Vineyard Irrigation: Wet Your Plants with Efficiency & Precision (Grapevine Magazine)

Irrigating Young Vines

The importance of water and its management for grapevine quality and yield cannot be overstated,” said Randy Heinzen, president of Vineyard Professional Services in Paso Robles, California.

“When it comes to irrigation,” said Heinzen, “vineyards depend on drip

irrigation for the most part. Sprinklers are great at spreading water across the entire acreage, but applications by sprinklers in-season can increase the potential for disease in the canopy. I haven’t worked on a furrow irrigation system (which diverts naturally accumulating water into channels that run into or along each side of the vineyard rows) here on the Central Coast since 2011. Choices will always differ by region, and some vineyards successfully utilize dual systems that combine drip and overhead systems or drip and under-vine micro-sprinklers.

Grapevines are fairly drought tolerant, so they readily adapt to receiving drip irrigation at several points near the trunk.”

Heinzen said that most vineyard managers prefer drip irrigation systems because of the ability to provide a directed and constant volume to each plant. Another advantage of utilizing a drip system is the ability to fertigate and apply chemicals directly and precisely to each vine when needed.

“The type and amount of scheduling for those needs varies based on system ability, soil dynamics, the winegrower’s goals, and seasonal weather events and conditions,” said Heinzen. “At the most basic level, irrigation is applied at some fraction of the grapevine’s water use. Other variables include the time in the growing season and the grapevine’s age, root system, soil interaction level and general overall health. And the more active the leaf area is that is photosynthesizing, the greater the water use is going to be by the plant, which in turn requires a greater need for water replenishment.”

Heinzen told The Grapevine Magazine that the cost of installing a drip system depends on the volume of water available for irrigation and the vineyard spacing, layout and design. The cost of material and installation of a drip system’s sub mains through to the above-ground infrastructure can be between $3,000 and $6,000 per acre, comparable to installing a quality sprinkler system.

“Most vineyards track irrigation through flow meters and in-field pressure systems in drip hoses,” said Heinzen. “But, while digital tracking removes most human errors caused by erroneous note-taking and transcription of numbers, technology is not always reliable, and data gaps can occur. A novel approach to monitoring irrigation uses satellite imagery to estimate actual evapotranspiration and deduce the correlating irrigation needs. In terms of field operations, there are several automated systems available for remote pump and valve control, but the same caveat about reliability applies to agricultural field technology as well.”

“With that in mind, a vineyard owner’s most important question for the irrigation system installer concerns the warranty. For most vineyard owners, the irrigation systems are installed by third-party contractors, with the majority of their work buried underground. The most professional and experienced contractors give the best warranties because they are good at their craft. In my experience, paying more for that professional design and installation upfront eventually saves money in the long run due to the potential of more costly and untimely field repairs and maintenance after installation. Further, vineyard owners should educate themselves on how the system runs, how to use it, and how to handle and make minor repairs themselves. Disruptions in the availability of needed water impact current and future crops, so as the vineyard manager, you should know the location of the underground pipes, how the controllers and filters operate and what pressures your system is designed to maintain for optimal performance. A good relationship with your contractor is critical to your farming success.”

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