Luke is running fascinating trials at Everflyht Vineyard, which we had the pleasure of seeing when we visited in August 2019. He sees the positive management of ecology as an investment in the long-term health of the vineyard. Improving soil carbon and biodiversity kick-starts natural cycles, building healthy soil which supports healthy vines, and healthy vines require fewer inputs. We love to see a vineyard working with nature in this way!
Reducing herbicides with under vine mulching
Luke is exploring an alternative weed control to herbicides; he hand weeded several rows in May and laid out straw under the vines as a mulch layer. The straw suppresses and smothers out weeds, as they are shielded from light and air. It’s working well, although there are a few drawbacks – the straw is expensive and it’s time consuming doing the initial weeding and laying it out. The straw they tried this year is specially formulated by Leeds University; it is infused with iron, magnesium and a natural slug repellent. One herbicide application is still required at the end or the beginning of the season, but this is a good reduction from the 2-3 applications in rows without straw mulch (which also have a healthy crop of thistles underneath!). Luke feels this method has great potential, particularly if the cost of straw can be reduced and if the weed burden gets lighter and lighter each year in the mulched rows as is predicted.
Mulching straw also benefits soil health under the vines, as it covers the soil which prevents soil moisture from evaporating (particularly useful if you’re in a drier, hotter climate). It provides a source of organic matter as it gradually decomposes, which stimulates and feeds the microbial community in the soil which in turn release nutrients for the vines to take up. Applying any herbicides or chemicals disrupts microbial activity, and so making an effort to reduce these inputs helps the natural cycles to start working with you.
Encouraging biodiversity and soil health with cover crops
In between the rows Luke seed drilled a deep rooting cover crop of red clover, buckwheat, phacelia, cocksfoot grass and ryegrass. The phacelia sprung up tall, dramatically increasing the number of pollinators to the point where two bee hives have naturally formed on the outskirts of the vineyard in old rabbit warrens! The original seed mix only had 20% grasses but they turned out to be very vigorous growers, out competing nearly all the other plants in the mix. Luke mows the grass strips in between the vines every 2-3 weeks and the cuttings are discharged out from the sides of the mower and straight under the vines, creating a green mulch on the soil (and adding to the straw mulch where this is being trialled). Read this paper about floor management and how green mulch is can improve fruit set!
Although cocksfoot grass is great as the roots go down around 40cm Luke plans to reseed the cover crop mix in between the vines to regain the plant diversity he had before, adding red clover, phacelia and buckwheat back in. This is important for attracting beneficial insects and helps build soil health too. A diverse range of roots will stimulate the soil biology which generally improves soil structure. Deeper rooting plants in the cover crop mix are great for breaking up compacted areas of soil. A diverse and deep root system opens up new channels for water and air to percolate down through the soil profile and be stored for uptake by the vines in dryer periods and helps turn the subsoil from anaerobic to aerobic. This all helps to improve drainage, which has been a big challenge at the site. Luke’s diverse plantings don’t stop at in between the vines, he is using a similar cover crop mix to prepare a 4.5 hectare site to be planted up with vines in 2021. This invests in improving soil health, as legumes fix nitrogen and there is lots of root to soil interaction, sequestering carbon, getting all the great microbial and fungal life going before the new vines go in.
Reducing pesticides with buffer strips
Phacelia is abundant in buffer strips along the sides of the vineyard, which attracts a healthy population of pollinators and beneficial insects. At the moment Luke monitors the insects that pose a threat to his crop, but he’d like to monitor beneficial ones in the future too. Then he could see how the populations buffer each other, and if they are in balance.
Luke sets traps to catch one of the insects he would rather not have – the brown apple moth. If there are more than 14 moths in the trap in a month period he usually sprays the vines to reduce them and 11 has been the highest count so far. It’s great he hasn’t had to spray this season, which could be due to them being predated by bees, wasps and hoverflies attracted by the buffer strips. If you’re reading this and you manage a vineyard, have you also seen reduced brown apple moth pressure this year?
