Precision Viticulture

Precision Viticulture

In the early nineties we made a decision to put more effort into improving the quality of the fruit in some of the non-performing areas withing our Coonawarra vineyard.

The establishment of our own winery in 1995 gave us the ability to ‘batch trace’ grapes produced from various small blocks within the vineyard. There was a need to increase the amount of Icon or Top End material that we were growing.

It is difficult to get all blocks within any vineyard to that level however we felt that by pushing harder on the blocks that were not performing to the high standard that we require, we may be able to make gains in quality and also economically.

In some instances, we have achieved both of those aims, and in some cases we have failed. In cases where the quality standard has not been reached, the vines have been removed or replanted.

“The establishment of our own winery in 1995 gave us the ability to ‘batch trace’ grapes.”

From 1995 onward Balnaves invested heavily in changing over existing overhead irrigation systems to drip irrigation. This was undertaken for two reasons. It is the most efficient way to conserve water and most definitely increases our ability to manipulate the vigor of the vine. We now have 170 different valves within the vineyards, computer controlled, and monitor for flow. We realized that with this level of technology installed, we needed to have better weather information from the individual sites as well as soil moisture monitoring information that was “live”.

This collective information then enabled us to go to the next level to monitor vine stress, to observe how vines are using water and how we can manipulate them with the aim to produce the smallest possible berries. For some years now all sites under our management have had weather stations installed. As a consequence of this we now have a bank of data relating to water use by the vines and are able to relate this to weather conditions at a given time. This information has been extremely important in trying to produce premium quality fruit, both for our own label and other companies whose vineyards we manage.

We are now moving into a new era in viticultural technology. Old soil moisture probes are slowly being replaced with probes that monitor for salt, soil temperature and soil moisture at the same time. This new technology is giving us better understanding of the relationship between soil levels and temperature for frosts. We are also able to observe how the rainfall is flushing air-borne salts through the system.

Precision Agriculture has been widely used by broadacre farmers for some time. In recent years we have been manually recording as much information as we can on water use, yield, soil tests, phenological stages,  petiole tests etc. WE have now moved on from this manual recording and have been progressively developing what is termed a G.I.S platform.

This instrument involves the process of electromagnetic survey or EM38. It is an instrument that is pulled across the surface of the ground and measures soil conductivity, depth to rock, soil moisture capacity, soil type etc. We have also just completed soil surveying the differing zones that have been shown in the EM38 survey. All of this has given us information of soil composition, soil salinity status, porosity, depth to limestone. In addition to this we have had a system NDVI technology known as “Green Seeker” carried out by external consultants. Green Seeker measured greenness or reflectivity of vine leaves through sending a beam our with its own light source and them measuring profile, vine nutrient level as well as stress levels. We have now been trialing this for two years and have data on several sites. As a result of these triaals we have now purchased our own Green Seeker unit. As the Green Seeker operation will be an annual exercise it will also serve as an early detection tool to measure vine decline.

“New technology is giving us better understanding of the relationship between soil levels and temperature for frosts.”

We will now start loading all of this information onto this GIS platform with additional data such as the phenological dates, harvest dates and any historical aerial imagery that has been collected.

There is a purpose for the above. In the next few years two things will become available. The first is an in-field spectrometer that will be able to measure fruit for moisture levels, anthocyanins. sugar levels and other parameters that will assist in wine making or predetermining harvest dates. This hand held unit will be G.P.S. connected to the G.I.S (Global Information System) platform thus enabling us to know exactly where areas of fruit of different quality are situated within the vineyard and what factors may be influencing that. We will at that stage also need harvesters with computer screens to show the position, then the differing sites.

The other large step that is coming onto market will be Robotic Pruning. This operation will require also a G.I.S. platform to enable it to navigate down rows and across blocks. This machine is in the developmental stage. But in our opinion will become available within the next 5 years.