Time To Treat Apples Like Cows?

Time To Treat Apples Like Cows?

We need to manage orchards like dairy cows. I have been going to the wrong kinds of meetings and probably reading the wrong publications. No more horticulture or crop protection or postharvest physiology; just look at how the black and white cows are being handled.

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Additionally, we need to reinvent, not just restore, our U.S. Land Grant University system. As we celebrate the Morrill Act of 1862, which created a new partnership between the federal government and the states to support higher education, including an emphasis on agriculture, it is clear the research and Extension needs of the ag sector are not being adequately addressed across the country, whether for Holstein cows or Honeycrisp apples.

These revelations hit me at a couple recent meetings in California. After a long and difficult season in Washington, including four straight weeks of air quality rendered hazardous to unhealthy by smoke from nearby wildfires, it seemed reasonable to get away to the California coast.

This was not a vacation, however. I participated in a couple of professional meetings very different from ones I usually attend. The first was a two-day workshop sponsored by the American Society of Animal Science. I have generally followed the path of Cain rather than Abel, at least in terms of focusing on crops rather than livestock, so it was odd to find myself at a meeting in which crops were considered only in terms of their role in feeding animals. Similarly, the second meeting was sponsored by an energetic university and industry consortium that included presentations on agriculture of the future, synthetic biology, immigration reform, intellectual property, and entrepreneurial commercialization of research products.

While neither meeting had an obvious connection to the practical issues of solving problems for tree fruit producers and processors through better research and tech transfer, my expenses were covered and perhaps a different perspective would provide some insight into my own world.

More Investment Needed

That insight about our land grants was more a confirmation of a problem that has long faced us in specialty crops. Long considered “minor crops,” our commodities generally received minor attention from land grant universities compared to livestock and the “major crops” feeding them.

The recent emergence of specialty crops as a sector deserving more focused investment from federal and state agencies, including land grant universities, has been welcome, but overall investment has shifted away from productivity and toward other policy issues. Distressingly, the pace of growth in public agricultural R&D spending has slowed from around 3% in the 1950s and 1960s to around 2% in the 1970s and 1980s, and has fallen below 1% during the 1990s and 2000s. Additionally private sector agricultural R&D is predominantly focused on food processing.

At the Animal Science Society meeting, Julian Alston from the University of California-Davis hit me in the face with this information, highlighted in research that he and Phillip Pardey from the University of Minnesota conducted. To read the research paper from Alston and Phillip Pardey at the University of Minnesota, which addresses the need for more spending in agriculture R&D, go to
http://tinyurl.com/8hjub3t. The recent recession and its grinding, ongoing impact on our traditional providers of knowledge and technological innovation — land grant universities and USDA-ARS — exacerbates this trend.

This diminution occurs even as specialty crop producers, processors, and handlers confront unprecedented challenges: crop-eliminating weather events, food safety, regulations, invasive pests, etc., etc., etc. Just like our need for solid research and high-quality technology transfer, our providers are losing the necessary human and infrastructure resources.

Unhappily, I can certainly confirm that general theme is specifically relevant for Washington State tree fruit producers. It also confirms that our efforts over the past 10 years to not just maintain, but improve and augment research and outreach activities at Washington State University, capped by a $42 million endowment campaign, were a logical course of action. I probably did not need to travel to California and participate with my animal science colleagues in that meeting to reach that conclusion, but it is certainly nice to know my industry and land grant university might be a little ahead of the curve.

Managing Tree By Tree

That second meeting only confirmed that there is always something new to learn. A talk by Jason Osterstock, a veterinary scientist from Pfizer Animal Health, provided a fascinating insight into some current management practices for dairy cows. Halfway through that presentation, I realized the operator of a dairy herd has some production challenges similar to those facing an orchardist.

Every single cow, like every single tree, requires a considerable up-front investment before producing a return. And every cow, just like every tree, will not be consistently profitable. The best way to improve the profitability of a herd or orchard is to control unit costs and deliver the highest return product.

Of course, trees in an orchard are clones, genetically identical, unlike individual cows, but every single tree, even those in ostensibly uniform high-density plantings, is differentially impacted by biotic and abiotic factors in its growing space.

Just like dairy herd operators, we should strive to manage the individual production unit. While they are not utilizing cloned dairy cows, at least not yet, animal geneticists have built on cow genome sequence information, translating this into practical everyday decisions on herd improvement through sire selection and individual cow management. Every cow has a daily production record and a tailored diet. Top performers are treated like queens and poor performers are hamburger. Why not apply this approach in orchards?

We are beginning to assemble and apply genomic information for tree fruit, to improve both the genetics and management of the trees we plant. The spectacular progress made in dairy cow management is possible in our crops, but we better ensure our research and outreach resources are properly resourced to create and deliver the necessary science-based knowledge.

Funny how trips to California can bring perspective, but I am glad to be back in Washington and enjoying at last the end to a long crop season, thankful that we were able to set a crop and have enough labor to harvest most of it.