Mechanization Key to the Future of Vineyard Management
Precision technology moves at different speeds across different segments of agriculture. For example, technologies like curve compensation, precision spraying, and subsurface drip irrigation have brought new opportunities for crops like corn and alfalfa, in terms of water use efficiency (WUE) and resource use efficiency (RUE). Other areas experience technology at their own pace.
Grape growing is one area of farming that’s on a slightly different precision path than other crops. In fact, it’s common for much of the work in a vineyard to be done by hand, from early-season pruning to end-of-fall picking.
Jeremy Smith, Vineyard Sales Manager for RDO Equipment Co. in Salinas, CA, says it’s an exciting time for the industry, something he has really noticed since moving to the area nearly three years ago and focusing on the booming vineyard business along the Central Coast region. Thanks to new, specialized offerings from equipment manufacturers, Smith has seen the uptick in opportunities for grape growers to mechanize practices, leading to more economical, efficient, and effective businesses.
Vineyard equipment manufacturers have made great strides in bringing mechanization to the industry. Gregoire was among the first companies to provide a machine for grape harvesting. Since then, picking is the task that has seen the biggest shift from manual to machine; and now, other parts of the vineyard management process are starting to follow suit.
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Specially designed for the unique landscape of vineyards, most brands of grape harvesters are narrow and taller than a typical agriculture tractor. However, their specialized design is also one of the biggest challenges manufacturers have had in integrating grape harvesters into vineyard businesses, according to Smith.
“Harvest, while perhaps the busiest time of year for grape growers, typically lasts about two months,” Smith explained. While a grape harvester is a productive, efficient machine for growers to have, the fact that it sits idle most of the year makes it difficult for many to justify the cost, especially those already hesitant to break away from the conventional method of hand-picking grapes.
This is a valid concern for growers who must weigh the cost/benefit analysis of every equipment purchase, but Smith feels the other side of the coin presents a stronger argument. Quite simply, Smith feels that, “if vineyards aren’t shifting towards mechanizing operations, it could be very expensive for them in the long run.” He believes mechanization is key to the future of vineyard management, not only for smarter, faster, better-timed operation, but because the industry is seeing a sharp decline in laborers to do the work manually.
Recognizing these two primary challenges to the industry – equipment adoption and labor reduction – Gregoire sought to create a unique tractor design with specialized attachments that could perform crucial tasks throughout the year. The goal was to offer a machine that would turn two-month functionality into a full-season opportunity while hitting three of the key needs in the grape-growing cycle: canopy management in the early part of the year, spraying during the spring and summer, and finally, harvest in late summer/early fall.
The center of the company’s line and led by the G9.330, its grape harvesters are offered in a range that includes harvest head attachments, tow-behind, and self-propelled units. The dedicated chassis style on the self-propelled and harvest head-compatible units is unique in its centralized operator cab vs. the cab mounted off to the side, giving growers a better view and position as they navigate over the rows.
The tow-behind grape harvester offers an option for growers with fields on steep slopes where self-propelled harvesters would not be able to operate. It’s also very popular with growers who operate smaller vineyards. Smith says he sees about a 50/50 split of growers who use a self-propelled grape harvester or harvest head vs. pull-behind model.
After the introduction of grape harvesters, the industry’s focus on mechanization continued. With this, grower interest began to expand to areas other than picking, and so did equipment offerings.
Gregoire sprayers range from 160- to 530-gallon capacity, and are offered with the option of mounting onto a harvest tractor like the Multiflow Quattro, or a pull-behind model like the Speedflow Progress. These tow-behind units are narrow, designed to maneuver through rows. And similar to the tow-behind harvester, it’s an option for growers who need to operate on hilly, steep-sloped terrain.
Growers know that early and ongoing pruning, trimming, and overall canopy management are crucial to the season’s yield potential. Not only does the practice optimize potential of the vine and position it for the best utilization of sunlight, it’s a key factor in disease and pest prevention. For a task that’s as important as it is, one might be surprised to learn it’s the one still mostly done by hand.
The company’s canopy management attachments can be placed on the front of a harvester, lending speed, efficiency, and accuracy to this important task. Examples include the Binger EB490P, a leaf remover and the Binger VSL08P, a prepruner.
Still to Come
More than three decades after the launch of the first grape harvesters, Gregoire is continuing to bring mechanization to the vineyard industry. The company has products currently in development, including an advanced cleaning/de-stemming system that Smith says he’s most excited about for growers.
“Cleaning, de-stemming, and sorting are important pieces to the vineyard management puzzle,” he says.
With the design of its harvest tractors to be multi-functional and through a simple swap of various attachments, Gregoire is positioning a harvest tractor in a new way. A machine that would typically work two months of the year can now be in the field for the duration of the season, contributing from the early phases of field preparation all the way through year-end harvest.
To learn more about specialized vineyard solutions from Gregoire, contact RDO Equipment Co. in Salinas, CA.