgerows approximately 5” (125mm) higher than the centre of the alley between the rows, facilitating a natural drainage channel between each row of trees.

John Thatcher’s view of the future included:
  • More intensive production with trees having a reduced lifespan
  • The selection of varieties that suit cider production as well as being good for the grower
  • Varieties that begin cropping earlier to give a quicker return on investment
  • Reduced application of chemicals.
  • Multi-pass harvesting
  • A maximum of 10 rows of a single variety followed by two rows of a cross pollinator

Codling Moth Research Project

Agrovista agronomist Jane Cusack gave a brief report of her project monitoring the activity of codling moths in cider orchards.  The damage was much greater that just reduced yield, it had a significant effect on fruit quality and was a major factor in premature fruit drop.  Also, codling moths were responsible for reduced apple size and damage to mature fruit.  There are a number of tools available to growers including the monitoring of pheromone traps and correlation of weather data.


Paul Bennett gave the final presentation of the day on the highly topical subject of canker.  Canker is highly prevalent in many orchards and plantings of Gala and Jazz have shown evidence of heavy infections.  The site of an infection is usually where there is physical damage, leaving a wound for the airborne spores to enter.  In addition, the high-risk growth stages are at bud-burst, blossom, fruitlet drop, summer leaf drop and autumn leaf fall.  Infection can occur at any time a wound is present plus any new lesions.

Measures to reduce canker infection include products that boost the trees natural defences such as foliar feeds.  The inexpensive 42PHIᵀᴹCu that contains copper phosphite, nitrogen phosphite and iodine, is fully systemic and highly mobile.  It has been shown to stimulate the trees natural defences and reduce canker infection.

This final presentation reinforced the theme of the seminar that improving fruit quality increases yield and returns for growers.


16 March 2015

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