Stewardship bears fruit at the Co-op

Article taken from the Pro Operator Spring 2014, written by Jane Carley

Highland Court Farm is undergoing a period of intense modernisation and investment since being leased by The Co-operative Farms three years ago.  This work involved not only updating spraying equipment and reorganising chemical storage and distribution, but also complying with rigorous stewardship measures to meet protocols and protect available chemistry.

Some 275ha of orchards are spread across five farms, run as three units each with its own foreman.  Cropping includes 100ha of blackcurrants grown for Ribena and 100ha of apples (mainly Gala and Braeburn), plus cherries, plums, apricots and walnuts.  Most of the produce goes into Co-operative stores.

Farm Manager Sean Finlayson, originally from New Zealand but with extensive experience running horticultural enterprises in Africa and the UK, was recruited when The Co-operative Farms took on the lease, with the brief to modernise Highland Court Farm.

A major project has been to move over to modern apple producing systems, which involve a high density of trees – 4,000/ha compared with 1,000 – 1,500/ha, all irrigated and grown on post and wire supports to 3.5m high.

“This system allows for increased mechanisation of pruning, thinning and picking – reducing crop maintenance and increasing yield per hectare,” says Mr Finlayson.
Fruit growing is a year-round process with pruning taking place in the winter, spraying from March to November, thinning in the summer, to reduce the number of fruits to produce the right size, through to picking in September and October.

Spray is especially intensive from April to June, when Highland Court Farm’s seven sprayers are working virtually every day.

“In addition to pesticides, the sprayers are used to apply foliar feeds and pollination hormones, and many applications are strategic, so they have to be made at a specific growth stage,” explains Mr Finlayson.  “We are very dependent on the weather and in a bad year can get behind.  In addition to the tight spray windows, the varieties differ in their requirements, so it takes a lot of planning.”

The latest technology and professional services from chemical distributor Agrovista is an essential strand of this.  Fungicide modelling is used to combat scab, with weather stations recording the conditions likely to precipitate an outbreak and thus indicating spraying timing.

Insects such as codling moths, fruit moths and leaf midges are trapped and their activity modelled to govern strategic spraying.

“We count 30 traps each week and it is half a day’s work, so even with the help of Agrovista, which controls the model using data input via the mobile phone network, it is labour intensive,” he comments.  “But it means that we are using data input via the mobile phone network, it is labour intensive,” he comments.  “But it means that we are using thresholds to decide when to move from protective products to a corrective spray programme.  This stewardship approach helps when using restricted products and meets the standards required by The Cop-operative.”

Herbicides are used on the grass strips between the trees four times a year to prevent weed competition and keep the growth tidy but, because many of the orchards are close to housing or footpaths, this has to be done in still conditions.

“We often have to spray at 4am, which is not popular with the operators, and this year the best spray days seem to have fallen at weekends too!”

Technology helps in the farm office too – Gatekeeper software is used for recording applications, chemical stocks and accounts, and the farm’s assistant manager is required to balance stocks to the last 100gm!

“The figures are monitored at head office and any discrepancies can be flagged up.  If they do occur, it is usually down to a figure keyed in incorrectly rather an error in store,” explains Mr Finlayson.

The spraying equipment is quite straightforward, compared with some arable crop sprayers.  A variety of systems are used to achieve good coverage with the active ingredient.

“The trees create a fruit wall that is 1m wide which makes the canopy is easier to penetrate than in a traditional orchard.  Coverage is vital, especially in poor conditions.  The aim is to cover the complete 3.5m high surface, because if one area is missed, scab in particular can ‘drip down’ and affect the rest of the tree, which has been an issue this year,” Mr Finlayson explains.

There are five Fantini Ecovac air blast sprayers with capacities of 1,000 – 1,500 litres.  Up to 20 nozzles are arranged at the rear of the tank and a piston pump is used to deliver spray liquid to them, with the air from the large diameter fan increasing the penetration into the crop.

Chemical and water is filled from the top of the tank with an agitator used to mix the multiple, often complex, ‘cocktails’.

