LOS BANOS - California’s newest almond orchards are like Thoroughbred racehorses. They are quick out of the starting gate and even quicker to the first turn, often producing state average yields within just a few years of planting. By the time they reach the back stretch and reach full speed, they are pumping out remarkable yields.

These new, closer spaced, improved variety orchards are sights to be behold — relatively small-stature trees compared to the older towering orchards. However, these young orchards produce more almonds per acre than growers ever dreamed of a few years back.

Just like in horse racing, there is at least one Seabiscuit almond orchard, and it is in Los Banos on a well-traveled thoroughfare about 6 miles south of town. The orchard is in its fifth leaf this season, but it has captured the imagination of quite a few folks, not the least of which is the pest control adviser who has been a consultant on the orchard since it was a foal.

It is Hostetler Ranches Orchard No. 1, part of a 1,000-acre block of almonds planted by veteran Merced County farmer Greg Hostetler.

His longtime pest control adviser is Mark Carter, who for 23 years has consulted for Hostetler first with row crops and now almonds.

This 260-acre block planted in 1999 produced 2,000 pounds of almonds per acre in its fourth leaf. This is six times the almond crop that the University of California tells growers they can expect from a fourth leaf orchard.

“We knew we had a good crop last year, but even I was surprised at 2,000 pounds,” said Carter.

What makes this orchard so special? Nothing really out of the ordinary, said Carter, other than being an example of “doing things right at the right time.”

Hostetler spent more money up front getting the orchard established than most growers, but it has paid off well in the hottest almond market California has ever seen. Prices and shipments are setting records each year. They are more than $2 per pound right now.

The 260-acre orchard is the oldest block in about 1,000 acres of trees Hostetler planted on former row crop ground adjacent to the California Aqueduct.

The first decision that was made on No. 1 was tree spacing. It was an example of the importance of matching spacing with soil conditions.

Larry Lerno, Hostetler Ranches manager, said soil is loamy clay with a gravel base. It has good water holding capacity and good drainage — ideal for almonds. The decision was made to place trees 18 feet apart with 21-foot rows. The tightest spacing Carter and Lerno have seen is 18 by 14.

Before the first tree was planted, the land was slip-plowed to 7 feet deep in two directions, down the tree line and then perpendicular to the tree row with the slip plow crossing the tree line at each tree site.

Carter says most orchards are simply ripped down the tree line to about 3 feet.

This extra effort by Hostetler produced a tap root that now stretches to 7 feet, said Lerno. This not only allows the tree to draw moisture and nutrients from a larger area of the soil profile, but gives it a stronger anchor against persistent winds typical for the Los Banos area of Merced County.

There are 118 trees per acre of a mixture of Nonpareil, Carmel, Butte, Padre and Monterey in the 260-acre block.

Historically, almonds were planted on 24-foot by 24-foot spacing, but the distance between the trees has narrowed in the latest wave of almond planting over the past decade. This is not only bringing orchards into economic production sooner, but it also maximizes long term yields over the life of an orchard that will extend at least 20 years.

“Growers are matching tree spacing with soil vigor to maximize production,” said Carter, who explained the rules of thumb are the more soil vigor, the fewer trees pre acre with more trees per acre in less vigorous soils.

With older, wider spacing, growers could expect 2,000-pounds of almonds in a good year. With the newer spacing, the sky may be the limit. Yields of 3,000 to 4,000 pounds are becoming average for close-spaced trees in a “normal” year when weather conditions are near-ideal at critical bloom time.

Carter is the PCA on a 10-year-old almond orchard not far from Hostetler Ranches that yielded 3,550-pounds last year.

He maximized the benefits of deep slip-plowing by recommending 15 units of N and food-grade potassium (2-0-12) to give trees a good kick start.

The nutrients were delivered via the micro-sprinkler irrigation system.

Surprisingly, these high yields are not from high priced farming. Carter and Lerno say preventive pest control is the key to keeping costs down.

“The fields were pretty clean as far as weeds were concerned,” said Lerno. Visor and Goal on the berms before the trees were bearing and Roundup in the middle kept it that way the first two years.

Surflan and Goal are now used on the berms for the bearing orchards. “I wish we had a bearing label for Visor,” lamented Carter.

It is a no-till orchard without a cover crop.

“Water is too expensive here for a cover crop. It takes 3 to 4 acre feet of water to grow an almond crop and 1 acre foot for a cover crop, said Carter. Water costs $100 per acre foot, including pumping costs.

Some believe a cover crop is a good habitat for beneficial insects. “I have come to believe that the bugs in the trees stay there and the insects in the cover crop stay there,” said Carter.

“The owner does not want compaction, therefore, we control weeds with low volume herbicide applications.” said Lerno. “We also do a lot of roadside and turn-row weed control. A lot of guys will not go to that expense, but we feel it is important to keep weed pressure down.”

Even though there is no cover crop, Hostetler wants no dust-created mite problems. The orchard is never disked. It is chemically mowed, said Carter. Even though there is no cover crop, Carter uses only one application of Agri-Mek for mite control

There are other benefits of parking tractors. One is that the soil is “more open allowing more oxygen to move through the soil, that prevents Phytophthora root rot around the trees.

Carter uses a “soft” pest management program for navel orangeworm and peach twig borer.

“We use Dipel at bloom with Lorsban at hull split. This has kept pest populations low. Without an established insect population, worm and ant damage is less than 1 percent,” said Carter. “So far we have not used dormant sprays, oil and or pyrethroids.”

That is not an expensive program, and he wants to keep it that way.

“When you get up to a 6 percent worm damage level, you are losing $100 per acre. You will spend a lot of money to bring it down from that level,” said Carter.

Three fungicide sprays; Rally at pink bud; Rovral at full bloom and Rovral again 10 days later close to pedal fall has kept diseases in check.

In the bearing orchard, Carter and Lerno rely on Surflan and Goal for berm weed control and Roundup and Rely for the middles.

It requires high rates of Roundup to control flaxleaf fleabane and marestail, two weeds Carter believes are building resistance to glyphosate. “We come back after Roundup and catch any escapes with the contact Rely to minimize resistance to Roundup,” said Lerno.

“We try to be very persistent at treating when weeds are small,” said Lerno. That includes roadsides and areas adjacent to the orchards. This pays off in gradually reduced weed populations and overall lower weed control costs.

“We have seen weed populations reduced overall because we are continually reducing the population,” Lerno noted.

Rodents are a perennial problem in orchards but Hostetler, like many orchard farmers, relies on barn owls with one box per 40 acres, said Lerno. A barn owl can eat four to five gophers per day.

Carter has successfully used barn owls to clean up rodent populations.

And finally, not allowing trees to stress for water produces good yields. Dellavalle Laboratory in Fresno uses neutron probes to monitor water applied through the micro system.

There is really nothing out the ordinary about how the Hostetler Ranches orchards are managed. Slip plowing down and across the rows was probably the only expense out of the norm. The rest of it is fairly straightforward.

“I would not call it a Cadillac program, but I would call it a program of doing things right at the right time,” said Carter.

Timing is everything in a horse race, and it is no different in identifying a Seabiscuit and then training him right to win races. There is no doubt Hostetler Ranches Orchard No. 1 will be a winner for at least a couple of decades to come.

e-mail:hcline@primediabusiness.com