Jun 3, 2019
UFO peach system finds favor at Windy Ridge

When Gregory Lang conducts tree fruit research in search of orchard technologies that are optimized, efficient production systems, he does so knowing the fruit-growing community may or may not embrace his findings.

The Michigan State University horticulturalist doesn’t have many doubts about one such concept after seeing it perform well in action at Windy Ridge Orchards in Conklin, Michigan.

“One of the fears you have as a researcher is we’re supposed to push the boundaries, try crazy things and let you know which ones work and don’t work,” Lang said during the Michigan Peach Meeting held in March in Benton Harbor, Michigan. “Then you see a grower who came and looked at our research trials in 2012 or so, and said, ‘Hey, I want to go back and give that a little bit of a try. To see that he’s making it work makes you feel good, as opposed to getting up and saying, ‘This is one of the biggest disasters we’ve ever tried.”’

Lang made the comments following a presentation by fourth-generation grower Kyle Rasch of Windy Ridge Farms, who along with his father Chuck – among the visitors to Lang’s trials at MSU’s Clarksville research station – have successfully embarked on the use of an upright fruiting offshoots (UFO) training system on a block of peaches at their farm in western Michigan.

“We’re shooting for higher color, larger fruit,” Kyle Rasch said. “A lot of our fruit is 2 5/8 to 2 3/4 inches.”

Chuck Rasch planted open-system peach trees in the early 1990s. The farm removed that planting in 2014.

“We struggled to yield with open centers, and color was an issue,” Kyle Rasch said. “We started growing the Y system in 2003. The biggest issue we were seeing with the Y system is the cost of labor that was continuing to increase. We were looking for ways to try to be innovative to manage the difference in the cost of labor and the system that we plant.”

Kyle Rasch discusses a new planting at Windy Ridge farm. Photos: Gary Pullano

The farm operation worked with Lang and began experimenting with a UFO block, which is in its fourth leaf with five different varieties: Early Glo, PF 13, PF 23, Starfire and Allstar.

“Our yields on this block are pretty similar to the Y system,” Rasch said. “We’re able to pick the varieties in two picks most of the time. The smallest pick is usually our first pick just to get the early maturing fruit on the tree.

“That’s been a decent surprise,” he said. “I wasn’t really expecting that few of picks as compared to our Y system. In the long run, this is going to lend itself to more mechanization, whether it be running the hedger down these rows, and also if there’s any future thinning mechanization, it’s something we might be open to experimenting with.”

Spacing of the UFO block is 12 feet by 10 feet, 363 trees per acre, a lower density of trees per acre in comparison to the Y system, “but we’re increasing the surface area per line since there’s more rows for the same acre of land.”

Trees are planted on a 30- to 40-degree lean. “The more of a lean, the better for us. It helps slow the tree down as we get the desired height. The first set of trees we planted this way, we didn’t quite give them the lean that they needed to have so that has been an issue. Overall, they fill their space plenty enough.

“It’s kind of a poor man’s term to use, but we’re kind of just letting the tree do what it wants,” Rasch said. “It’s not perfect but it seems to be working out good in the interim.”

The system’s leaders are spaced 24-30 inches. “Some of the trees don’t have quite the number of leaders that I might desire,” Rasch said. “Some of the trees we only have four leaders per tree. What I’m trying to do is keep all of the fruit within 6 to 8 inches around that leader. These trees are left untied. We have one wire. It’s lined with old irrigation tube. We haven’t had any issues with bacteria canker to speak of.”

“We’re not tying to the wire at all,” he said. “There’s really no good reason for that. The biggest reason is we planned, in the beginning, to constantly renew the leaders, so we didn’t see a need to tie them to the wire. In this system the top wire isn’t quite high enough to make that big of a difference. In the future, I would like to have another wire a little bit higher, and then we’d tie to that wire because eventually you’re going to have trees that lean over with the weight of the fruit.

“The primary use of the wire is basically for training, just so the tree gets on the right side of the wire and we didn’t have trees leaning over with the winds. So, we put the wire on the prevailing wind side of the tree.”

Rasch said the operation uses a platform for thinning and pruning. It pursues intensive pruning; use of the hedger becomes increasingly important and thinning is simplified. “We’ve experimented with going through with the hedger at different timings. We have gone through in the spring just before we send the guys through on the ground to make less cuts per tree.”

“This past year, we’ve had very intensive pruning,” Rasch said. “That was a little disappointing. It didn’t seem like the trees were going to lend themselves to a future as well for shading out so we really had to hit them back this past spring. In the long run, our biggest issue is limiting that shading.”

For the majority of their thinning, the crew is shooting for one fruit per offshoot.

“When we have the tree, we’re nipping back all of our new growth this year and we’re telling the guys to put one, sometimes two peaches on each of those limbs, depending on the size of them. So that’s been simplified. We’re doing the majority of the thinning without pruning.”

The UFO approach gives the orchard fewer trees per acre, Rasch said. “We had added costs for the posts. It ended up being similar establishment if not less cost (than the Y system). It requires fewer trips picking and produces similar yields.

“We plan to plant more (UFO trees) in the future,” he said. “We’ll see if that plan changes based on the future of the UFO system and if we can keep the shading out. That might be our biggest issue with the system.”

Rasch said the UFO system does provide more light interception. “The tree is fairly exposed, more so than on a Y system. On the outside of the tree we’re getting more color and fewer picks. Pruning practices where we’re reducing the amount of fruit on the hangers help also.”

To encourage replacement of leaders, Rasch said, “we pruned pretty intensively last spring, taking out quite a few large leaders. The idea behind that is, sure, you’re going to have a small hole in that tree, but it fills itself out by the end of the year. I envision in the future each tree might see the biggest limb on each tree getting taken out every two years. We’ll see how it lends itself for shading in the future.”

– Gary Pullano, managing editor

Above, Michigan State University’s Gregory Lang, left, and Kyle Rasch of Windy Ridge Orchards discuss peach tree training systems. Photos: Gary Pullano

Lang: UFO peaches provide an edge

Gregory Lang

Michigan State University horticulturalist Gregory Lang said – as is the case with his research findings in cherry training systems – the use of upright fruiting offshoots (UFO) training systems in peach tree production is an effective approach.

“With the UFO, we’re planting vertically, we’re heading it and we’re growing up two leaders in the first year. We want that vigor in the first year, fill the vertical space by growing two, five-foot leaders,” Lang said. “In the second year, we lay those leaders down and let the two leaders become the cordon, and start to take the vigor out of the tree. You take it out by laying the leaders down horizontally. We rub the bottom buds off and let the top buds grow.”

Lang said there’s some real beauty with this, because in the first year you get your multiple vertical fruiting offshoots. The tree has gone through transplant shock. It’s first priority is to establish that root system, not to establish the leaders. Canopy growth comes later.”

According to Lang, the formula is easy to duplicate: “Plant the tree, allow it to grow two leaders, allow it to establish the roots, lay the leaders down, rub off the bottom buds and the top buds shoot up really nicely. They’re all the same age, there much more uniform. In the first year, don’t try to grow the uprights. Just grow the cordons. Get them balanced, lay them down. In the second year, you’re much more successful in filling in all of those uprights right where you want them. You’ll actually get more than you need. You can then select down to the most uniform ones to fill in that vertical wall in the second year.

“The beauty of peaches, in the third year, those are all going to have flowers,” Lang said. “In cherry, you have to wait another year for those to come into fruiting. I think you could quickly get into fruit in the third year with the UFO peach trees planted that way.”

Lang said he’s considering using 16-20 inches in his leader-spacing trials “to see if we can do that.”

– Gary Pullano

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