Using techniques to encourage plant and insect diversity, improve carbon sequestration and build soil health are all ways you can take a more regenerative approach to managing a vineyard. There are some fairly quick wins with implementing practises like cover crops and straw mulching, but for the most part they are part of a much longer term strategy. A strategy that builds up natural resilience in the vineyard to pest pressure, disease risks, and changing climate, while reducing the need for intervention with chemicals that disrupt nature from doing its thing!
Join us for a walk around a beautiful spot in East Sussex, a 2.6-hectare vineyard run by data lover Luke Spalding. The vines are fairly new, they’ve been in the ground for 4 years and will be producing at full potential in the next year or two. Another 4.5 hectares of vines are due to be planted in May 2021, and the aim is to consistently produce 6-8 tonnes of grapes a hectare in the future. Currently the wine is made at Hambledon, where Luke has built a great working relationship with Felix the winemaker there, the first wines will be released 2021.
The vineyard is 74m above sea level and the site has its challenges; such as extreme south west winds and severe late spring frosts due to its proximity to the South Downs. Luke told us “This is why I wanted the job, if I can deal with these challenges and learn to produce a great crop then I know I am doing something right!”.
The field was previously used for grazing livestock and hay making, so the soil is rich in nitrogen but has an imbalance of magnesium and potassium. This is a blessing and a curse in the Pinot Meunier variety; as it saves on some fertilisers but creates other problems with necrosis on the berries and buds.
Luke spends a lot of time scouting in the vineyard for issues, making observations and recording them with his Sectormentor for Vines phone app. His passion for data started when he was at Ridgeview Wine Estate; he helped monitor links between the number of seeds in a berry, berry size and climatic values that increased berry size and development. In a Californian grape grown to maturity the average is three to four seeds per grape, but how many seeds do English grapes generally have? Luke decided to sample 250 berries across every block in the vineyard, counting seeds to calculate the average seed count per berry for each block, observing how well the fruit had matured. He found there are often only 2 seeds on average in an English grape, a sign the grapes do not fertilise as well as those across the pond. This is because we just don’t have enough sunny growing days over here!
Pre veraison Luke and his assistant Tom recorded bunch counts with the Sectormentor for Vines app to start making an early yield prediction and decide if they need to remove any bunches from the vines to optimise yield and grape quality. They checked the bunch count data displayed by block on their Sectormentor for Vines account and decided to take off quite a few bunches post flowering, which are left on the ground to return fertility to the soil.
Once grapes have been thinned out they will go through and count bunches again to understand how many were actually dropped and update their yield prediction. All this data can be put into the Sectormentor for Vines app so they can observe and understand trends in how their bunch counts are evolving and what their yield might be.
Post veraison, berries grow rapidly in size, generally due to Autumn sunshine causing sugar to build up in the grapes. Luke monitors berry weight to see the impact from different weather patterns and other variables. As it turns out, hot and sunny weather during the growing season is not necessarily what causes dramatic increases in berry size; it is actually a heavy rainfall event in the run up to harvest which makes a huge difference!
We got the low down from Luke: “If you have 10 bunches per vine and each one increases by 10g due to rain, each Ha has 4,132 vines and the site has 10ha that’s an extra 4,132kg. It all adds up!”
As Everflyht is a new vineyard, there are some younger vines which aren’t yielding yet. Luke monitors younger vines, along with dead and missing vines, so he can take them out of his yield prediction, ensuring it is accurate. Luke also keeps track of frost damage and wind scorch by recording incidences on Sectormentor for Vines, so he’s able to stay on top of the problems and make any necessary management changes. He sprays seaweed straight onto frost damaged buds within 24 hours – this does an amazing job helping them recover! He’s also trying a biodynamic treatment of silica to help with wind scorch. This improves cell walls and leaf thickness to make the vines more resilient to the prevailing wind, as well as powdery mildew.
“I use Sectormentor for Vines as a Barometer of how the vine has developed, how many buds have burst, how many shoots do I have, how many clusters do I have and what do we need to drop. That information tells me if I have a problem like necrosis, if I have to shoot thin or if I need do a green harvest.” – Luke Spalding, Everflyht Vineyard
By monitoring bud counts, shoot counts and cluster counts with Sectormentor for Vines, Luke gets a good idea for how the vines are doing and if there are any issues. For example, if he does a bud count and then a shoot count, and finds only 60% of the buds have shoots, he knows there is a problem with necrosis or blind buds and can make a decision on how to manage this in the future.
