by Tamara Scully

Growers know that all areas of their vineyard are not created equal, and all parts of the vineyard aren’t going to perform identically. If the end goal for the vineyard is the same throughout, different management protocols would need to be used as any variables change in order to achieve the same outcome. Doing just that – taking into account variables that can impact the final result, and automatically adjusting management based on that data – is what precision agriculture is designed to do.

Precision agriculture for vineyards is becoming a reality as sensing, data processing. mapping and variable rate equipment techniques are adapted to viticulture. The Efficient Vineyard’s current project, funded via USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture – Specialty Crops Research Initiative award, is a four-year project (2015-19) focused on adapting today’s precision technology to “spatially define heterogeneity,” Jackie Dresser of Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory explained in a webinar.

By taking data from a variety of sensors, processing it and using it to implement management practices to achieve the same goal across the vineyard, despite variations in soil, crop load or canopy density, growers can achieve similar performance no matter the changes from section to section.

“What we’re trying to do broadly with this project is find sensors that work in vineyards – and if they don’t exist, develop them – to measure soil, canopy and crop characteristics” and apply that to “manipulate things to give us our desired outcome in the vineyard … (and) optimize full vineyard performance.”

Using Precision Agriculture
It’s not enough to have the sensors and the data. The data generated has to be precise – meaning it can be replicated over and over – and it has to be accurate, meaning that it provides the desired targeted information. Then it has to be processed and applied, the results evaluated and the management revised as needed.

Before data can be utilized, it needs to be validated. If the data generated doesn’t precisely and accurately reflect the reality on the ground, it isn’t going to be useful. Evaluating the data with the actual situation in the vineyard is a necessary step to properly utilizing precision agriculture technology.

Sensors are available to measure soil characteristics, canopy density, fruit quality and more. The data, combined with spatial positioning systems to generate a map, can be used to provide a prescription for the best management practices for all sections of the vineyard. The variable properties found across the vineyard are therefore taken into account and the data used to develop precise location-based management protocols.

It all began in the 1980s, Dresser explained, with the grid soil sampling for variable rate fertility applications in row crops. Next came the development of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), variable rate equipment integrated with GPS and soil and crop yielding sensors. Vineyard technology, with grape yield monitors, which take into account vine growth variability, were developed, and then came the advent of vineyard mechanization systems (V-mech). Integrating variable rate technology into vineyard equipment happened next. Today, robotics is the next venture in precision agriculture.

“We’re talking about a cyclical management system, using georeferenced measurements of vineyard attributes, to spatially define heterogeneity and adapt vineyard management practices appropriately, to optimize whole vineyard performance,” Dresser said.

Pruning, cover crops, shoot or fruit thinning and other management techniques, applied and adapted to specific areas of the vineyard, is what precision viticulture enables a grower to do.

Precision equipment is already available commercially and being used in vineyards, such as variable rate equipment for precisely spreading lime or other inputs. The equipment is programmed, based on gathered data and GPS, to speed up or slow down as it is driven around the field, automatically delivering the precise amount of material to each section of land. Variable rate thinning equipment is also in use.

Research and Economics
Variable rate thinning equipment was used in a recent Efficient Vineyard research study at a Lake Erie-area Concord grape vineyard. Spatial sensor data collected one month after bloom, combined with stratified manual vineyard
samples, were used to estimate vine size and crop size. Using this data, a precision thinning protocol was generated and a map developed and integrated for use with the mechanical shaker on a commercial grape harvester.

The results showed the spatial data-driven variable rate thinning, applied automatically as the equipment traversed the vineyard, resulted in improved vineyard uniformity and improved overall crop load balance.

“Balancing the size of the crop with the size of the vine” is the key to improving profitability and economic viability in the vineyard, Dresser said.

Kevin Martin of the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program said that budgets for sensors are being developed as researchers are “trying to understand their cost.”

Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) sensors are already in commercial operation in a handful of vineyards, and budgets are available. Budgets for variable rate equipment, also in use, along with those for electromagnetic and other soil sensors, are other important tools for growers to have and are either available or being developed.

“You don’t have to be a 2,000-acre grower to really benefit from precision agriculture,” he said.

It’s important that precision agriculture can be applied in any size vineyard, large to small, Martin said, and the Efficient Vineyard project is neutral as far as the audience. The data available can assist everyone with efficient decision making, even if they aren’t going to by expensive equipment.

“Taking the raw data, processing that, generating a map and then counseling a grower on how to use that the most effectively” is part of the challenge of precision agriculture, Dresser said. Cooperative Extension, private consulting firms and even open source software can all be a part of this distribution of knowledge.

No matter how well adapted precision agriculture becomes in the vineyard, growers will always need to be hands-on in their management.

“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a substitute for boots on the ground,” Dresser said, as the grower’s own eyes and knowledge are critical in evaluating data, applying data and making the best decisions.

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