Hop Trellis Systems Comparison: High versus Low

Final Report for FNE11-726

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2011: $14,077.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: Rhode Island
Project Leader:
Matt Richardson
Ocean State Hops
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Project Information

Summary:

Our project investigated the growth habits, pest management, fertilizer and water requirements, and yield of hops grown on a low trellis system of 12 feet compared to hops grown on a traditional trellis system of 18 feet. We replaced three out of seven rows of our existing low trellis system with a new 18 foot trellis system in order to compare characteristics and harvests from mature plants.

In general, there was no difference in the rate of plant growth between the two trellis systems for the first 12 feet. In terms of yield, there was an obvious difference between the high trellis and low trellis plants. The plants on the high trellis averaged between 1.5 and 2 pounds of cones (dried weight) per plant. The plants on the low trellis only averaged 1 pound of cones (dried weight) per plant. This represented a 50 to 100% increase in production of hop cones on plants grown on our high trellis system compared to our low trellis system.

There was no difference in labor requirements between the two trellis systems when the plants were less than 12 feet tall. Once the plants grew above 12 feet, however, the amount of labor required to manage the plants on the high trellis versus low trellis differed greatly.

n our opinion, we determined that in the absence of specialized equipment, the increase in yield from the high trellis system is not as heavily outweighed as we originally thought when compared to the low trellis system due to the significant increase in labor required. If farms already have equipment that can make management of the 18 foot tall trellis system more manageable, however, this can be overcome. Otherwise, specialized equipment will likely need to be purchased to be profitable in the long-term.

Introduction:

Traditional trellis systems for hops stand 18 feet or more in height. Many New England farmers are growing hops on low trellis systems of 12 feet or less due to the high cost and difficulty of installing the traditional trellis systems, and lack of appropriate sized equipment. While it is known that low trellis systems result in lower yields compared to traditional systems, the extent of this decrease has not been fully quantified. There is ample interest from farmers in the Northeast to quantify how much of a decrease in yield occurs on hops grown on a low trellis system in order to determine if the costs savings and other advantages of these systems outweigh the disadvantage of lower yields. The goal of our project was to investigate the growth habits, pest management, fertilizer and water requirements, and yield of hops grown on a low trellis system of 12 feet compared to hops grown on a traditional trellis system of 18 feet.

Project Objectives:

The objectives of our project were to investigate the growth habits, pest management, fertilizer and water requirements, and yield of hops grown on a low trellis system of 12 feet compared to hops grown on a traditional trellis system of 18 feet. The purpose of this investigation was to determine whether the anticipiated increase in labor and materials in growing on an 18 foot trellis system was offset or outweighed by the anticipated increase in yield when compared to a low trellis system of 12 feet.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Heather Darby
  • Joel Littlefield

Research

Materials and methods:

Prior to the project, our hop yard consisted of seven rows of plants with 60 plants per row. We have four different varieties planted: Cascade, Nugget, Newport, and Chinook. Each row had five poles between 12 and 12.5 feet above ground. At the start of the project, all of our existing plants were between two and four years old. To compare the two trellis systems (high versus low), we removed the 12 foot poles from three of the rows and replaced them with new poles that stand 17 to 18 feet above ground. This allowed us to compare adjacent, established hop plants on low and high trellis systems that are of similar age and on similar soils. The high trellises were installed on rows containing 60 Cascade, 30 Nugget, 60 Chinook, and 15 Newport. Due to the configuration of the rows, all of the low trellis plants were Cascade. The new poles were installed in April, before the plants broke dormancy, to avoid disturbance to plants. Once the poles were installed, coir strings were anchored at each plant and all of the plants were trained up the strings throughout the growing season.

Regular management was performed equally on all rows, including hand weeding and weed wacking within rows, regular mowing between rows, wood chip placement within rows to suppress weed growth, and training of the plants up the coir strings. Weekly pest and fungus scouting occured throughout the growing season and spraying occurred, as necessary.

Additional data and observations were collected regularly throughout the growing season. These observations included bine height; plant condition and vigor; bud, flower, and cone formation information; average cone size; lupulin color and smell; harvest date; and yield weights. Harvesting, drying, and weighing wasa all performed by hand. Once the cones were harvested they were dried for 24 hours and weighed. Data collected is summarized in the attached Document 1, below, called “Data Collection.”