Growing degree days for a season also provide helpful and informative data for Luke; from several years of monitoring he has found anything higher than -70 GDD in March means bud burst will happen in the first week of April. As Luke points out, “In a cooler climate where everything is so marginal this type of data is really important and can make a huge difference to successful vineyard management.”
We’re excited to continue following Luke’s journey; if you’d like to hear more about what he is up to read this blog post on trialling cover crops, mulching and biodiversity at Everflyht Vineyard.
Vine-Works was founded by James Dodson and Darcy Gander and has been establishing, managing, maintaining and supporting vineyards across the UK for over a decade. They work with single growers, small businesses, farmers, landowners and some of the country’s largest wine producers, providing a complete range of vineyard management and technical services from concept to harvest.
Vine-Works has just started to offer a vineyard management service for small to medium scale vineyards who can’t reasonably have a full time vineyard manager. As part of the service a Vine-Works technical officer will come out to the vineyard 12-16 times a year to ensure that the vineyard is well managed and an experienced independent viticulturist is monitoring important vineyard indicators. They help with deciding how much fruit to drop, what to do for disease management and getting good yield predictions – all the key activities throughout the year.
Of course this type of vineyard monitoring and management takes time but it is extremely valuable information! Many people don’t realise just how important it is to ensure that you do a good quality bunch count, and record bunch weights at harvest in order to get a good yield prediction – this data is invaluable, an asset to the vineyard.
The Vine-Works team are using Sectormentor so that they can easily record the information they need in each season to better manage vineyards for their clients. For example, just as flowering sets in, Technical Officer – Matt – will go out to a number of random sample vines in each block and count the number of inflorescences on the vine, he enters that number for one vine and then the next, and so on. Some weeks later he goes out again and counts the number of bunches, giving a good indication of fruit set – and starting one of the most important metrics of the year – the yield prediction. This information automatically feeds into the Sectormentor Yield Predictor Tool so that a rough initial yield prediction can easily be reached, and then optimised as the season progresses.
“All viticulturalists and vineyard managers collect data in their day to day activities, this data could be perceived as the vine’s method of communicating with us, be it pruning weights to illustrate cropping potential or interveinal discolouring to show nutrient deficiency. By collecting this information we can have a greater insight into a vine’s health.
Historically, vineyard managers have recorded this type of information in notebooks but by collecting data digitally we can quickly turn measurements into viticultural information. This can further be translated into quick and easy-to-read graphics so we can provide an instant response-based vineyard management service.”
– Darcy Gander, Vine-Works
Sectormentor also allows for easy data sharing amongst the Vine-Works team, so they can make full use of all of their expertise. For example, Matt sees a leaf that looks a bit unusual in the vineyard, he takes a photo in Sectormentor, records its location, and carries on with his scouting looking for disease and pest pressure around the vineyard. He can send a message to the rest of the team so they can immediately and easily look at the photo of the issue on the Sectormentor dashboard and give their feedback on what they think it might be. Sectormentor is also hugely beneficial to the vineyard owners, because they can login to the dashboard at any time and see what has been happening on the vineyard – plus they know that all the vital information such as phenological dates, bunch weights and much more are stored and accessible in one place. This kind of information is an important asset to the vineyard, and storing it in this way brings the power of the data to the vineyard owner as well as the manager.
Working with Abby, Inti and the team has always been a pleasure. They’re driven, insightful and reliable and we look to working with them long term. Sectormentor has enabled us to cover more ground, analyse data quickly and make informed management decisions immediately. We have been impressed by how much time we save using Sectormentor and how it efficiently and effectively helps us to deliver our vineyard management service.
– Joel Jorgensen, Vine-Works
We are excited to be working with the Vine-Works team to introduce some of our recommended soil health monitoring into the service as well. Due to the damp conditions in the UK managing vines more ecologically can be quite tricky – but focusing on building soil structure through increased biological activity in the soil can really help to guide you in creating a more ecological and diverse vineyard system. Vine-Works aims to introduce this soil health monitoring to the vineyards who want to focus on more ecological farming methods.
