April 20, 2023
Winter and early spring weather related to chill hours has led to mixed results for Texas peach producers, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.
Parts of the state are reporting good fruit sets despite drought, while other areas are reporting late freeze damage and inadequate chill hours that have cut into potential peach yields.
Jim Kamas, AgriLife Extension fruit specialist, Fredericksburg, said weather conditions like drought and insufficient chill hours worked against fruit tree production in the Hill Country this winter.
Kamas said AgriLife Extension has been tracking chill hours – hours at or below 45 degrees after the last frost – in the Hill Country for more than 20 years, and by traditional measurements trees should receive around 830 hours of chilling. But the response from trees indicates they received around 530 chill hours.
Tree response to this season’s chill hours in the Hill Country has been abysmal. Trees were slow to leaf out and, while blooms looked normal, Kamas said trees shed them, which is a sign of incomplete bud differentiation. Some fruit is forming, but Kamas said he was uncertain whether they would progress or fall off.
“Things don’t look good,” he said. “I don’t want to say there will be no peaches, but we’re looking at 30% of a typical season at best.”
Adequate chill hours critical for fruit production
Fruit trees, like peaches, apples and even blackberries, depend on cool weather in the winter to promote proper physiological growth in the spring. If plants do not receive the required number of chill hours, they can be slow to leaf out, which typically leads to poorly developed fruit or no fruit at all.
Chill hours begin to add up after the first freeze each fall, Kamas said. Trees go dormant for winter, but chill hours promote hormones that dilute growth inhibitors throughout the winter and prepare the plant to break dormancy and begin new growth, bloom and set fruit.
Proper chill hours trigger good and well-timed leaf and flower bud development. A lack of chill hours can lead to poorly developed buds and flowers that can have a cascading effect leading to stunted or misshaped fruit to no fruit at all.
Leaves help trees produce energy and protect limbs from sun scald, but multiple seasons of inadequate chill hours can kill plants.
Kamas said the puzzling reaction to temperatures by fruit trees this winter is backed by some research that has shown different temperature ranges have variable impacts on the trees. Temperatures 38 degrees to 48 degrees are more efficient than temperatures above or below that range. The research also shows temperatures at or below freezing do not impact a tree’s chill requirements.
“It makes sense because we had below-freezing temperatures for a week during that early winter ice storm,” he said. “That is about 300 hours that we traditionally count but likely had no effect. Most winters these freeze events balance out over a winter, but that didn’t happen.”
Chill hours, late freeze set peach crop back
George Philley, Ph.D., owner of Philley Peach orchard in Overton and retired AgriLife Extension plant pathologist, said the lack of fruit set and leaf formation on several varieties suggests his trees received similarly inadequate chill hours. His low-chill varieties suffered another setback during the late freeze in March.
Philley said those trees had dime- to quarter-sized peaches, but that two nights with below-freezing temperatures appear to have caused complete fruit losses.
“Last year, and this year, they recorded around 1,000 chill hours at the Texas A&M AgriLife center in Overton,” he said. “I had about one-third of a crop last year, and it looks like it might be the same this year. Varieties that I thought were not going to make a crop did last year, but 30% of what you are hoping for is not good.”
Bill Holcombe, AgriLife Extension agent in Clay County, said peach growers reported plenty of chill hours but also some light late freeze damage, leading to 45% to 80% fruit set survival rates. Higher losses occurred in orchards that received less maintenance from growers.
Some producers burned piles of hay and brush within their orchards to keep the frost from damaging fruit, he said.
“Most of the damage was in lower lying pockets, but they were very positive about their fruit sets and their crops’ progress so far,” Holcomb said.
Larry Stein, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension horticulturist, Uvalde, said low- to mid-chill varieties grown in the Winter Garden region set fruit well. Some fruit appears slightly elongated, which is a sign of not quite enough chilling. Growers were thinning trees to reduce the crop load to avoid overcropping, improve fruit size and allow trees to bounce back for next season.
