From 'Dolly Parton' bunches to smaller, oil-laden ones

For the last 40 years, Malaysia has tried a variety of ways to mechanise the harvest of oil palm fruits as the industry works to improve efficiency in the face of a worsening manpower shortage. 

Todate, the mechanisation of fruit evacuation remained largely unsuccessful. As a result, the industry has been working on the trees - to make them easier to harvest and to have more oil.

In the small town of Paloh, Johor, scientists have produced the next set of trees that could significantly improve the industry further. Not only are these trees easier to harvest, they will also have a fifth more oil from the current batch.

Buyers are coming from as far as Sarawak.

"I like what I see. It is easier to harvest and handle. The most important thing is, it will give me higher oil yield," said one planter during a recent seed-buying mission to Applied Agricultural Resources Sdn Bhd (AAR)'s oil palm seed garden in Paloh.

Malaysia is now the world's second largest palm oil producer after Indonesia. But data from the Malaysian Palm Oil Board is showing a worrying trend: palm oil output is likely to stagnate at 17.6 million tonnes for the third straight year in 2010.

Assuming this amount of oil is gathered across 4.9 million hectares, this year's yield will only total 3.6 tonnes per hectare in a year. Many planters say this is due to a severe shortage of harvesters.

While the search for the best mechanisation system continues, Malaysian crop scientists are making headway in raising tree productivity.

In the past, as oil palm trees grew taller and taller, planters use very long poles to harvest the fruit bunches. This got many crop scientists thinking. Why not breed shorter palms that bear very big fruit bunches?

So in the 1960s, crop scientists introduced the hybrid called the Dura X Pisifera (DXP) as the standard planting material. As time goes by, many in the industry affectionately referred to the DXP hybrid as "the Dolly Parton type" because the trees are shorter and produce big fruit bunches.

Fifty years on, Malaysia's oil palm landscape is mostly populated with Dolly Parton trees.

In an interview with Business Times, seed producer AAR is giving a sliver of hope for the industry. AAR research director Dr Kee Khan Kiang introduced the higher oil yielding semi-clonal hybrid called "AA Hybrida I".

Compared with the Dolly Parton standard, the dwarf-like AA Hybrida I has more, albeit smaller, fruit bunches. It also has higher oil yields.

"One of the problems of big bunches is that the inner fruitlets do not have space to develop fully. In smaller bunches, however, the inner fruitlets have a greater chance to develop and ripen more evenly. Therefore, for the same weight, smaller bunches yield more oil," he said.

It then became apparent - bigger is not always better.

Seed selection is crucial in oil palm planting because those who use seeds gathered from existing estates suffer from low yields no matter how many bags of fertiliser are applied to the trees.

Kee confirmed that the AA Hybrida I is "the cream of the cream" and can yield 20 per cent more oil than the previous generation of DXP seeds.

His team of scientists adopted the semi-clonal strategy to step up seed production while maintaining key qualities like the dwarf stature of the tree and high oil yield in the fruit bunches.

"Our semi-clonal seed production technology ensures clients get consistent quality in every seed they buy from AAR," Kee said. "And the good thing is, for now, we're not charging a premium."

During the tour around the Paloh seed garden, planters from Sarawak witnessed firsthand how AAR scientists match-make oil palm trees, working daily to perfect Malaysia's top cash crop with the latest breeding technology.

Another compelling feature of the AA Hybrida I is that its dwarf stature means more trees can be planted. It allows for a higher density of 148 trees in one hectare compared with the current standard of 136.

A smallholder, owning 1,000 hectares in Betong, Sarawak, noted the higher productivity per harvester in planting the AA Hybrida I. "This is good. When the palms start to bear fruit, I don't need to hire as many harvesters like others and yet I can get more oil per hectare."

AAR head of crop improvement Tan Cheng Chua concurred that at prime fruit bearing age, the AA Hybrida I, under good management and environment, is capable of producing 40 tonnes of fresh fruit bunches with 24 per cent oil extraction rate. That works out to be more than nine tonnes of oil per hectare in a year or 2.5 times higher than the country's average yield.

AAR, an equal joint venture between Boustead Plantations Bhd and Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd, had started selling the AA Hybrida I two years ago. The company is now working on the AA Hybrida II that will see a further 25 per cent improvement in oil yield. It is scheduled to be launched in 2015.

6 Responses to From 'Dolly Parton' bunches to smaller, oil-laden ones

  1. Ms Ooi, I want to congratulate you on your efforts to highlight some of these important issues and news articles on palm oil.....There has been too much of lies and deceptions portrayed on this wonderful crop so it a breath of fresh air to see a genuine effort from someone outside the industry to provide genuine support....BRAVO!!

  2. Apparently the performance of the AA Hybrida I clone drops drastically when the plants get to 15 years of age. FFB sizes shrink to only around 10kg per bunch. Furthermore, identifying ripe fruits become extremely difficult because the small sized fruits are largely concealed by the fronds which become as big as the DXP variety when the AA Hybrida I clone reach 15 yeras of age..

  3. Replying to Vincent Ang: AA Hybrida I is not a clone. It is a DxP seeds, which show your shallow understanding of AA Hybrida I. Oil palm bunch weight increases with age. If shrinking of bunch weight is observed, high possibility it is due to nutrition. Again your second statement suggesting the fronds become too big is not relevant because AA Hybrida I is small in its petiole. To reemphasize, AA Hybrida I is still a DxP.

  4. Yes to echo Caleb, Vincent appears quite ignorant on oil palm planting materials and should reserve his comments for subjects he is more familiar with.When oil palm bunches ripen,the fruitlets will drop and the estate management usually set harvesting standards based on the loose fruits that have fallen onto the palm circle. They don't usually identify ripe bunches by lookingat the bunches on the palm. Unless the estate is owned by Vincent and Vincent, please don't forget to manure your palms sufficiently otherwise you will be blaming your shrinking bunches on the material!!

  5. You people are sure defensive. Proves your AA 1 Hybrida is full of problems. Why must you AAR people come up with names like Caleb and Salem. They are so phony. By the way my family is involved with arround 5,000 acres of plantation in Johor and we also have shares in the local CPO mill. I am third generation planter. Let's cut to the chase. The biggest weakness with the AA Hybrida 1 oil palm plant is that for the same size FFB the D X P variety produces heavier fruits. Big plantations with their own mills would of course like their FFB to be as oil laden as possible. The non-mill plantation owners want their fruits to be as heavy as possible per bunch. In other words the oil palm variety selected depends very much on where you stand in the oil palm industry product chain asnd the type of soil you are planting on. Funny how you people do not seem to think soil type is a very important consideration when it comes to the selection of planting material.. Next time bullshit with more technical details.

  6. Hi Vincent Ang,

    People in AAR are credible scientists. When you say they indulge in bullshit, you are risking a costly defamation suit.

    If you experience drastic drop in yield of AA Hybrida I after 15 years, have a face-to-face meeting with AAR people to find out the root of the problem la. You can also file an official complaint to MPOB, if there is glaring evidence that the AA Hybrida I is low quality.

    Meanwhile, don't simply say things without real proof. Teruk la you.

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