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Qingquan Chu, Jiangang Liu, Khaled Bali, Kelly R. Thorp, Richard Smith and Guangyao (Sam) Wang

The low availability and high cost of farm hand labor make automated thinners a faster and cheaper alternative to hand thinning in lettuce (Lactuca sativa). However, the effects of this new technology on the uniformity of plant spacing and size as well as crop yield are not proven. Three experiments were conducted in commercial romaine heart lettuce fields in 2013 and 2014 in Imperial Valley, CA, to compare the effects of automated thinning and hand thinning on uniformity of in-row spacing, plant size, and crop yield. Overhead images taken at 1 week after hand thinning indicate that thinning 8 to 11 days earlier by automated thinners did not affect plant size compared with the hand thinning treatment. However, lettuce plants in the automated thinning treatment were larger than plants in the hand thinning treatment 2 to 3 weeks after hand thinning. Automated thinners increased the uniformity of in-row spacing, increased the percentage of plants with the desired in-row spacing of 24 to 32 cm, and almost completely removed plants with an undesirable in-row spacing of 4 to 20 cm. As a result, individual lettuce plant weight and heart weight from the automated thinning plots was significantly greater and plants were more uniform compared with the hand thinned plants. Despite increases in lettuce plant size and uniformity in all three experiments, yield benefits of automated thinning were only significant in one of the three experiments due to larger plant populations resulting from hand thinning. This study suggests that automated thinning increases lettuce plant size and uniformity and makes it possible for growers to increase plant population and crop yield by optimizing in-row spacing.