Chancellor George Osborne's last budget revealed plans to replace the £6.50 minimum wage with a National Living Wage starting at £7.20 and rising to £9 per hour by 2020. Labour costs are going to rise and for many growers and nurserymen this will represent one of the more difficult challenges of recent times. Or will it?
"With projected substantial increases in labour costs across the board, everyone needs to be reviewing their entire production, handling and dispatch methods and systems to ensure cost-effective production and the maintenance of profitability," says Hortec Grow With Technology director Ian Thornhill.
Automation on the nursery
Many growers are already looking into upping the stakes when it comes to automating nursery processes, particularly mixing, seeding, transplanting and potting. "With rises in the National Living Wage afoot, more and more growers are looking to automate wherever possible," notes Rotomation managing director Phillip Ashton.
"This, coupled with good sales throughout the spring, has led to increased demand for machinery this autumn."
Rotomation has recently been appointed as UK distributor for French company Mecaflor, specialist in automation for the cut flower and bouquet industries. The product range includes sleeving machines for pots and bunched flowers along with automatic bouquet-making machines. But for most growers it will be processes such as mixing, seeding, transplanting and potting where there is the biggest opportunity to save labour.
Known for its versatility, the Lambda drum seeder has an operating capacity of up to 650 trays per hour. It has been one of Rotomation's best-selling seeding machines over the past 12 months. Italian manufacturer Urbinati plans to launch a faster version with a capacity of up to 1,500 trays per hour. Rotomation hopes it will be available in spring 2016.
A new seeding machine supplied in the UK by GAL Systems, the Da Ros "tripled headed" machine is said to be ideal for either multi-sowing of colours or the rapid changeover of seed or tray types. With this machine it is also possible to seed into trays with a staggered cell arrangement.
Recently introduced by Hamilton Design, the Mega Drum Kit is an accessory for the Hamilton Drum Seeder and offers an answer to sowing large seed such as peas, corn, squash and pumpkins. "This kit allows much larger and heavier seeds to be sown than with the standard drum," says director Richard Hamilton. "It will retrofit to all existing Hamilton Drum Seeders and, once installed, can be switched back to use the conventional drum in a matter of seconds."
The kit is supplied with everything needed to get the grower started, including a new vacuum source, manifold and pipework as well as a new drum and vacuum cleaner for removing excess seeds. The new drum features an outer sleeve that can be replaced when changing seed sizes or trays.
According to Ashton, wireless transplanters are still selling well. "As nurseries have expanded to supply the multiples, we have seen a greater demand for our larger transplanters. The smaller grower/retailer nurseries are still investing in our RW5, which is the smallest transplanter in our range."
Increased sales reported
At Hortec, Thornhill reports a substantial increase in sales of the Javo Plus M2.0 potting machine. This versatile workhorse is suitable for pots from 9cm to 32cm single and up to 15cm as a double-pot machine. It is also available with a bare-root variation. The M2.0 can work as fast as 6,000 pots per hour.
"We sold one unit to a local grower and he has commented that as they can now do the same amount of potting in half the time it has reduced their annual labour costs by around £30,000 this year."
Without making major changes, the Javo Plus M2.0 can also be slowed to 360 pots per hour. A simple adaptation keeps the machine running as a "pace setter", avoiding the start/stop situation that kills daily output and making the machine suitable for potting bulbs or multiple plants in each pot.
Best-selling potting machines from Rotomation include the SMART and IA2400. The former is a compact mobile machine that is able to handle pots from 6cm to 23cm. "The SMART has all the advantages of a larger machine - production speed up to 4,500 pots per hour, easily adjustable pot dispenser and powerful drilling unit," Ashton points out. "The soil supply system is automatically controlled to avoid unnecessary recirculation of compost, while the pot size can be changed in seconds."
Mobile potting option
The IA2400 is also a mobile potting machine. It has a high spec and comes with everything included. "It has an 800-litre hopper, pot dispenser, drilling unit complete with a range of drills, pot-take-off arm, conveyor and pricking out stand," says Ashton.
"The hopper has a conveyor at the base, normally only found on larger, more expensive models, and the reliable pot dispenser caters for pots from 8cm to 22cm." Adjustment is quick and simple and the machine is capable of production rates of up to 2,400 pots per hour.
Gearing up for the new season, GAL Systems has new equipment including a large-pot bark topper to cater for pots between three and 20 litres. "Following a gradual rise in the use of bark within the industry, we are receiving enquiries for a machine to top potted trees and large shrubs," confirms managing director Gary Leeder.
"We adapted a Da Ros 'bare root' filler to dispense the bark as the pots travel through the machine, and then to distribute and level the bark with an under belt vibrator to give a smart and consistent finish. We have one machine in the field so far and the results are very encouraging."
Handling systems for dispatch areas can offer substantial labour and cost savings. Thornhill says Hortec is getting serious enquiries - mostly to speed up the loading of the multi-product trays that some of the end users are now demanding.
"The logistics of getting product cleaned, labelled and in the right place at the right time to be loaded onto the dispatch trolley can be very complex and must be right," he adds. "The best analogy is a car production line - one white door on a black car has a serious knock-on effect, as there will now be a white car with a black door."
Invisible pot codes
Acknowledging that planted lots often get mixed together during transport, spacing and grading, Flier has introduced an invisible pot code for the identification of individual plants and for tracking them during the growing cycle. The barcode provides information such as cultivar and potting date, and is referenced and updated for crop-protection applications and grading.
Supplying everything needed for pot washing, tray filling, seeding, transplanting, potting, labelling and sweeping up afterwards, Mechanical Botanical also offers solutions to moving and handling around the nursery, including the Verhagen Leiden's range of tugs.
"The electric Multi-Mover XL allows you to easily move your trailer with up to 3,500kg and manoeuvre it across a flat surface. Thanks to special tyres and drive, it can be used on both hard and soft surfaces," says director Mike Berry. Other model sizes are 1,500kg and 2,000kg.
Also from Mechanical Botanical is a new option to transport Danish carts or Container Centralen trolleys across ground-cover cloth in the greenhouse and through the nursery. "With the Danish trolley on the transporter you can move the cart across the fabric in your glasshouse with minimal physical effort and without damage or traces on the ground cloth," says Berry.
"The powerful drive engine, including differentials, enables you to drive from the cloth onto cement pathways." The tugs are equipped with large, wide wheels and fully adjustable drive, allowing the selection of an appropriate speed.
More tugs are provided by WS Barrett & Son. The Beva Tug is reportedly becoming a popular solution to towing Danish trolleys and other units up to 480kg. There are standing and sitting versions of this electric tug, which is powered by two 12V batteries and boasts regenerative charging. A full charge lasts an eight-hour working day at 50 per cent duty cycle.
When purchasing equipment it can be all too tempting to go for the low-cost initial outlay without taking into account all the factors, including running and maintenance costs. Low overheads are one of the reasons the Javo Big Bale continues to be a best-seller. In short, you need to do your homework. There are plenty of options but whatever machinery you choose must fit in with systems that are currently in place or you could end up with a large redesign project on your hands.