Research results and discussion:

We did not observe significant differences in many of the growth characteristics of the plants on the low trellis compared to the high trellis, including plant condition and vigor; bud, flower, and cone formation dates; average cone size; lupulin color and smell; and harvest date. We did notice some differences in these characteristics among varieties, but we attributed that to the difference in growth habits of the varieties, not the difference in trellis systems.

In general, there was no difference in the rate of plant growth between the two trellis systems for the first 12 feet. Interestingly, the tallest plants on the low trellis and high trellis each reached their respective top of the trellis system on the same day, even though there was a difference in height of six feet between the two systems.

While lateral growth did occur slightly sooner on the low trellis (presumably due to these plants reaching the top of the trellis first), buds, flowers, and cones all formed at approximately the same time. See Document 1,”Data Collection”.

While there were no differences noticed in the average cone size and lupulin characterics of the cones, the low trellis plants tended to have most of their cones clustered at the top 10 to 12 feet of the plants, and along the horizontal growth at the wire. The plants on the high trellis tended to have more uniform cone formation from approximately three feet to 18 feet. There was noticeable cone clustering at the top of the trellis, but not as much as the low trellis plants.

There was no difference in labor requirements between the two trellis systems when the plants were less than 12 feet tall. Once the plants grew above 12 feet, however, the amount of labor required to manage the plants on the high trellis versus low trellis differed greatly. In the past, we had been able to reach the top of the low trellis by standing on the siderails of a pick-up truck, allowing for relatively easy management of the plants. For example, once the plants were too tall to reach by ground they could easily be trained all the way to the top of the trellis from the back of the truck. Scouting for pests and spraying, if necessary, could be performed from the truck easily with a backpack sprayer. The top of the high trellis could not be reached from the back of the pickup truck, however, even if one was standing on top of the cab. In the absence of a tall enough piece of equipment, we were forced to use a 14 foot ladder to train the plants, scout for pests, and take down the plants during harvest once the plants reached above 12 feet on the high trellis. In general, this doubled the amount of labor it took to manage the plants once they grew above 12 feet as the worker had to climb up and down the ladder at each individual plant, and move the ladder 60 times per row to reach each plant while another worker held the ladder steady. The amount of chemicals and the time it took to adequately cover each plant also doubled on the high trellis compared to the low trellis.

In terms of yield, there was an obvious difference between the high trellis and low trellis plants. The plants on the high trellis averaged between 1.5 and 2 pounds of cones (dried weight) per plant. The plants on the low trellis only averaged 1 pound of cones (dried weight) per plant. This represented a 50 to 100% increase in production of hop cones on plants grown on our high trellis system compared to our low trellis system. In a traditional hop yard, this could represent a difference of between 500 to 1,000 pounds of hops per acre between the two trellis systems

Research conclusions:

One aspect that we did not take into account at the start of the project was the impact that labor would have between the two trellis systems. In our opinion, we determined that in the absence of specialized equipment, the increase in yield from the high trellis system is not as heavily outweighed as we originally thought when compared to the low trellis system due to the significant increase in labor required. If farms already have equipment that can make management of the 18 foot tall trellis system more manageable, however, this can be overcome. Otherwise, specialized equipment will likely need to be purchased to be profitable in the long-term.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

We gave a tour of our hopyard for the SARE group tour in Rhode Island this past July. The participants were given a tour of our hopyard (and other parts of the farm) and we gave a 15-20 minute talk on our SARE project, followed by a question and answer forum. Following the tour the group was able to walk through the hops and ask one-on-one questions with us, and also collaborate amongst each other.

We hosted two other tours of the farm during the summer. One was for a local home brew club who was interested in our project as many of them grew hops at home. The other tour was for graduate students from a number of different Northeast schools who were in Rhode Island for a soils conference.

In addition, we gave a presentation to an agronomy class at URI on our hop farm and SARE project this past fall.

Project Outcomes

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

We feel that our results will contribute greatly not only to current hop farmers in New England that may be considering changes to their current trellis systems but also aspiring hop farmers still in the planning phase.

Future Recommendations

One recommendation for a future project would be to investigate either different methods of managing plants on a high trellis, or investigating different options for specialized equipment for high trellises. While there was a definite increase in yield on the high trellis system, the significant increase in labor requirements offset the potenial increase in profit. Better management methods for high trellis systems in New Englad could be extremely beneficial to local hop farmers.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.