Innovation in Agronomy

Article taken from the National Fruit Show Handbook, written by Felicity Landon

In a challenging year for fruit growing, Agrovista has achieved remarkable results with a full-scale trial of Filocal, a product specifically developed to ensure optimum levels of calcium in fruit.

“Apples and pears are often stored for long periods of time in various types of storage facilities and one of the things which determines how well and how long fruit can be stored is the mineral composition,” says agronomist Paul Bennett.  “Calcium is extremely important, as well as levels of other major nutrients – but it isn’t just quantities, it is also the balance and ratio between certain nutrients.”

For example, some varieties of apple are more prone to Bitter Pit – to avoid this, it’s important to keep calcium levels high and the potassium/calcium ratio correct.

“Basically, we are working to give the plant exactly the right nutrients at the right stage in the season,” says Paul.  “Foliar feeding, the technique of feeding plants by applying liquid fertiliser directly to their leaves, is a complicated process.  There are many products on the market in terms of foliar feeds, but not many specifically designed for fruit.”

Working with its sister companies in Europe, Agrovista introduced its Filocal range – starting with a small-scale trial in 2012, an expanding this in 2013.  “We have seen the results from several farms we look after and the level of nutrients has been better than ever before; growers have been delighted,” says Paul.  “In a wet season, it is difficult to get enough calcium levels in the fruit.  But the programme we have followed has allowed for that and achieved record levels.”

Agrovista has paired Filocal with InCa, the transport mechanism that allows more of the calcium applied to the crop to end up in the fruit rather than in the growth tips of the tree.

“InCa has the ability to influence the movement of the calcium and we think that has made a big difference as well.”

Weather stations

Through its network of weather stations, teamed with advanced data analysis and a comprehensive information service, Agrovista provides growers with valuable forecasts, predictions and advice – notably helping to optimise the use of pesticide applications.

“Growers Choice Interactive (GCI) is the most up-to-date on-line disease and pest forecasting service for top fruit growers,” says agronomist Alex Radu.  “GCI uses live data from more than 30 fruit-specific weather stations across the country, coupled with our unique RIPro disease prediction software, to provide a web-based prediction system.  The weather stations collect data including rainfall, humidity, temperature and wind speed, and send it to the central server that is running RIMpro – and the data is updated every 60 minutes.”

Subscribers can access live graphics showing weather data, scab infection risks (primary and secondary season)and codling moth fight activity, mating activity, egg deposition and larval emergence for their area.

The service will also send text messages to a subscriber’s mobile phone to alert them to major events (such as significant outbreak of scab) and provides telephone access to a trained agronomist.

“GCI allows users to maximise control and minimise costs, while producing the highest quality crops,” says Alex.  “It helps growers reduce unnecessary spray applications, time spray applications better and maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of sprayed products.  Finally, by reducing the number of useless pesticide applications and timing them correctly, you can also reduce the pesticide residue on the final crop.”

Agrovista is continually updating the GCI service.  “For example, our subscribers received this year on top of the GCI service a daily email with the local weather forecast, the indicative spraying conditions and spray application windows.  The email is sent at 5am and helps growers plan their day; it shows the spraying conditions for the day, pointing out when spraying conditions are not suitable (due to rain or strong winds).”  This data is captured from over 400 Agrovista monitoring units across the country, as well as other fixed weather stations.

The RIMpro software is being developed into a web-based service that can be accessed from a notepad, smart phone, etc, and Agrovista is looking to expand the technology into other crop areas such as vines, soft fruit and vegetables.

Soft fruit monitoring

Just over a year ago, Agrovista acquired Plantsystems Ltd – and since then, the focus has been on integrating the two businesses.

“We have the opportunity within the soft fruit market to monitor three critical areas of agronomic interest related to the growth of the plant – temperature, relative humidity an electrical conductivity, a measure of the level of fertiliser,” says agronomist Mark Davies.  “We are aiming primarily at substrate crops, offering the grower a way of remotely tracking what is happening within the tunnel at critical times of the year.”

For example, if a tunnel is not sufficiently ventilated in hot weather, the crop goes into thermal dormancy.  Growers can receive a simple alarm via mobile phone, PC, tablet or other device, alerting them if the tunnel is anywhere close to critical temperature (high or low), so they can swiftly take action.  Similarly, humidity can be monitored an alarmed, and growers can switch on/off irrigation in newly planted orchards as well as soft fruit tunnels.  Finally, there is close monitoring to ensure that fertiliser levels are where they should be.

“As well as having the alarm element, we can go in and look at any number of these variables,” says Mark.  “We can monitor and interpret data daily, weekly or monthly and pick out patterns, in order to advise the grower how to adjust moisture, temperature and fertiliser regimes.”

“As well as having the alarm element, we can go in and look at any number of these variables,” says Mark.  “We can monitor and interpret data daily, weekly or monthly and pick out patterns, in order to advise the grower how to adjust moisture, temperature and fertiliser regimes.”

Pest/disease control

Applying insecticide or fungicide to fruit trees is one thing – making it ‘stick’ is quite another.  Agrovista has focused on the development of adjuvant technology which can help improve the staying power of chemical applications; as well as making the treatment more effective in controlling pests and disease, this approach reduces the risk of high levels of residue in the fruit.

Agrovista’s approach has included using adjuvants to help in late-season scab control, to reduce the carryover of spores into the next season – hence controlling a disease when the crop is not on the tree.

“Apple scab is a major fungal pest and it’s important to keep free from this,” says Paul Bennett.  “However, when applying protective fungicide to the leaf during the early part of the season, before bud burst, the leaves are very small and also very hairy, so they are small targets and difficult to cover comprehensively with fungicide.  We wanted to find an adjuvant that would improve coverage of the fungicide on the leaves at the difficult state.

“Through our sister company in the US, we sourced Velocity, a mix of oil and wetting agent; we tried this, and it made a significant difference.  We now advise growers that from bud burst to pink bud, they should use this adjuvant to ensure better coverage on the leaves of fungicide.”

At the other end of the season, the disease can reappear; even if an orchard is relatively free of scab, levels can build up rapidly if it’s a wet autumn.  “So growers apply fungicide at the end of the season, once again using an innovative sticking agent.”

Pest control in pears depends on good levels of beneficial insects – earwigs, anthocorid bugs, lacewings and hover files are vital in the fight against pear sucker.

However, other insects suck out the sap of the tree with the result that honeydew runs down the trunk, secondary mould develops and the tree goes black – ruining the fruit buds for the following year.

“This is very difficult to control because if you spray, you start to kill the beneficial insects,” says Paul.  The solution developed by Agrovista is to spray Epsom salts combined with an adjuvant called Roller; this washes away the honeydew so that the nymphs which live in it are dried out and die without the need for any insecticides.

 

04 October 2013

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