We are on a small commercial vineyard (9ha), which I am slowly moving from conventional farming (lots of glyphosate and chemical controls), to a more wholistic operation. To be clear, this is not a hobby farm: the vines are my whole income and occupation. If the crop fails, the bills don't get paid.
That said, I am trying to shift as many of the vineyards controls as possible to animals: reducing the huge amount of mowing we do, and reducing chemical fertiliser and pest control. We will still need to spray against mildew and botrytis, but want to minimise it by having a good biologically active soil.
So far, we have 13 sheep, and need a lot more. They are babydoll southdowns, and are working perfectly in single hotwire cell grazing arrangement. I estimate we need another 60 of them though! If anyone's interested, I can write a mini-article about how we're optimising the vineyard for the sheep.
We tried miniature pigs (Not true minis, as they are unavailable in Australia, but bred to only about 50cm at the shoulder). They really are lovely animals, but we simply cannot sustain the damage they cause. We only have 6, and we have found a new home for them starting this Saturday. We tried everything except noseringing, but when we recently caught them standing up with their front hoofs on the vine cordon eating our grapes, we knew we just can't keep them. Besides which, they turn a weeks worth of good grass into just mud within a day, and leave the ground so uneven we'll need to till it, which defeats the pupose. If we had a few more acres, I'd keep them, but we don't, so we can't.
Which brings me to our next animal experiment, and the reason for my post: poultry.
I don't want a repeat of the pig problem. I don't want to put poultry out there, just to find them sitting on the cordon mid season, eating our crop. A chicken tractor is out, because the main place we want them to hunt is directly under the trunks of the vines. So I'd use portable coops, shifted weekly, in rotation behind the sheep. We don't have a guardian dog, and they are incredibly hard to buy here, so I'll have to lock the birds up every night.
Does anyone have any experience with chickens in a substantial vineyard?
When the grapes are in season, will chickens damage the crop?
Chickens, ducks, geese? What poultry is least likely to get up into the cordon and eat grapes?
Honestly, I don't eat a lot of eggs, and we'll rarely slaughter a chicken. I'm solely interested in them for pasture/insect management.
It seems the key with runners is driving them through the vineyard solely to eat the bugs as opposed to keeping them in place there, i. e. the ducks have their own lodgings (pond?) and are chased through the vines once or twice a day purely for pest control.
This is just based on what I've read though. I have no personal experience with it.
From what I can ascertain, that vineyard splits their ducks into two groups. One group stays at the pond, where they are presumably also housed, while the other goes to work. They swap them a few times a day, whenever the ducks' appetite wanes.
While they're 'at work', they're contained in a limited part of the vineyard by a team of chasers. That is a lot of work when there's other things to be done. I guess labour is much cheaper there than here. I'm a 1 man show 90% of the time.
I do have a dam that might make a good duck pond. I could provably even float their coop on a raft, and they'd be instantly predator proof. Getting them out into their grazing cell each day might take some doing though. Possibly a combination of movable coop and floating coop is the answer.
If the person just has to switch from one area to another, maybe temporary electric fencing would do. each area could be one days worth of work for the ducks, then you could just switch them to the next area the next day. a visual representation would be like the rotational grazing, where different pastures surround a housing hub. with the ducks, the housing hub would probably be a pond, or the coop. a children's wading pool with ramp would make that mobile, maybe with wide skids so you wouldn't even need to drain it to move it.
How far off the ground are the grapes, typically? If they are out of normal duck range than you might not even have to use strict rotating, they may be able to be trusted with wandering 'at large'. It sounds like what they are doing in South Africa is the poultry equivalent of intensive mob grazing. While the intensive forms tend to be more efficient, that doesn't mean a longer duration/lower density stocking doesn't work. if there was a specific area you needed the ducks to focus on, then you could run them through in higher numbers. Another idea to lower labor costs would be to separate the vineyard into small cells, and have the doors automatically open at shut at various times. there would be a learning curve for the ducks, but they should be eager to move on once they've depleted the area they're in.
ETA: the affect of swapping ducks could be achieved with automatic gates as well, you would just need to have two separate coops/ housing hubs. admittedly I don't know much about said auto doors other than its possible
Chickens will eat grapes, whether they eat them before or along side or after bugs probably depends on your chickens! I think I would get a heavy breed of goose or duck that is unlikely to fly/hop/hover to get at the grapes, assuming they are out of stretched neck range.
Thanks folks, it seems like runner ducks and cobra chickens (aka geese) are the go. We'll try to start with half a dozen or so, and see how we go, before getting the flock up to real working numbers. I wonder what the DSE for ducks is?
Regarding the height of grapes from the ground, Our cordon wire is at 110cm, everything under that is fair game. Maybe 2-3% of our crop hangs under the cordon, and even then, the grapes will only be tempting during about 1 month a year.
As far as grazing cell rotation goes, hopefully they can just go in behind the sheep.
As a vineyard, everything is already in rows, and I need to be able to run the tractor up between every row, so can't put in permanent fencing that would restrict that. I know some places put fencing right up against their vines, and thus the rows themselves double as fencelines, but if I did that with even only every third row, it'd be nearly 10k of fencing!
So no hubs, or even small square paddocks, are available, since fences can't cross grapes rows.
Instead, I put step in posts down the middle of a row, and roll a single hotwire out from one perimeter fence to the other, about 30cm high. Do that again, about 3 rows along, and I have an "instant" ~8m×200m (1600m2) grazing cell. We're still fine tuning the cell size, by providing more or less rows, and at the moment we're moving them about once a week. I know they say that long narrow cells don't work, but the sheep seem very happy walking up and down the rows during the day. sleeping at one end in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. They certainly cover the whole area, though their manure does concentrate at the ends.
To move animals, I put in the new hotwire, open the previous front wire about 5m, push through water trough and salt lick, animals follow, then I close it up. Voila, yesterday's front wire is now today's back wire; and I can reel in the old backwire ready for the next move. The whole operation takes less than 30 mins. If I add another animal type in the cell behind, I still only need put out 1 new front wire, and collect 1 old back wire. I'll just have one extra set of water and animals to move through in the middle. Adding maybe 5-10 more mins.
For water, I have a spare small self filling trough, that typically holds about 50L. I can move it by hand easily, and it's easy to tip out. I'll incorporate it into whatever coop design I end up with.
read all the posts. I agree with indian runners, def. They are gentle enough to not hurt the crop as a whole.
But anywho, just popped up to chime in: you stated youre typically a one man shop with your vineyard, so herding ducks might be labor intensive. Was thinking...what about a natural herding dog, who is/would be gentle with poultry and waterfowl? I have a doggo who is half aussie and she is very gentle with the chickens, she doesnt nip at them but she will herd them.....i know its a personality thing with doggos and maybe youd need to find the right one. But if you were able to train it to round them up and move em along when you need, maybe that would help with the labor intensiveness??
Just an idea.
"Whether you think you can, or you think you can't; you're right"