The sight of row upon row of tiny radiata pine seedlings greets visitors to Murray’s Nursery in Woodville.
Owner Patrick Murray has just planted his 30th crop – five million seedlings. The nursery has capacity for 8.7 million and changes to the production system will take capacity to 11.3 million.
This is the second season the nursery has been fungicide free. A desire to be sustainable is behind the changes.
“This land was pioneered by my great, great grandfather in 1876 and I’ll tell you now, I’m not an environmentalist or a greenie but one thing that is very important to me is the continuity of this business and occupying this land. If this can be a viable nursery when it has been in the family for 200 years… that would be a fantastic thing.”
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The land was home to Jack Murray’s Erinview Jersey Stud in the early years. In 1977, Patrick’s father Maurice bought the land from the family estate and in the early 1990s relocated the nursery from four other locations in Woodville to its current Pinfold Road site.
“2010 was the first year Maurice had a contract with Juken, who are still one of our main clients, but he passed away the day before sowing that crop. I managed the nursery for Mary, my mother, from then and in 2011 started Murray’s Nurseries in my name.”
The 38ha block was subdivided in 2012. Half of it is leased to the Horizons Regional Council for its poplar and willow nursery, which is managed by Patrick’s brother David. Patrick bought the other half for the forestry nursery.
Patrick had done a Level 6 forest management course at Waiariki Institute of Technology in Rotorua.
He says after years of working in the nursery he didn’t need to learn about how to grow trees, but to understand more about the needs of his clients.
Improving tree survival rates is the biggest priority.
Nursery contracts typically require trees to be supplied with a minimum root collar diameter (RCD) of 6mm but Patrick’s nursery has an average of 7.4mm-7.5mm.
“We’ve found every centimetre of in-row spacing is equivalent to roughly 1mm in RCD so the first thing we did was take the 6.2cm in-row spacing out to 7.3cm.”
The lift in RCD reduced the rejection rate to less than one per cent in a good growing season.
“That means we’re not having eliminate, on specification, one of their genetic crosses that may end up having one of the best wood densities in 30 years’ time. It’s important for nurseries to try to find ways to improve tree specification to make sure genetic selections in seedlings actually get to the forest.”
The increase in the nursery’s in-row spacing meant a 15 to 16 per cent increase in production costs, which has been offset by the design and development of a 10-row seed sower.
“We decided to bite the bullet and make that our standard production system and work out a way of compensating and being more cost effective.”
For the past two years the nursery has also been fungicide free.
“That’s a milestone in the New Zealand forestry nursery industry.”
He says radiata seedlings are susceptible to six or seven funguses, so it was a matter of finding a way to reduce the risk of disease while still producing seedlings without fungicides. One way was to improve yields.
“We already knew if we increased spacing we improved yields. Typically we can improve yields about 10 per cent over contract rate. So if we agree to grow 18,000 seedlings we can typically grow 20,000 seedlings per kilo. If 10 per cent of our crop is yield gain that’s anything from 100,000 to 500,000 seedlings then we can afford to get a disease, not that we would want that to happen and we would probably intervene. But it’s a way of mitigating that risk.
“Most nurseries have preventative fungicide regimes. We said “if we’re not getting it, why spray it?”
So over two years we phased out the amount of fungicide we were using and last year we were completely fungicide free and again this year.”
He says one of the biggest issues now is nursery practice, such as tipping residues falling out of the topper causing botrytis. They found a non-chemical way of dealing with it and are also looking at engineering systems such as a new rotor topper to remove the practice that caused the problem in the first place.
Current mean top height is about 65 centimetres.
“They can get to 75cm in a good growing season but that does not fit in a planter box and planters don’t want to handle them,” he says.
In early October, seeds are soaked for 24 hours in rainwater then put into a coolstore for three weeks. The seeds are then treated with a trichoderma bird repellent and sown in late October-early November.
“By Christmas we’re getting up around 75mm and we need to start our insect programme. Our biggest chemical use, unfortunately, is the management of onion thrips, which basically damages the terminal bud and it turns into a mouldy leader and that is an out-of-specification seedling. That’s another thing we’ve been able to get down around one per cent. Some seasons it’s 0.3 per cent, which is another good achievement.”
Weed management is done with as little chemical as possible and includes hand weeding by university students every in January.
“It’s a bit like climbing. Instead of “don’t look down”, it’s “don’t look up”. This is a kilometre of bed… right through these three blocks.”
Topping is then followed by lateral root pruning then the plants are undercut at about 100mm (tap root length) about four to six weeks before dispatch. Their hard treatment also means they don’t have to be frost conditioned before they go to hard sites.
“We supply trees to Karioi, the highest altitude forest in New Zealand and they’re getting excellent performance from our seedlings up there. From coast to coast, there seems to be no geographic limitation as to where our seedlings go to,” he says.
About 140,000 trees can be lifted in a day with 12 people with an efficient system. The big challenge with that, however, is labour.
“That frustration stimulates you to think about automation and what you can do about getting trees out with a lower labour component but I’m not convinced yet that’s what’s best for the trees so we’ll persevere.”
All trees are bagged regardless of what transport or packaging system they go in.
“That enables us to cover the trees up immediately after lifting them, which reduces the handling if they’re all together and reduces the amount of mycorrhizas getting knocked off.”
In a new trial, half a million seedlings are fertiliser free as well as fungicide free this season.
“That’s quite a risk to take but if you don’t take the chances you don’t learn anything and you don’t progress the system.”
He says it will be interesting to see if there is depletion over time on the same ground or whether it’s actually going to get better. He’s encouraged by the results so far.
“Our clients are getting fantastic survival, they’re getting fantastic growth rates compared with other stock and the industry is listening. The industry is picking up its ears.”