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C:\fakepath\Grape-harvesting-combine-Feb14.jpg 2014 GRAPE HARVEST.
By: Tom Brown   (2014-02-08)

The 2014 wine grape harvest in the Keisie Valley near Montagu commences this coming week.


Our harvesting combination on JackyBird Farms comprises one 80hp 4x4 tractor pulling and controlling a Braud T140 automatic grape harvesting machine which, in turn, feeds the crop across through a chute to a 3.5 ton capacity hydraulic tip bin on a trailer pulled by a 65hp 4x4 tractor running parallel two rows away. When full, the trailer breaks away and goes to the loading ramp where it dumps its load into the 7 ton bin on the truck. 


While the trailer is away, the harvester continues operating uninterruptedly and catches that next part of the crop in its own 1.2 ton side-mounted tip bin. When the trailer returns, the on-board bin is first emptied into the trailer and the combine then works together as before until the trailer is once more full. When the bin on the truck is full it departs to offload at the cellar 20 kms away and a second truck pulls into position for loading.


The harvester operates by straddling a row of vines and, as it runs along a row, it non-destructively beats the vines from both sides dislodging the berries from the bunches and conveying these up to the top where they run through a horizontal chute that reaches across to the trailer being towed along parallel to the harvester. 

The effectiveness of the harvester depends upon many inter-related aspects that must be constantly adjusted by the operator depending upon the variations in the vines and of the terrain, namely:

- ground speed of the rig (slower when the vines are thicker)

- beater pressure/vigor (Colombar berries come off the stalk more easily than Chenin Blanc berries do) 

- beater speed (faster when the grapes are growing more densely)

- height of the harvester off the ground (to cope with higher/lower vines and/or pass tall trellis poles)

- fore/aft pitch angle of the harvester (to keep it in line with vines in rows that run up/down hills)

- side to side tilt (when running across a slope the up-slope wheel must be closer to ground to keep unit vertical and parallel to the plants).

And all this is in addition to handling the normal driving controls of the towing tractor. 


The 'top rider' sits in a seat at the forward top of the harvester monitoring the quality of the crop coming up the conveyors and manually removing twigs and branches that get broken off and carried up with the berries.


Occasional rows still have to be harvested manually, e.g. when there is irrigation control equipment installed in that row or perhaps the angle of the slope is too steep for the rig to safely traverse it. The 'sweepers' following the rig pick bunches that the harvester doesn't reach properly, e.g. where a trellis pole may prevent the mechanical beaters from impacting adjacent bunches.

For the numerically minded, our mechanised combination can harvest 5 tons or more per hour and requires the services of 2 tractor drivers, 1 top rider on the harvester and 2 'sweeper' pickers following the machines to clean any bunches that may have been missed; i.e.  a team of just 5 people  producing in 3-4 hours a yield that would otherwise require a crew of 25+ manual pickers and fetchers working for a full 8-hour day. This represents a direct labour cost saving to us of some R60,000.- per harvest, giving us a pay-back of the cost of the harvesting equipment plus its annual maintenance and operating cost within three seasons. Needless to day, working with our own trained people is also far simpler and less stressful than trying to arrange and supervise squads of often disinterested, ill-disciplined and seriously unproductive migratory pickers.  

One additional key advantage is that, in the hands of a competent operator like Sybrand,  the automatic machinery can work at night  (which manual pickers cannot do as they can't see the bunches in the dark). This means that we can start harvesting in the cool early hours by the lights of the equipment which results in better quality grapes and, ultimately, better wine. Depending upon the daily quota given by the cellar, it also means that a day's harvest is sometimes finished by 08h00 allowing the rest of that day to be used for other farming activities.



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