A Grower's Guide to Precision Crop Load Management Tools

A Grower's Guide to Precision Crop Load Management Tools
A Grower's Guide to Precision Crop Load Management Tools

Farmers make difficult decisions throughout the growing season to maximize output without wasting resources. Precision crop load management tools are designed to make these decisions easier. But which tools are right for you?

Every good harvest begins long before the fruit is ripe—long before the first blooms appear on the trees. The process of managing the number of fruits on each tree by using pruning and thinning to remove excess fruit is known by the term “crop load management.” It’s a risky process that, when done right, can have big rewards. But because of the difficulty of crop load management, many farmers are looking for better ways to do it.

Fortunately, today’s growers benefit from modern technology to make their decision-making easier. From early spring, when the first buds appear on trees, throughout the summer, when buds blossom into flowers that will eventually become fruit, to late summer, when some pruning and thinning still takes place, fruit growers carefully consider every step of the growing process to ensure they maximize their crop’s survival, quality, and value. New technology advancements can make counting buds, tracking blossom growth, monitoring the weather, and other tasks much easier for growers.

In this article, we will review precision crop load management tools, explore their different capabilities, and help growers determine how to apply these new technologies to their tried-and-true growing practices.

A Review of Precision Crop Load Management

Crop load management and precision tools exist to make every step of the food production, operations, sale, reporting, and distribution process more efficient.

A 2020 National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant has allowed the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station to research and develop helpful precision crop load management tools. Work from this project, as well as product developments from technological and data-driven companies, are providing farmers with state-of-the-art tools that have the potential to dramatically improve the way crops grow and significantly maximize profits for growers.

According to an article by Good Fruit Grower, the project aims to make tedious tasks, like counting the number of buds on a tree or thinning trees by hand, easier and quicker to accomplish. By making these slow processes faster, researchers hope to encourage growers to use best practices like tracking bud growth and thinning trees with too much fruit.

Researchers and technical developers hope to make these tasks easier by applying existing technology to crop load management, including:

  • Vision-based technology, which makes it possible to quickly count how many buds are on each tree and, by extension, helps growers identify how much to prune.
  • Autonomous vehicle navigation, which could potentially eliminate the need for farmers to capture images for vision-based technology. Autonomous drones could, with careful development, capture these images automatically.
  • High-precision GPS systems, which can identify which areas in a crop might, for example, need more fertilizer, be over-watered, need pruning, or require further attention. If vision-based technology can identify crop problems and high-precision GPS systems can provide the problems’ exact location, growers can take care of problems more quickly.
  • Weather stations, which provide weather data for a specific part of a field or orchard. Weather data, when combined with fruit growth data, can help growers identify weather trends and the effects of certain types of weather on specific crops.
  • Robotic systems which, given enough time and development, could automatically gather data and make crop load management adjustments without input from a person.

What to Expect from Crop Load Management Tools

However, the gap between research and development is a hurdle that developers are still trying to close. While researchers like those from the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station are interested in what could be possible, growers need to make more practical decisions today. Is there any new technology that can help growers make decisions as soon as this growing season?

The answer is a definite yes. Precision crop load management tools are similar to self-driving car technology. Of course, self-driving cars don’t exist yet, but we have technology like parking assist, lane-change assist, and partially autonomous highway driving. Automated crop load management tools are in a similar situation—researchers and developers aren’t quite there, but they have made significant strides toward it. In the process, they have created valuable tools that, while not replacing the farmer, certainly make their job easier.

Crop load management tools can help growers by making the following processes easier:

Counting Buds

As most home gardeners know, counting blossoms and pruning the excess until you have the ideal number of potential fruit is the best way to grow fruit from a tree. However, this makes the process sound much more straightforward than it is.

First, there is the question of how to count the buds. You can do it if you have one small tree in your yard. But once you have multiple trees—and especially if you grow fruit over a multi-acre orchard—counting them one by one becomes impossible.

New vision-based technologies allow growers to count buds without going through each branch one by one. Instead, vision-based technology gathers data from images. The simple idea is that a farmer can use their phone’s camera to capture images of their fields. Then a vision-based technology tool can analyze those images to count the number of buds, blossoms, or fruits on a tree.

This development improves crop load management by making it easier to identify which trees need pruning and which may be underproducing. But it also makes other processes easier, like tracking fruit growth rate. Combined with weather data, the data from this tool gives growers everything they need to recognize patterns contributing to crop load management decisions.

Interestingly, the technology that allows machines to use images to gather data was initially developed by the military. The same technology that helps war strategists count soldiers on a battlefield helps growers to count buds on a tree.

Optimizing Thinning and Pruning

Pruning is a process that shapes trees and helps them to grow productively. Thinning is the process of removing certain buds, blossoms, or fruit from the tree. Thinning is usually done by hand or using chemicals to speed up the process.

Hand thinning costs growers a lot in both time and labor, primarily because of the time it takes to:

  1. Identify which trees need thinning.
  2. Determine how many buds, blossoms, or fruits should be removed.
  3. Communicate to workers precisely what they should remove, when, and how often.
  4. Give workers time to complete the task.
  5. Track progress, monitor fruit growth, and make adjustments.

Emerging technologies help speed up these processes. As previously discussed, vision-based technologies can help growers identify how many buds they are working with. Other technologies can use machine learning and data from other sources to determine how many buds, blossoms, or fruits should be removed from each tree. Technologies that assist in communication and project management can help growers communicate quickly with farm workers, reducing the time wasted between project identification and execution. And someday, there may even be robotic machines that can do some of the hand-pruning.

