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Becoming more efficient is a mantra of agricultural producers as they struggle to survive. But increasing efficiency isn’t as easy as simply reducing farm expenses because some farm inputs impact yield. By prioritizing farm inputs, growers can take a more systematic approach to reducing expenses.

Craig Bardwell, senior viticulture specialist at the National Grape Cooperative Association, Grandview, Washington, the grower cooperative for Welch’s products, shared ideas to help growers stay in business during a panel discussion held at the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting. He urged growers to prioritize their vineyard expenditures as they strive to improve efficiency.

“You need a hit list of what are the important farm practices to help you sustain a profit,” he said.

Pruning

Bardwell ranks pruning as the most important practice and one with significant financial impact on the crop year. Hand pruning is the most expensive way to prune, with costs ranging from 22 to 35 cents per vine, equaling $152 to $242 per acre. He said that poor hand pruning can be costly in the long run as it can easily reduce yields by a ton or more per acre.

Mechanical pruning with hand follow-up is considered intermediate in cost. Custom mechanical pruners charge around $70 per acre, with hand follow-up costing 10 to 14 cents per vine, for a total cost of $140 to $166 per acre. This represents a potential savings over hand pruning of between $12 to $102 per acre. Added benefits from combining mechanical pruning with hand follow-up are smaller pruning crews that are easier to manage and more consistent, and better quality pruning.

Mechanical pruning without hand follow-up is the most affordable at about $70 per acre. However, potential problems include overcropped vines, alternate bearing, the need to mechanically thin the crop, poor quality fruit that is undeliverable, and increased demand for water and nutrients due to the larger canopy.

“The sustainability of total mechanically pruned
vines is still in question,” Bardwell said. “The costs to clean up the canopy by hand at a future date will be expensive.”

Irrigation

Most growers don’t use enough water for their juice grapes, he said. “Water is the single most important nutrient, but most growers follow a set schedule and don’t change it throughout the year.”

Concord grapes require about 20 to 30 inches of water per year, Bardwell said, adding that average sprinkler sets deliver about 3 inches of water in a 24-hour set. At that rate, growers need to be scheduling sprinkler irrigation at least six to ten times per season.

“One of the things that will give you the highest return on your investment is to make sure your vines are adequately watered,” he said.

Nitrogen

High fertilizer costs have caused some growers to consider reducing the amount of nitrogen applied. He warned that cutting corners on nutrition could result in huge costs in the future. Growers should determine the nitrogen status of their vineyards by sampling the soil and the vines before making any nutrition decisions.

“You need to get at least 60 percent of the nitrogen on,” he said, noting that research shows that Concord vines use about 50 pounds of nitrogen annually. Based on last spring’s urea and application prices, it cost about $35 per acre to apply 50 pounds of nitrogen.

Weed control

High weed competition can dramatically impact vine vigor and yield, but weed control is an area where small changes can be made, he said. “For under the trellis and the row middles, the critical time for weed control is between bloom and veraison. But the row middles don’t have to be sterile, bare ground.”

The typical cost of pre- and post-emergent herbicides for under the trellis is around $40 per acre, but growers should remember that they are only spraying one-third of an acre for every vineyard acre because of the strip spraying.

Cultivation is an option for the row middles, but it is not without costs for the tractor, fuel, and driver, and cultivation promotes rapid regrowth of weeds, so more passes may be needed. Bardwell found little difference in cost between cultivation and a postemergent herbicide because fewer tractor passes are needed for the herbicide treatment.

Nutrition

The final 40 percent of nitrogen is not as critical as the first 60 percent, Bardwell noted, but it will promote stronger vigor for the following season. “Though phosphorus and potassium levels are generally sufficient in Concord vineyards, samples should be taken to make sure, especially in older sites. Foliar feeds provide the quickest impact for micronutrient deficiencies.”

Adequate boron is needed for fruit set, and zinc is important to pollen development and regulating fruit sugar.

Trellis maintenance

The least important of viticulture practices on Bardwell’s list is trellis maintenance, which typically requires hired labor. One way to cut expenses is to maintain only items that can impact this year’s growth, yield, and harvestability, he said.

“But don’t neglect the support system to the point that you’re losing posts and end posts. Replace only those that you absolutely need to replace.”

Comparing efficiencies

Bardwell compared the net income of four hypothetical vineyardists, from low to highly efficient operators. According to his figures, highly efficient growers have a net income of $765 per acre compared with $590 per acre for those with low efficiency. While expenses are much lower for the inefficient grower, vineyard productivity suffers from the reduced inputs. He encouraged growers to strive to be in the efficient column, keeping focus on maintaining yields while controlling costs.

“If operating capital is short, start by reducing costs of each viticulture input instead of eliminating the input,” Bardwell concluded. “Start at the bottom of your list and work your way up, striving for efficiency and low impact on vigor and yield.”