Pruning Phases, Tools & Techniques for Vineyards

By: Alyssa L. Ochs

Around this time of the year, addressing the topic of pruning is essential for vineyards. Now that harvest is over, grapevines enter into a winter dormancy phase, losing the rest of their leaves and exposing only bare cane shoots in the canopies. Now is the crucial time to refresh your memory about the different pruning phases to get the timing right and learn about the best tools and training strategies to implement for safety and efficiency.

Basics of Pruning

  Pruning is an essential part of managing a vineyard to remove foliage, fruit and branches. However, the pruning method used can affect how future grapes grow and their quality at harvest.

Pruning is an opportunity to control vine damage and disease early on and ensure that grapes have enough air circulation to prevent mildew and rot. Pruning maintains the consistency, predictability and structure of a vineyard while keeping it organized and looking clean. The ultimate goal is to maximize the one-year wood on each grapevine without letting the plant make more grapes than it can support.

Phases of Pruning

  Pruning is described as both a science and an art because of the intricacies involved in the process. Removing vine branches that are a couple of years old, known as canes, comes first. It is typical to cut the cane back to 12 to 15 inches from the trunk in this first phase. Then, remove the spurs, which are the young branches about a year old. The second phase is done later to leave only shoots that will produce fruit.

  For winter protection, remove all old-growth except for new fruiting canes and renewal spurs that will supply fruit canes for the next growing season. Proper canopy management allows vineyard workers to pull leaves and control the vigor of the vines. Many vineyards use a machine pruner first to do the bulk of the cutting and then hand pruning for greater precision.

Tools for Pruning

  In general, the tools necessary for pruning are fairly straightforward. Vineyard workers use hand shears, lopping shears, saws, gloves, and ribbons or colored cloth strips to identify renewal spurs and fruiting canes.

  Innovative companies have developed specialized products for pruning that seem simple at first glance but are very technologically advanced. One example is Infaco-USA’s F3015 electric pruning shear. Infaco-USA is based in Livermore, California and produces tools used in vineyards and orchards in at least 35 countries. Infaco’s president, Daniel Delmas, is credited with inventing the world’s first electric pruning shears.

  “Our F3015 electric pruning shear came out a few years ago, but it remains the most technologically advanced shear in the world, in part because it works with our patented safety system,” Ananda Van Hoorn, operations manager for Infaco-USA, told The Grapevine Magazine. “No other shear has anything that comes close to it, as this system prevents users from accidentally cutting themselves or lopping off a finger. In vineyard pruning, this is particularly important since mistakes happen when workers are fatigued and in crews try to go as fast as they can, especially if they’re paid piece-rate, and they often work long hours.”

  Meanwhile, Zenport Industries is another company that has developed several tools, accessories and technologies for the vineyard. Based in Sherwood, Oregon, Zenport has introduced battery-powered pruning shears and, more recently, a new “cordless” version of this product. In general, Zenport manufactures specialty horticulture tools and supplies for the agriculture, landscape, irrigation and lawn and garden markets.

  “The reason why we say ‘cordless’ is because unlike previous generations of battery-powered pruners, there is no external battery pack or electronics, as everything is encapsulated inside the tool,” Daryl Shatto, who handles marketing for Zenport, told The Grapevine Magazine.

  Shatto said that the interchangeable battery packs offer three to four hours of pruning runtime per battery charge.

  “The Zenport EP26 cuts one-inch and comes with two batteries and a charging cradle,” he said. “The Zenport EP27 cuts 1.25-inches and comes with three batteries and a charging adapter that will charge three batteries at once. The batteries charge faster than the pruner runtime, so the user will never run out of juice!”

  Zenport offers spare batteries and blades and all parts for the cordless pruners, such as housing, motors, gears, and electronics. The new Zenport EP26 and EP27 have features not found on the original cordless pruners, including progressive cut mode, an adaptive cut option, simple “hair-trigger” mode and a digital LCD readout.

Training for Pruning

  A topic that deserves extra attention is training staff on safe and effective pruning techniques. The most common pruning injuries are strained shoulders, sore back muscles and hand lacerations. Some vineyard operators train staff using the four-arm Kniffen method, which utilizes two horizontal wires to support the vine. This method features a bottom wire that is three feet high and a top wire that is five feet high and is used for grapes that do not require winter protection.

  Vineyard workers should also be trained on sterilizing equipment after each vine using an isopropyl alcohol solution. Part of the training process should cover removing diseased wood with lesion or sap by either burning it or discarding it according to municipality requirements.

  Regarding training, Van Hoorn said Infaco-USA’s hand-held tools are designed to be intuitive and come with user guides in both English and Spanish.

“Our pruning shear, patented safety system, electric tying machine and vineyard desuckerer can be mastered in minutes,” Van Hoorn said. “When in doubt, our YouTube channel features how-to videos, we offer on-site training for crews, and we have also conducted live video training online for customers in remote areas.”

  “Vineyard managers can train their employees to use our products in the safest and most effective way by first educating themselves on the safety, operation, maintenance and proper use of Zenport tools,” said Shatto. “Zenport offers an easy-to-read manual and maintenance instructions, including over the phone support to help the vineyard manager with not only technical and service support issues, but also operational and safety concerns.”

Pruning Considerations and Tips

  One of the most significant decisions to make is whether to machine-prune, hand-prune or do a combination of both. Hand-pruning is labor-intensive, especially for large vineyards. Pruning machines can keep workers safe if they are trained properly; however, this is a costlier approach to vineyard maintenance, especially for newer vineyards and vineyards struggling to make ends meet. Therefore, it often comes down to weighing the pros and cons of short-term investments versus long-term cost and labor savings. Yet, common-sense rules still apply, such as having workers take breaks, stay hydrated and work in teams.

  Van Hoorn said vineyards should consider mechanization because it is easier than they might think. She said small, hand-held electric pruning shears can increase vineyard productivity by 30% on average and that it only takes a few minutes to mechanize an entire crew.

  “Pruning is the number one labor expense for most vineyards, and minimum wage in many parts of the U.S. is going up,” Van Hoorn said. “Many of our clients are experiencing 14% increases in prices that they pay labor crews and contractors each year, so an investment in mechanization now will have huge payoffs!”

  Aside from productivity, Van Hoorn said other benefits of mechanization include better crew retention rates, fewer repetitive motion injuries and better cuts that improve consistency and the quality of the grapes while reducing the risk of disease.

  Shatto from Zenport said that a vineyard can decide its best pruning strategy by evaluating each pruning job and the available resources. It is Zenport’s position that using a battery-powered pruner doesn’t mean you stop hand pruning. However, the tools offered at Zenport can make a big difference if labor is an issue.

  “Zenport battery-powered pruners have excellent endurance,” Shatto said. “A sharp blade and charged battery will keep the user pruning all day long! A person who is healthy and very experienced with pruning can prune very fast. As a day of hand-pruning progresses, even the fastest of the fast will start to slow down, while the person with the battery-powered pruner will stay consistent all day long. You can count on the consistent performance.”

  Shatto also said it is wishful thinking to expect a full crew of young, fast and experienced workers to never get tired and always be available.

  “With the battery-powered pruner, a vineyard can utilize a much larger labor pool, including people who know what they are doing, but their arms or wrists just can’t take rigorous hand-pruning any longer,” he said. “There are a lot of folks who miss being out in the vineyard but who just can’t do the work because of the pain.”

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