Drought conditions did not affect fruit set, but Stein said orchards need subsoil moisture levels to be replenished to reach ideal fruit size and for trees’ long-term health.
“My biggest concern is the dry weather,” he said. “Most producers irrigate, but irrigation is supplemental at best and can never replace rainfall. Producers are busy thinning before the pits harden to get the size increase and doing weed control because weeds steal moisture, but I would think it is going to be a typical season for the growers around here.”
AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:
Very dry conditions persisted in western portions of the district. Soil moisture levels were very short to adequate. Central and eastern parts of the district received multiple days of rain last weekend with many locations reporting up to 4 inches. High winds were drying any topsoil moisture out fast. Night temperatures were cool and slowing warm-season grass emergence. Pastures were greening but most of it was broadleaf weeds. Fields were inaccessible to work in areas that received rainfall, but by mid-week pastures were dry enough to drive in. The rain was expected to delay cotton plantings a week and longer in bottomlands. Wheat looked good, but issues with Hessian flies continued to occur in fields with susceptible varieties. Crops were in poor to good condition overall. Corn and sorghum plantings were almost complete. Corn under irrigation pivots looked decent, but the dryland crop did not look good. Pasture conditions continued to improve with warmer temperatures but were very poor to excellent across the district. Cattle remained in poor to good body condition, but water tanks needed rain.
Overall conditions were declining. Rangeland and pasture conditions needed moisture. Most counties reported wheat being swathed for hay or grazed. Wheat was beginning to die off from high temperatures and lack of moisture.
Showers around the county last week helped improve pastures and crop conditions, especially corn. Rice planting was close to complete. The remaining rice plantings were delayed due to wet field conditions. Cotton was also close to being planted. Corn and sorghum fields were doing well. Wheat and oats were completely headed out now and should start drying down soon. Producers were not able to get into fields due to wet conditions, but some farmers applied fertilizer aerially. Weeds continued to be sprayed in all crops and pastures. Warm-season grasses were starting to come out and provided good grazing for livestock. Livestock looked good and were making the most of the good conditions and finding plenty to eat. Some hay fields were close to an early cutting. Livestock markets held strong for all classes. A timely rain would set all agriculture production up nicely going forward.
Most counties received a good amount of rain, some as much as 5 inches, but some areas still needed rainfall. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good. Subsoil and topsoil conditions were adequate. Winter forages were slowly growing. Warm-season forages were struggling due to cool nights and the late frost. Many producers were cutting ryegrass and clover. Winter weeds were causing issues in some pastures. Livestock were in fair to good condition with some supplementation taking place. Cattle markets were holding strong. Wild pig activity remained a problem in pastures and hay meadows.
The district received rain showers. Cropland and pastures dried out quickly after the showers due to warm temperatures. Wheat across most of the district was in very poor or poor condition. Dryland wheat was heading out in a few areas but very sporadic. Irrigated wheat was in fair condition. Most wheat that emerged was grazed through the winter months. Cattle were in fair condition and producers relied on supplemental feeding. Farmers continued to irrigate and were starting to apply chemicals in preparation of planting in the coming weeks.
Parts of the Panhandle region received scattered showers with totals from 0.5-1.5 inches. Overall, soil moisture levels were very short to short. Growing conditions continued to worsen in parts of the district that did not receive moisture. Winter wheat looked better after the rain. Water tank levels improved in areas that received heavier rains. The moisture should help the soil moisture profile and allow producers to plant. Livestock were in fair condition with supplemental feeding continuing. Cows were sold off in drier areas because of lack of forage. Some producers moved cattle to winter wheat in hopes of getting something out of the crop. Pastures and rangelands were in very poor to poor condition, but were greening up, looking better and needed more moisture. Producers with irrigation were prewatering in an attempt to plant summer crops.
Most areas received no rainfall. Pasture and rangeland conditions were fair to good. Some counties were greening up well. Temperatures were still in the 60s overnight. Winter wheat and oats were doing well and headed out. Corn planting was nearing completion with most fields emerging or entering V1 stage. Cotton and soybean plantings continued. Livestock were in good condition, and hay feeding stopped across the district.
