Sustainability is the driving force behind Duxton Vineyards and the company has added another bow to its arrow for meeting environmental targets with the addition of Australia-first technology.
What looks like a small army tank driving around the company's Euston, NSW, vineyard, is actually OXIN, an autonomous, multi-functional tractor.
Duxton Vineyards general manager Wayne Ellis said the operation's focus was on sustainable, regenerative viticulture.
"Our ethos is to give back as much as we can to Mother Nature and that great wine doesn't have to cost the earth," he said.
"We practice regenerative agriculture with minimal tilling, and we've moved away from synthetic pesticides and herbicides."
In full production, the company produces about 65,000 tonnes of fruit annually - accounting for about 6pc of the total Australian crush - with 26 varietals in the portfolio.
Duxton's vineyards cover 2400 hectares along the Murray Darling, with 900ha at the Euston site where the tractor is operating.
Its winery at Buronga, just outside of Mildura, Vic, is the fourth largest in Australia, with 80,000t capacity.
The company doesn't sell the fruit it produces, but rather sells wine to customers for their own branded products, as well as having their own labels Rewild and Pete's Pure.
Currently, Duxton Vineyards is the largest Sustainable Winegrowing Australia certified vineyard and winery operation in the country.
"We focus on minimising our footprint as much as we can and the OXIN tractor is another part of the journey," Mr Ellis said.
A trial of the OXIN technology is being supported by Wine Australia's agtech innovation program.
Duxton Vineyards purchased the tractor in February last year and took delivery of it in August.
"It's a vineyard specific multi-tasking robot," Mr Ellis said.
The tractor comes from New Zealand and is produced by the company Smart Machine.
"I looked at automation across the globe and really shrunk the options to nine or 10, based on functionality, cost and service support," Mr Ellis said. "The team at Smart Machine definitely offered the best solution on all (those aspects)."
The vehicle's multi-functionality means significantly less fuel use and the fuel delivery tanker having to come out less frequently.
As well as being able to do multiple operations simultaneously that would usually take multiple tractors and multiple operators to do, the vehicle being tracked also means it has less of a ground footprint, due to less downward pressure.
"Our thought wasn't to remove a staff member but to be able to do multiple things at once," Mr Ellis said.
"Since the pandemic sourcing labour has been very difficult. It was a challenge prior to that, but it's been extremely difficult post that."
At the moment Duxton is using the OXIN to mow, mulch and do under-row spraying.
The team at Duxton and Smart Machine are working together to set up the machine introduce finger weeding as well, to remove weeds underneath the rows mechanically.
Mr Ellis said having this mechanical option for weed control was increasingly important, especially with resistance growing in vineyard problem weeds such as Flaxleaf fleabane.
Green trimming in another area that will also be explored.
"In the growing season, it involves taking off some foliage so we get enough sunshine to make sure the fruit ripens properly," Mr Ellis said.
"The mow, mulch and under vine spraying works perfectly, the finger weeder and the green trimmer we're still in R&D with."
Mr Ellis said a lot of the R&D with OXIN involved suiting it to Australian rather than New Zealand conditions, where vine canopy was much different.
He said about 20 OXINs were being used in the field in New Zealand including different variants to suit apples and cherries.
"The technology is not new but the early adaption is what we struggle with," Mr Ellis said.
"Viticulture would be two decades behind where broad-acre is today with adapting technology."
Mr Ellis has crunched the numbers on the machine cost and benefits and said it offered a strong return on investment.
"In a full operational year, we would pay for this machine in a year," he said.
"It's everything that it triggers. It's only spraying under the vine, not in the middle of the row, so there's chemical savings and using less water.
"We've got fuel consumption savings, from doing one pass rather than three or four passes.
"When you add all the value change together, the labour saving is really just a component of it."
Angus Cochrane from Smart Machine New Zealand is working from the Duxton vineyard at the moment, undertaking the research and development work and training staff in its use.
"Even those these machines are autonomous, they still need a person with an iPad, making sure they're doing what they're meant to do," Mr Ellis said.
In New Zealand, generally one user will keep an eye on four to five machines at once.
"It has the ability to run for about 12 hours unmanned, then someone has to fill up with fuel," Mr Ellis said.
Maintenance is the same as with a traditional tractor.
Mr Ellis said the machine had attracted plenty of broader industry attention, with an agtech field day held before Christmas attracting 60 attendees from a wide range of areas.
He said, ideally, in the future the machines would be used for pest and disease detection in the vineyard.
"That's where I want this to be, having the ability to identify these issues while it's driving up the row, and then we can automatically make a decision that we need to spray," he said.
"Also to drive the bins that we fill with fruit and communicate with the harvester."