Feathered trees are profitable
This second-leaf Gala tree produced the equivalent of 300 bushels per acre.
Does it pay to plant a more expensive, but highly feathered tree rather than a one-year graft, bench graft, or sleeping eye tree?
Cornell University's Dr. Terence Robinson, who has studied the economics of planting different types of trees, believes that most growers are better off planting a finished tree.
While unfinished trees are half to one-third the cost of feathered trees, his analysis of the effect of tree price and its influence on profitability showed that the differences between the cost of using finished versus unfinished trees were small when trees were planted at low densities.
At low densities, the feathered trees were the most profitable. The optimum tree density for feathered trees was around 950 trees per acre, whereas the optimum density for low-cost trees was more than 2,000 trees per acre.
"In large measure, you're trading dollars at all the densities—you buy cheaper trees, you get less yield, or you buy more expensive trees and you get early yield," he said.
Moreover, in many locations, such as New York, the smaller trees do not produce fruit in the second year.
For those who have the management and knowledge to grow sleeping eyes or one-year grafts, they can work well, he said. But there is greater risk in growing bench grafts in a new planting. In a Cornell trial, they had a 98 percent survival from feathered trees, but he has heard of as low as 50 percent takes in bench-graft plantings.
"You're less likely to fail if you plant highly feathered trees," Robinson said.
He reminds eastern growers that micro-drip irrigation must be available to supply the highly feathered trees with water within two weeks of planting. "Highly feathered trees experience water stress in late May and June due to limited root systems and extensive leaf area," he stated, adding that water must be applied frequently to the newly planted trees.
Fertigation can also improve tree growth to the young trees, as they have limited nutrient uptake due to damaged root systems.
He recommends providing the young trees with 60 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre through the drip system over the course of about ten weeks. A liquid nitrogen product like CAN 17 works well, he said. About 60 pounds per acre per year of potassium is needed in the third year of planting.