Topsoil and subsoil moisture was between short and adequate. Temperatures were in the mid-70s to 80s during the day and with overnights in the mid-40s and 50s. Scattered rains delivered up to a half inch of rainfall across the district, however high winds and low humidity dried out the topsoil. Wheat continued to mature, and yield assessments were being made. Fields that looked good have much thinner stands than expected. Several growers were trying to kill wheat; however, they were having difficulties due to the lack of moisture. Some fields with better stands and growth were being cut for hay. Pre-irrigation continued, but growers were considering shutting their water off if significant rain was not received soon. Early season growth in pecans continued to be good progress with good irrigation. Overall pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to poor with very few areas reporting fair conditions. Livestock were relatively heathy and being fed supplementally. Area producers continued to work livestock.
Most areas received no rain, with eastern parts of one county reporting 0.35 of an inch. Morning temperatures were cool. Oat fields were being cut for hay, and dryland wheat was maturing rapidly, but most wheat fields were behind in maturity. Some wheat was being cut for hay. Producers performed tillage in some fields for spring planting, but windy conditions were drying them out. Warm-season grasses were breaking dormancy and slow to grow from lack of moisture. Some tillage in fields intended for spring forage planting, all fields drying out due to dry windy conditions. Pastures needed rainfall. Warm-season forages were slow to break dormancy due to cooler temperatures and slow growing. Producers were planting summer annuals and applying herbicides and fertilizer. Grazing was still very limited, and some stock tanks were getting low. Ranchers were working cattle. Kids and lambs were being weaned early and looked thin. Cattle were in better shape but needed grazing. Calf prices were up $5-$10 per hundredweight while bulls and slaughter cows were up $5 per hundredweight. Cattle markets were very active with buyers from New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and across Texas.
Soil moisture levels were short to surplus. Some slow, soaking rainfall delayed plantings, but planted fields were emerging nicely. Up to 5 inches of rain was reported. Pasture and rangeland conditions were very poor to excellent, and livestock were doing well. Good moisture and sunshine have producers optimistic about forage and cattle production. Nighttime temperatures were 55-65 degrees with daytime temperatures reaching 80 degrees, and winter forages continued to grow. Some producers made a first hay cutting of mostly ryegrass. Cattle markets were strong. Rice planting slowed or halted due to wet weather, and cotton planting was underway. Corn was in good shape for most producers.
Spotty showers and heavy rainstorms were reported in some areas. Pasture conditions were fair and improving but overgrazing remained an issue. Moderate temperatures mitigated soil moisture loss. Producers were spraying and fertilizing improved pastures. Crops responded to recent moisture and warmer temperatures. Corn and sorghum looked good, and grain corn fields were dense. Pecan leaves were still emerging. Cattle prices were high, especially for pairs and high-quality feeder calves. Cattle body condition scoring averaged 4-5. Cattle, sheep and goats were in good condition where stocking rates were adjusted for drought.
Beef cattle were doing better, and pastures were in recovery mode. Strawberry production was in full swing with cool temperatures encouraging continued production and lengthened the season. Wheat crops were maturing and starting to turn color. Corn crops continued to progress and remained under irrigation. Cotton fields were being prepared, and some producers began planting. Cotton along the river had some cotton aphids and thrips. Grain sorghum has some stinkbugs and sugarcane aphids but not very high numbers. Spinach was still being harvested. Dryland and irrigated winter wheat were in good condition. Fields were weedy, but farmers were cultivating and spraying at this time. Onion harvest continued as the fields dried. Hay fields were cut and being baled. Pasture and rangeland conditions were poor but improving rapidly in many areas, and supplemental feeding continued for all livestock. The brush was pushing new growth and prickly pear was blooming. Crop and rangeland conditions were improving. Cattle prices were steadily improving with some steers bringing as much as $1,300 and pairs as high as $2,450. One sale barn reported below-average sale volumes for the first time this year, but prices were strong.
Source: Texas A&M AgriLIfe Extension, AgriLife Today
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