Measuring Growth Rate

Nearly as important as managing the amount of fruit on a tree is accurately measuring how quickly the fruit is growing. The growth rate is an essential variable for farmers to consider when they attempt to predict how much high-quality fruit they will have at the end of the season.

Growers can use several different growth models to predict how many fruits per tree they should aim to grow. These methods include the pollen tube model, the carbohydrate model, and the fruitset model.

While each growth model has its positive and negative aspects, and different models may be preferable for different crops, the growth rate is a critical variable in all prediction models. It isn’t enough to count the buds and snip off the excess. Measuring growth rate requires growers to carefully track which blossoms are growing into fruit most quickly and which are growing at the optimum speed to be an ideal size at harvest time.

Of course, tracking growth rate is notoriously tricky. However, it is made significantly easier by new technologies. The same vision-based technologies that allow farmers to quickly count buds, blossoms, and fruit make it possible to compare images of the same area throughout the growing season. This will enable growers to observe and record different growth rates among their crops accurately. Over time, the machines may be able to gather, store, and interpret the data automatically.

Tracking the Weather

For better or worse, farmers are at the mercy of the weather. A late frost can destroy even the most promising crops; a stormy season can require reactionary irrigation changes; and natural disasters can ruin more than just crops.

While we can’t do much to affect the weather, certain technologies allow farmers to gather weather data accurately and adjust based on their learning.

Some of the best crop load management systems include high-quality weather stations. These stations gather weather information from different areas of an orchard or field. Then they send the data to a grower’s mobile device, giving them access to all the weather variables affecting their crops.

When used with vision-based technology, these weather stations offer today’s growers more information every day than farmers ever had a century ago. Using crop load management tools on a mobile device allows growers to easily access accurate measurements of their crops’ size, growth rate, and weather conditions. Armed with this information, growers can maximize crop yield with surprising ease.

Using Crop Load Management Effectively

New technological developments are fun to talk about. The possible applications of new technologies, even in the food production industry, are enough to keep science fiction writers busy for days. But when it comes down to it, all the new devices in the world won’t do anyone any good—and won’t improve your crop’s yield and profitability—if they don’t solve problems that growers face today.

Furthermore, every farmer has different challenges that require unique solutions. For example, a grower in a moderate area with a relatively stable, predictable climate might not be as interested in weather meters as a farmer in a hostile environment. Farmers with complex irrigation systems need tools to help manage them; farmers in rainy areas don’t have to worry about it—but they may be interested in technology that can predict and manage pooling and flooding.

For these reasons and many more, it’s essential for each grower to carefully consider their unique situation—including crop variety, size, profitability, climate, thinning methods, and state regulations, among others—before choosing which products to invest in. The following sections can help growers identify the most helpful technological solutions to their most significant problems.


Counting Buds

Because of the difficulty of accurately counting buds, many growers don’t bother. Why put so much money and labor into something that won’t pay for itself in profits? Other growers might make a small effort to estimate the number of blooms on each tree, but for many farmers, counting buds is simply a non-starter.

If this has been the case for you, now is a great time to reconsider your approach. The costs of purchasing software that automate bud counting—like POMETA or Taranis can make the costs of counting buds insignificant compared to the profits it helps create.

But even if you have a bud-counting system currently in place, these vision-based technologies can significantly speed up the process. This could mean spending less on bud-counting efforts and giving laborers more time to do the work of thinning since they are spending less time counting buds.

Optimizing Thinning and Pruning

If you already have an excellent bud-counting solution—or have decided to invest in a mobile-based solution—the next step is to optimize the thinning and pruning process. For different growers, the challenges will be different. Is the biggest hurdle finding enough workers to do the thinning? Is it understanding government regulations for using certain chemical thinners? Or is it communicating with and accurately distributing payroll to team members who thin the crops?

If your problem is primarily operational and you need an excellent communication method, consider an option that can help growers and workers collaborate on food production operations. Apps like FarmRaise and Conservis specialize in assisting farmers in organizing their finances, creating reports, tracking inventory, and more.

Measuring Growth Rate

If you’re less concerned with optimizing your crop load and more concerned with improving the quality of the fruit you produce, choosing an option that prioritizes growth measurement might be best. Many tools that use vision-based software to count buds can also gather data from images to track the growth of specific fruits.

Because measuring growth rate and counting blossoms often go hand-in-hand, investing in a solution that can accurately measure, track, and report on both processes makes sense. Growers who are confident that they are growing the correct number of fruit and giving the best fruit the most resources can be sure their profits will benefit.Tracking the Weather

Tracking the Weather

Still, maybe your problem isn’t with pruning, thinning, bud counting, growth rate tracking, or anything else. Instead, the problem you repeatedly face might be bad weather. If you find that all the science, data gathering, informed decision-making, and labor planning are useless when unexpected weather patterns come through, you’ll want to choose a precision crop load management solution that tracks, stores, and reports weather data accurately and consistently.

POMETA is an excellent choice in this case. The solution’s weather station has 12 weather sensors and is made (in the USA!) for continuous deployment in even the harshest climates. It’s also simple to set up and has no complex wiring, making it durable enough to withstand all the rain, storms, frost, heat, and humidity it observes.

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