Irrigation management – behold the water!

IM is more than turning on the tap or drip system and hoping for the best!

Being an avid gardener, and wine enthusiast, I can understand the challenges faced by vineyards when it comes to irrigating the yard.  My watering requirements are no where near as expansive as the typical vineyard of say 20 acres – or more – but I do face the same conflicting moments at times:  when to water? How much water do I apply for a given area?  What water rate do I use?  The answer to these questions boils down to magnitude. Even a more difficult question to answer with little knowledge is where to apply water as some areas of the yard retain more water than others – thus requiring less water in order to meet irrigation needs. How could I as a gardener and you as a vineyard manager minimize uncertainty when it comes to watering?

This article takes a general look into the ebb and flow of irrigation management and how software could potentially fill in information gaps to maximize irrigation efficiency while keeping costs under control.  The main focus here is to offer up possible solutions to managing water usage, looking at options and to provide suggestions about how “vineyard feedback” can be used to govern water usage and distribution.

The hosing dilemma

Throughout the summer, I often see neighbours outside watering their lawns even after the skies have released a reasonable amount of rain to warrant forgoing a regular watering from the hose or via a drip system for a day or two.  I too have done this.

For us regular folk, we might forgo thinking about the costs of watering our lawn even if the yard doesn’t need it.  For a vineyard, however, watering is not only an integral part of vineyard management but also a key contributor to operational costs.  Watering is an obvious vital component to the health, welfare, growth and maturity of vines and the grapes they produce (the yield factor).  Keeping tabs on how much water is distributed, consumed and how much water is actually needed to sustain vine growth is another matter.  Can technology help vineyard managers with this aspect of their business?  I think so.  It’s a question of identifying the true need – pure business analytics – rather than the symptom masquerading as a need, which often creates a false solution.

“‘Vineyard feedback’ can be used to
govern water usage and distribution”

Watering, though, for the sake of watering is an ill-conceived approach from a management policy.  Such an approach can be detrimental to the bottom line and also suggests that a need for better data management – the gathering and analysis of data – in terms of how irrigation is applied remains a desired objective of any vineyard management team.

Since mother nature is not always reliable in terms of how much water gets dumped naturally on our lawns and vineyards, dependency on water management becomes paramount, especially when the lack of rainfall is combined with drier than normal weather conditions.  The issue of water use is particularly sensitive in cities and towns that have implemented peak and off-peak water usage rates, which typically see higher water rates during the day and lower rates at night and on weekends.  Unfortunately, vineyards cannot wait to apply water solely at night or on weekends, making the reliance on data much more important in terms of when and where to water and how much to apply in specific acreage areas or zones.

The software approach – is it time to introduce data to the grape?

As an information technology professional and business analyst, I have worked to develop solutions for business units for quite a long time.  I have studied how to understand business requirements and assess solutions that match those requirements.  Often, I speculate about strategy too.  What will a business look like next year and in five years’ time? What is the strategy of a business and how does an information technology solution – the enabling technology – help a business achieve the goals and objectives set out in the strategy?

Most vineyards, in my opinion, are a business enterprise, whether that business is small or large, owned by a small group of people, a family enterprise or a whole business conglomerate.  And while running the enterprise to grow grapes to either sell them on the market or to use them to convert grape juice to alcohol through fermentation, vineyard managers must keep an eye on the costs associated with running that business, especially as more and more competition pervades the vineyard spectrum.

One of the most important factors to growing vines and fruit is water, of course.

But how is water usage, costs, and application managed in a vineyard?  I can only assume that methods to monitor and manage water costs and application is directly related to the size of the vineyard.  And the methods probably vary greatly due to tastes, acquired knowledge and other influencing factors.  But while most vineyards may have an irrigation system regardless of size, the questions I want to field (no pun intended) today are:

  • How does a vineyard manager know how much water is applied to the vines?
  • How much rainfall has fallen recently to control when the taps to the irrigation system are turned?
  • Which parts of the acreage have a higher need for water than other areas at any given moment in time once the decision to irrigate has been made?
  • How much water is required from the irrigation system in order to keep levels at a specific threshold to sustain an efficient and effective water dosage vital to achieving strategic growth and yield estimates?

Applying water to the vineyard can be measured using concepts like the acre-foot.  This concept takes a sheet of acreage one foot square and applies water to a depth of one foot in that square footage.  Vineyard managers can easily obtain how much water is delivered from the source to the vines and register that data in a software tracking application.  Often this is done manually. Wouldn’t it be more efficient if the irrigation system integrated data usage with the software application automatically?  I am sure this is type of solution is available now and being implemented in some vineyards.

The biggest helper to a vineyard manager is mother nature’s cooperation.  When it rains a good chunk from the skies, it helps avoid incurring costs of running the irrigation system.  But mother nature tends to shed excess water from the clouds in sporadic instances.  Sometimes, it rains too much – flooding the vineyard with water with the hope that the drainage system works quickly so as not to damage roots.  While depending on natural rainfall to help with irrigation efforts, it is ideal to measure how much rain has fallen and keep track of this type of data regularly.

Whether the vineyard has been irrigated using the irrigation system or via natural rainfall, the natural contours of a vineyard may consume and drain water at higher or lesser rates than other parts of the vineyard.  I cannot believe that all sections of a vineyard drain at the same rate.  Assuming that specific parts of a vineyard have an easier time draining than other sections, not knowing the water content of the soil at specific times can arrest fact finding efforts.

Could sensors in the ground help a vineyard manager understand which parts are still moist?  Better still, could these sensors help them understand how much water to apply to sustain an efficient and effective dose of irrigation?  Here, data could provide managers with real time data feeds as to how well and how fast  their vineyard is absorbing and draining water.  Haven’t you used a moisture meter in your garden to help you determine if your potted plants or perennials need water?  What if the data captured by these sensors  could be transmitted to a software application automatically to gauge when and where to water in the case of a vineyard?

Vineyard management is a dynamic business.  Water management and irrigation is only one aspect of the operations of the business.  But with the advent of technology and software applications contributing to the Internet of Things, the availability of solutions to manage what the vineyard is telling managers is sure to be available.  Costs are one factor to using solutions like sensors in the field.  It probably raises more questions than answers but isn’t that the whole purpose of striving for better solutions to managing things, including vineyards?

Like anything else, it might be time to heighten efforts to marry technology with the grape, especially as global warming trends heighten awareness about using “greener” solutions.

As a consumer, I always dislike paying more for things that were less expensive in a previous time.  While I understand that inflation and other factors contribute to the rise in prices for wine, I wonder now as an empowered consumer if data management could have provided more effective and efficient controls of water costs.  In turn could such features have kept prices down once the wine hit the market?

As a vineyard manger, I would be interested in understanding what the yard is telling me in terms of water use and help me apply improved practices based on good data.

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