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All Shook Up - Extra care at harvest saves dollars

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With the first harvest of the new century on the horizon, it's time to get the equipment ready, stock up on spare shaker pads and machinery parts, line up a crew, and train any new people well before "crunch" time.

One of the most common and costly miscues at harvest is shaker damage to tree trunks and limbs. Bruised and "barked" trees often contract disease that results in loss of limbs or entire trees. Such losses don't seem so bad when taken individually, but a survey of an entire block that has been abused by a careless operator or out-of-adjustment shaker could reveal a major profit leak.

Fortunately, a grower can take steps to prevent or at least minimize shaker damage. Modern shakers are designed to do their jobs without damaging trees - huge sums of money have been invested in design and testing to make the machines easy on trees, as long as the shakers are operated correctly and maintained as directed by the factory. Which is to say, the ball's in the grower's court.

Here're some pointers from some experts on how to prepare your shaker equipment and people for the most important weeks of the year for any almond grower.

Joe Connell, Butte County farm advisor and Jim Mead of Mead Orchards in Durham collaborated in authoring the following suggestions:

Pressure Adjustment: This is a critical component of shaker operation, if tree injuries are to be prevented. Insufficient pressure allows slings to slip, causing bark tearing or other damage. Excess pressure can squeeze the bark so hard that it is crushed and then tears. Each machine is different, so ask the manufacturer for a recommendation.

Although there are no set guidelines, young trees can take less pressure while older trees can take more. The best guide is experience. An experienced operator can tell by performance when the pressure is correct. Orchards with different age trees make uniform shaking more difficult. If different age replants are common, find a medium pressure that fits most situations the best.

Shaking Patterns: There are many different shake patterns, but manufacturers know which pattern works best with their machines.

Weight Adjustment: These adjustments are practically unlimited. After experience with a machine, the operator can add or remove weight or can select a different pattern by working with the sales representative. Using the wrong shake pattern can result in explosive power that can create excessive tree damage. Once an adjustment is found that provides good results with the orchard's tree configuration, stick with it.

Shaking Speed: Some machine operators work slowly and carefully, others fast, even recklessly. Since harvesting must be done every year, it is false economy to congratulate yourself on how fast your shakers went if they left your trees damaged. An orchard is a long-term investment. You should protect it.

A methodical, cautious machine operator is usually best, since less damage to the trees will result and you will have fewer machine problems as well. A hard-driving machine operator who's fast isn't necessarily an asset to your orchard operations.

Machine Service: Machine, pads and slings should be serviced regularly. Check grease, oil and water as part of a regular routine. It is an especially good idea to examine the shaker head and arm carefully for cracks in joints and welds. A small crack can become a major breakdown if it is not noticed or is ignored. Go through this exam at least twice a day to catch small problems before they become costly harvest breakdowns.

OMC pillow pads must be serviced in the morning if they have been allowed to cool down. Threads should be cleaned out and have more shell added. Usually, four pads per machine are enough to get you through a day's shaking.

If hard shaking throughout a long day is needed, six pads may be necessary. These pads will warm up and become conditioned during the first 15 to 20 minutes of shaking in the morning. Gradual shaking when starting out will generate heat and fluff up the pads. To extend their life and improve performance, turn the pads about once every hour. They should be rotated from one side of the head to the other once every two hours.

The first set of pads will generally get you through the first half of the day. Then, change them. The second set should get you through the remainder of the day. Check to make sure there are no leaks. If a pad collapses and stays down, change it right away.

Pre-molded pads should also be turned and rotated the same as pillow pads.

Sling Maintenance: The sling slipping against the pad is what helps prevent the shaker head from tearing bark off the trunk. Be sure to keep these critical parts well maintained and in good shape. Examine the slings regularly and keep them in good condition. If wear shows, they should be changed. Worn out slings that have fabric-to-fabric contact won't slip as well as a rubber-to-rubber surface. As friction increases, more heat builds up in the pad and the slings' slipping ability will decline further.

Normally, the slings should be greased about once an hour to keep them slipping properly. Various greases are available for this.

Shaker Operators: The selection of a shaker operator is a management decision that can have an immediate and a long-term impact on the health and profitability of your orchard. So, choose carefully. Find someone who has had previous experience operating equipment, a person who is cautious and easily trained. He should care about the well being of the trees.

New Operators: If you hire an inexperienced person, you or one of your experienced operators should take the time to thoroughly train him. The experienced operator should first explain the details of running the machine. Don't forget to include a discussion on equipment safety. Stay with the new operator for 15 to 20 minutes and walk him through the steps in tree shaking. For practice, try to find an old tree you are not too concerned with and let him shake for half an hour or so on that tree until he's comfortable with the machine. Let him practice by himself. He's much less apt to be nervous.

After your new operator has had a little practice, put him to work, but don't expect instant success. It'll take a while to find out how good he'll be. Stay with him for about two hours. You'll know by then whether he has the skill to be a good operator. Once you are sure of his ability, let him go on his own, but check back every hour or so until you're sure he knows how to operate and maintain the machine.

If you want to avoid tree damage, be willing to spend the time with your shaker operators to make that desire perfectly clear to them. A shaker operator must be a responsible person. Be sure that he understands that if any problems develop, he's to stop shaking and get help.

Payment: Your workers usually have a wide variety of skills. Naturally, their wages will reflect their value to your operation. The new operator would start out at the low end and an experienced operator who can maintain his own machine and can properly take care of all problems will be worth a higher rate.

Shaker operators should be paid on an hourly basis. You'll get the least damage and the best quality of work with this approach. A good shaker operator should be able to shake two to three trees a minute if they're easy-to-shake trees. At around 150 trees per hour, the harvest should progress smoothly with a minimum of fatigue and tree damage.

Remember, your orchard is a long-term investment. A shortsighted approach to harvesting can be very costly in the long run. If payment is made by the tree, the only person to profit on that arrangement is the shaker operator.

Have a successful harvest!