Yakima Valley Orchards designed and built its own three-row tree planting machine.
Yakima Valley Orchards used to plant trees by hand, with workers digging holes with shovels. Now, it has a three-row planting machine that has cut labor costs in half. But, Travis Allan, operations manager, said the real value of the machine has been in getting the trees planted more quickly and in the optimum time frame, which yields bonuses down the road.
Brett Calhoun, general manager of Yakima Valley Orchards, a division of Allan Brothers, Inc., in Yakima, Washington, designed and built the company’s planting machine, which is towed by a tractor and has a platform with seats for six workers. Allan prefers to plant sleeping eyes rather than nursery trees. The machine, which is guided by GPS (Global Positioning System) technology, digs a one-foot-deep trench down each row. Workers on the platform put the sleeping eyes in the trench. Then, three workers who are walking behind straighten the sleeping eyes, adjust the orientation of the buds, and pack the soil around them.
The machine has made it easier to accurately space the rows and plant the trees the right distance apart, Allan said. It’s also taken a lot of the decision making out of the planting process and increased labor productivity by 50 to 70 percent.
25,000 trees a day
It can take just an hour to plant two acres. As many as 25,000 trees can be planted in one day on a good site, with the machine humming along at a speed of one mile per hour. On a bad site, with a lot of rocks or caliche, it might travel at half that speed.
In 2009, when Allan planted an 18-acre block of Pink Lady with 1,500 trees per acre on a good site, it took only 281 hours of labor at an average cost of $126 per acre. Allan said it’s not just the cost of labor that’s a factor, but finding enough people to plant that many trees by hand would be difficult.
Planting by machine also reduces management hours. A computer guides the machine down the rows, and the workers only have to focus on two jobs: putting the trees in the ground and making sure they’re straight, Allan said.
The more acres planted, the more significant the savings. On a 100-acre planting, savings can add up to $30,000. But Allan, who was planting just over 40 acres this spring, said the most critical benefit of the machine is that the whole planting process can be done in a short time frame. In just a few days, the trees can be planted, the trellis installed, and everything done right, he said.
“To me, the dollar amount is not the benefit. The benefit is the speed and efficiency to get things done. That’s the value, there. You’re going to be making more money in the third year because the tree is growing well.”
The trees have six months to grow during the first season. If the grower misses two months because of delays in planting, that’s a 30 percent reduction in the time the tree has to grow, which could mean the difference between 30 bins per acre in the third leaf and only 20 bins.
“Every linear foot of tree I grow means more production in the third year,” he said. “The first-year wood is your third-year production. The biggest payback that I see is early production.”
Allan begins the planting process by having the soil tested. He looks particularly at the pH level, the ratio of calcium to magnesium, and the levels of other micronutrients to make sure there is no deficiency. If necessary, he will broadcast a soil amendment, but he’ll usually address any imbalances with fertigation through the drip line after the trees are planted. In a replant site, he removes the old trees in the fall and always broadcast fumigates the ground before replanting.
Sleeping eyes are a little cheaper than nursery trees, but Allan said the main advantage is that he can train the tree right from the bud to suit his system, which is a formal training system with limbs precisely positioned on the wires. His objective is to harvest 30 bins per acre in the third leaf and 70 bins per acre at maturity. He rarely uses bench grafts, which are best planted by hand because the grafts are not yet connected, making them more fragile, he said.
When using sleeping eyes, Allan orders three to five percent more than he needs so he can replace unhealthy ones. Before planting, he sorts to verify the buds are good, the roots don’t look as if they’re rotting, and each one has enough roots that it has a good chance of surviving.
“The nurseries do a once-over for you, but we still look at the sleeping eyes one more time before we plant,” he said. “It’s not very cost effective to plant trees that don’t have a chance.”
He likes to start planting around March 1, when the snow is gone and the ground is no longer frozen. The sleeping eyes are planted with the bud union about six inches above the ground. The same day as the trees are planted, drip tube is laid for irrigation, and grow tubes are placed over the trees to protect them and keep them growing straight.
When 70 percent of the buds are starting to push, he has a crew go through the planting looking for trees that are not growing, so they can be replaced with the extras that he keeps in storage.
The lower wires of the trellis should be installed at planting or, if grow tubes are being used, before the young trees reach the top of the tube. The growth rate of the trees depends on many factors, including the variety, location, and rootstock. For example, Honeycrisp grows more slowly than Fuji. With the trees growing at a rate of at least half an inch a day, it only takes about a month and a half for them to reach the top of the grow tubes. Allan hopes to see six feet of growth in the first season.
The faster the trees are growing, the less time there is before the trellis needs to be installed, he said. “You have to be on your game.”
The upper trellis wires can be installed in the fall when the crew has more time.