We look forward to continuing our journey with Vine-Works! If their service or Sectormentor for Vines sounds interesting to you do get in touch here.
Bella and Steven Spurrier planted the first vines at Bride Valley Vineyard, Dorset, in 2009. They produce delicious English sparkling wines from their 10 hectares of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes. It hasn’t been an easy ride but the chalky slopes of Dorset are perfect for the vines as they are now all flourishing!
The vineyard manager Graham Fisher has been there since near the beginning and is committed to managing the vineyard using minimal intervention and more ecological methods. Strips of phacelia and wildflowers line the vines to increase biodiversity and predation of moths, meaning most years they don’t spray against Light Brown apple moth. They have been experimenting with using parasitic wasps as a biological control method. They use an undervine weeder, and are working on ways to increase the efficiency of this tool and therefore justify not using chemicals/herbicides and, even have their own sheep to graze amongst the vines, providing free fertiliser and chomping down the grasses.
Graham was immediately taken with using Sectormentor to help him manage the vines. He didn’t have the time or patience to note down and then type up bud counts, bunch numbers, or document different experiments he was doing. Luckily Sectormentor solved this for him, now he can count bunch numbers, pruning weights and more with a quick tap of the phone. Then once back at the office immediately he can compare pruning weights for different blocks and varieties of vine, predict yield for the year ahead combining this years and previous years data.
Here’s a Q & A with Graham on how data contributes to vineyard management at Bride Valley:
How did you manage the vineyard before using Sectormentor? Like lots of people, with a notebook and pen and as a consequence I have lots of notebooks squirrelled away.
How important are data and tools in the vineyard to you? Very, the ability to compare things like yield per vine, per block historically allows me to see how the vineyard is performing and in the case of yield trials whether they have been successful or not.
Do you think it’s important for vineyards to collect data? Absolutely, without collecting data it would be impossible to assess the success or otherwise of the vineyard and what the impact of the viticultural practices is on the viability of the vineyard.
What information are you most excited about using? To be able to compare the performance of the various trials we have running with the rest of the vineyard visually using charts rather than just a series of numbers!
What has been the main benefit of Sectormentor to you? It has shortened the process of collecting data and made it so much easier, also to be able to compare data from different blocks/trials/years visually right away.
Can you explain a little about the experiment you are doing with different pruning techniques and cane numbers? Very simply, yields in the UK are quite low compared to our European cousins due to our marginal climate, so we are conducting trials to see if retaining more canes at winter pruning will increase yields over the long run without it being detrimental to the health of the vine.
What’s next for Bride Valley? For a relatively small and new venture, we have had a fair bit of success with overseas exposure and sales, going forward we want to increase our yields and our sales in the UK.
What do you hope to see in the future for vineyards in the UK? Better weather and increased yields without losing the quality. Like most vineyard owners/managers it’s all about finding a balance between efficiencies and controlling costs, without impacting on the environment. Being financially and environmentally sustainable is the goal for everyone in my opinion.
If you’ve got any questions about monitoring data in your vineyard we’d love to have a chat with you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Will Davenport tells us about his experience:
“Sectormentor helps us run our business effectively. It’s a management tool for out in the field, the more data I have about what’s going on in the vineyard the better I can do my job. We use it to record things like flowers per vine which gives us an early prediction of yields. It’s simple and much more effective, you just record the things you need as you go and they are immediately visualised for you.”
Last year he also used Sectormentor to record number of flowers per vine in early June, and that same day he had what turned out to be pretty accurate prediction of his yield 5 months before harvest, helping him plan and have his harvest run smoothly.
Sectormentor is very flexible so you can set it up to record whatever is important to you on your farm. Sectormentor is also coming in handy as part of on-farm research and trials across groups of farms, from soil-sampling to agroforestry it can help everyone collect information and learnings that can easily be combined to help create a consistent and reliable data set, perfect to find patterns between multiple farms.
Interested in how this could work for you, contact us here