There are very few viticultural practices that cannot be mechanised. In a country like Australia mechanisation of almost all practices is occurring on a large scale, but the majority of tasks in South Africa are still being executed by hand.

A labourer in Australia handles an average of 15 hectares compared to only three in the R.S.A. In further contrast to Australia, where labour is both scarce and expensive, there is more than enough labour in the R.S.A. In many cases mechanisation cannot be justified financially, especially not the purchase of mechanised harvesters by relatively smaller producers. However, many producers are forced to adopt these measures as a result of increasing labour unrest.

For a producer who wants to mechanise his viticultural activities as far as possible, there are many options.

2.1 Soil preparation
South Africa is a world leader with regard to soil preparation and the research done by Nietvoorbij is very highly regarded. Excellent implements for soil preparation have been and are being developed locally. The purpose of soil preparation is to allow for sufficient soil space so that a deep root system may develop which will act as a buffer against droughts and heatwave situations. In many countries overseas preparation (mostly rip) occurs only on vine rows.

Mechanised harvester Planting of vines

Where soil depth is limited as a result of physical limitations, for example a clay bank or soil that drains with difficulty, there are implements such as the Van Rhyn disc harrow, as well as others with which soil depth may be created by ridging the soil.

It is also possible to administer ameliorants such as lime, gypsum and phosphate to the soil during soil preparation.

2.2 Layout of blocks
Aids such as the GPS (Global Positioning System) and Theodolite are available for planning and measuring blocks accurately.

2.3 Planting of vines
At present most of this is done by hand. However, there are various aids, for example laser beams, which may assist with this task. These are increasingly being used and are common in some overseas countries. (See photo on the right)

2.4 Laying of plastic
Often done mechanically.

2.5 Planting of trellis poles
Various kinds of pole planters are available:

  • Augers
  • Hydraulic waterspouts
  • Pole stampers (attached to tractors)

2.6 Trellis wires unrolled mechanically

2.7 Irrigation pipes unrolled mechanically

2.8 Staples
Staples may be shot into poles. They should preferably have weather hooks when harvesting mechanically, to prevent them from ending up in pneumatic presses and other apparatus which may be damaged

2.9 Vine development
Currently done by hand only. Various types of growing tubes are available to assist with more rapid development or in problem situations.

2.10 Harvest
Various machines are available and technology is advancing rapidly to speed up harvesting of the grapes in the case of almost all kinds of trellis systems, and to harvest more “softly” with less damage to the bunches. Bunches may already be harvested as low as 25 cm from the surface of the soil. Machines are being developed to harvest even bush vines.

Many winemakers prefer grapes, especially white varieties such as Sauvignon blanc, to be harvested by hand. Much progress has been made, however, in handling berries with a softer touch. An example of this is the used of extended beaters by means of which berries are shaken off with the minimum of skin damage. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that the quality of many white cultivars is better if the grapes are pressed cool. Therefore night and early morning pressing by harvesting machines can even result in an improvement in wine quality.

2.11 Pruning
Done by hand mostly. Mechanisation is making inroads and many farm experiments have been conducted. Mechanisation can be done with so-called barrel pruners which prune at a specific height within a vertical trellis system. Bearer lengths range from one to five buds. Canes are chopped up at the same time so that they do not have to be removed from the strands at a later stage. With shoots being positioned vertically, it is necessary to follow-up the mechanised pruning action with a quick manual prune in order to thin out bearers and remove dead canes. If this is not done, problems with compaction may be expected.

A more common and less expensive way of pruning is with cutter bars. These are mounted on a tractor and shoots are pruned at a predetermined height above and/or along the sides. This is used particularly for vines on a 1-2 strand trellis system. However, there are also manual models which imitate machine harvest. These implements can also be used for pre-pruning.

Where minimum pruning is applied, skirting alone is done by topping the shoots in winter or summer and so preventing shoots from lying on the ground and impeding aeration. In summer this is done with a topping machine and in winter with a cutting implement.

A problem with all these mechanised implements is that they may contribute to the distribution of dead arm disease as well as mealybug.

2.12 Topping/tipping
Very common. Usually does two rows simultaneously. May be linked to a harvester or tractor. The use of a harvester for this is not financially justifiable as running costs are too high. It is cheaper to buy another tractor and leave the harvester in the shed until the harvest.

Technology has advanced so much that even the slanting poles of a lyre system can be handled. The topping action may also be adjusted to specific requirements, for example narrow at the bottom and wider on top or vice versa.

2.13 Shoot positioning
Apparatus is available for positioning shoots vertically. The foliage strands are picked up and attached to poles with hooks. The apparatus is rather expensive and is hardly used in R.S.A.

2.14 Suckering
Not mechanised yet.

2.15 Crop control
Mechanically done with harvesting and topping machines. It the case of the latter, bunches are simply topped away together with the shoots.

2.16 Cultivation
Wiggle or ripper ploughs are used to loosen compacted layers. Sometimes also used for root pruning. For minimum loss of reserves, it should preferably be done just after the harvest when root growth is optimal.

Instead of removing canes from the vineyard and cutting them into smaller pieces by hand, a pruning brush-shredding machine may be used within the rows.

2.17 Weed control
Done mechanically and/or chemically. Implements are adjustable according to requirements. Controlled droplet application sprayers (CDA) may also be attached to motorbikes.

Apparatus is also available for laying plastic strips on rows when vines are planted, thus improving weed control and moisture preservation.

2.18 Disease and pest control
Implements are available to spray very narrow rows and also run above rows. Anything from one to three rows may be sprayed at one time. Apparatus can also be adjusted to catch and recycle excess pesticide.

2.19 Infrared aerial photos for identification of problems
Advanced infrared aerial photography can be used for the identification of problems/diseases in blocks and as a result, selective control may be applied.

Almost all vineyard activities may be mechanised and there is rapid technological development to try and handle all situations. Labour may be replaced to a large extent. However, some mechanisation actions, such as the purchase of mechanised harvesters on smaller farm units, are hard to justify. Several producers have nevertheless been forced to take this route as a result of labour unrest and low productivity.

Contracting of mechanisation is currently gaining much ground. This is cost effective and may be used successfully in the case of labour shortages.

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