Gavin Lloyd-Desson, Farm Foreman at Paramoor and Feldland Farm says:  “The Fantini is a low maintenance, simple sprayer capable of high and low fan speeds, although we usually work at 420 engine rpm to give a lower fan speed as we don’t need to displace that much air, except on wider trees such as cherries.

“We try to use low drift nozzles where possible, especially near housing or watercourses, but have to abide by chemical manufacturers’ recommendations for spray quality.  We can achieve outputs of 2ha/hr working at 8.2km/hr in a close planting system because the travel distance between rows in less.”

Tow Kirkland Triprop tower sprayers have been added this year to spray the taller orchards with three fans taking the chemical up into the canopy rather than spraying up from beneath.  Mr Finlayson is also trialling a Kirkland Quatt sprayer with four fans to give more height.

Another sprayer being considered is a KWH or Munckhoff Three Row unit, which will give greater outputs in the new 8-10ha orchards.  UK importers for the specialist machinery required are thankfully close at hand in the ‘Garden of England’ so back-up and technical advice is always available, and Highland Court Farm also uses a local independent service engineer with his own stock of parts.

Small four-nozzle boom sprayers are used to apply herbicides only, but otherwise the machines can apply four different mixes in one day, given the need to apply products such as pollination hormones strategically, and often at specific air temperatures.

Getting products to mix can be a challenge as the ‘cocktails’ can include one or two pesticides and three or four foliars.  “It takes a long time to fill the sprayer, and if the products don’t mix properly they can clog,” comments Mr Finlayson, “and to make matters worse we also have hard water!”

An important new addition to the armoury is a pair of Vegcraft ProFill mixing units which will include an inductor, draining area, filling hose and self-contained pump, which are expected to halve the current half-hour filling time.

Another development is a rationalisation of chemical storage.  Currently there are small stores at each of the three sites requiring weekly deliveries.  A new central store will cut deliveries and allow pre-ordering, with the sub-stores holding only seasonal products, and any unused products can be returned to the depot.

“This will enable us to negotiate more competitive prices, plus transport of chemicals from our main store to the sub-stores as required will be part of the deal,” explains Mr Finlayson.

The main store will also house a chemical filling point, using the first of the ProFill mixing tables.  Bulk tanks for the three main foliars used each spring will be installed and an area for a biobed is planned.

Training and education

Highland Court Farm employs 16 farm workers, ten of whom are trained to spray, with six main operators.  Training tends to be carried out on site and may include other local operators, and staff have access to other training days from Agrovista and FAST.

Group visits are accommodated including recent wet paper tests of neighbouring farmers’ sprayers, which Mr Finlayson comments showed ‘wide variation’.

Restrictions and stewardship

A high profile campaign to protect Chlorpyriphos is seeing success among growers, and Highland Court Farm has adopted the stewardship approach of using low drift nozzles, although it is a product that is used only in the early season.  “The nozzles work best with a ‘cocktail’, but it is a successful approach,” explain Mr Finlayson.

Ronstar (oxadiazon), a herbicide used after planting, is being withdrawn from the market in 2014, which Mr Finlayson identifies as cause for concern as it is used to control bindweed and annual weeds around the young trees.

He notes that since Casoron, (dichlobenil), used to control weeds in blackcurrants, was removed in 2010, there has been little suitable herbicide choice for this crop, and he now has to spray more often to keep it clean.

The farm has 20ha of pears, which are affected by ‘pear stalker’, which is difficult to treat with chemicals.  It is sprayed with Epsom salts at 1,000 litres/ha, designed to protect anthocorids which eat pear stalker.   Anthocorids are also released into the orchards.

Bees play a very important role in pollination and there are 200 beehives at Highland Court Farm, with the team working closely with the beekeeper.  “The one month flowering period restricts the insecticides and herbicides that can be used, so we need to spray beforehand and catch up afterwards.  The products used have to be chosen carefully, but it clearly works – despite poor weather this year we have seen excellent bee populations.”


20 January 2014

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