By Camellia Aebischer
While watching a tractor pass up and down the interrows of a McLaren Vale vineyard, David Robertshaw had an idea. 10 prototypes later and Robertshaw is just about to release his new product – the Wine Baa.
The Wine Baa is a lightweight plastic snout guard that stops sheep from being able to reach up and access hanging grape leaves or bunches.
“I was working near a vineyard and I was watching the tractors go up and down the vineyard mowing the grass and I thought there has to be a better way to utilise that large amount of land,” said Robertshaw.
“I’ve typed ‘sheep in vineyard’ into google more times than I can count now.”
Despite his practical viticulture focused invention, Robertshaw comes from a community sector background and has been a social worker for the past 10 years. His aunt owns a small hobby vineyard in Victoria, so winegrowing isn’t too foreign.
Robertshaw’s aunt who is an agricultural scientist also runs sheep in her vineyard, which wasn’t where he initially got the idea, but initially helped solidify the invention.
Agisting sheep in the vineyard can have plenty of direct financial and practical benefits which you can read more about on page 34 of the November edition of Grapegrower and Winemaker.
So, what is it and how does it work?
The Wine Baa snout guard attaches to a sheep’s head using a single strap of flexible plastic that can be secured quickly in one swift movement.
The head brace has been designed specifically (by Robertshaw and designer Robbie Wells of 4D Design), for ease of use so that growers can attach the guard to his flock without a hassle.
Much like a ratchet strap, the guard is designed with a quick release function so that it can be removed and reused each season.
The snout guard is counterbalanced using specifically placed weights so it blocks the sheep’s mouth when its head is angled upward trying to reach for the grapevine.
When the sheep’s head is tilted downward, the mask lifts up to allow the sheep to graze on shrubs and grass.
“We’ve adjusted it slowly to sit with the natural angle of the sheep’s head, then added in the scoop so that when the sheep puts its head down it pushes up allowing the animal to graze.”
Having the device means sheep can be run past budburst through to veraison without damaging the vines.
“Most people are freaked out by it but growers don’t care, which is good”
“If there’s no one with sheep in a neighbouring paddock you have to truck them in and truck them out during on and off seasons. This way they’ll be able to keep sheep there all year round and not worry about the costs of moving,” said Robertshaw.
Currently the product is being tested on sheep in Langhorne Creek, SA and at the time of interview in early December, they’d been wearing the guards for around a month.
“When it’s first placed on their head they shake quite vigorously for about 30 seconds to a minute, then they settle down and it might be a bit weird, then they get used to it,” said Robertshaw.
“Within a day they’ll be getting used to it but after that they’re not bothered at all. They kind of get a little freaked out by each other for the first hour or so like ‘who is this guy with a face mask, is it Bane, I don’t know.’”
“You only need them on during budburst and spring, so maybe 4-5 months, and that’s not enough time to really worry about growth of the animal or problems with the mask not fitting,” he said.
Robertshaw is currently looking into fabric or leather inserts for the pressure points where the mask sits on the sheep’s face to offer comfort should this be an issue.
Cost savings calculated by Roberstshaw with the help of the Entwine program data are as follows:
Estimated cost saving
- One slashing pass for 1ha at 0.5 hour/ha at $60/hour= $30ha
- One herbicide pass 1ha at 0.5 hour/ha at $60/hour= $30ha
- (hourly rate includes labor, fuel, repairs, maintenance and depreciation)
With an estimated savings of 12 slashing passes and four herbicide passes, there is an approximate benefit of $480 in gross savings/ha per year.
At $22 per muzzle with a minimum life span of five years, growers are looking at around $4.40/year maximum.
With an estimated seven sheep per ha, at an agistment fee of $15.60 each per year, the net benefit would be $558.40 per year per ha.
Greenhouse gas reductions based on 12 slashing and four herbicide passes at 5L of diesel per ha pass equates to a 0.21 CO2 emission reduction.
*We understand that different vineyards have different requirements and these figures would not be applicable to all.
“Just from speaking to viticulturists I know that there’s less soil compaction, it’s good for the biohealth of the soil, there’s less chemicals and the waste from the sheep is good for nutrients. There are cost savings too, and being more responsible with land use, I guess those are the big ones,” said Robertshaw.
Going ahead with the project solo has been a steep learning curve, but he’s enlisted the help of experts like Lisa Warn from Lisa Warn Ag Consulting and Mark O’Callaghan from Wine Network Consulting, along the way to bring validity to the idea.
Stacking up the Wine Baa to other options like classical conditioning for sheep (e.g. forcing a negative association like feeling sick with eating grapevines) or vineyard automation, the product has some significant cost saving advantages.
Robertshaw explained a popular study in the USA where sheep were reactively fed lithium chloride to create a sick feeling whenever they consumed a part of the grapevine.
“Problem is, say you have 100 sheep and they’re all ‘successfully treated,’ all they have to do is see one sheep eat the vine again and the whole process is undone. It’s not something that has been picked up because people would have to monitor the sheep constantly.
“Sheep have died from doing it too,” he said.
“I saw in France they’re using robots for autonomy but that’s also very costly.”
Each guard is listed above at a price of $22 but Robertshaw mentioned that he’s hoping to get the price as low as possible.
“I’m hoping that this article will show interest and I can get some feedback on this stuff, then I can make the next step,” which will be to place his first bulk production order and begin distribution through his online platform.
“[I’m] planning for it to be for all online sales […] so that I can keep the cost down,” he said.
“I’m hoping to keep things at around $20 but I want to get it as low as I can.”
It all depends on how well the pre-sale interest goes, but Robertshaw is hopeful for a price under $20 per piece if the interest he gains is significant enough.
“If I get presales of hundreds of thousands I can probably get the price down, but if I have to go in and purchase the first order myself it’ll be a smaller run and come up around $20.”
How do you get one?
First things first, for those keen on the product, register your interest on the Wine Baa website at http://www.winebaa.com. This will give Robertshaw a good idea on who is interested, and keep you in the loop on distribution dates and cost.
The product wasn’t ready for this year’s slashing season, but will launch to the USA for the northern hemisphere’s spring, next year – provided everything goes to plan. Australian growers can get their hands on a Wine Baa in 2018 which leaves plenty of time to prepare the vineyard for a switch from fuel powered to grass fed.