Texas Field Reports: Too Few Chill Hours Could Affect Fruit Crop

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo by Adam Russell

Warm winter weather could mean too few chill hours for much of the state’s fruit production areas, said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Fruit trees, such as peaches and apples, depend on cool weather in the winter to promote proper physiological growth in the spring, said Dr. Larry Stein, AgriLife Extension horticulturist, Uvalde. If plants don’t receive the required number of chill hours, the plants are slow to leaf out and this typically leads to poorly developed fruit or no fruit at all. Multiple seasons of inadequate chill hours can kill plants.

Damp, cloudy conditions and temperatures between 32-45 degrees are ideal for accruing chill hours, Stein said.

Chill hours begin to add up after the first freeze each fall, he said. Trees go dormant for the winter, but chill hours promote hormones that dilute growth inhibitors throughout the winter and prepare the plant to break dormancy and promote growth, bloom and set fruit.

But this winter has been one of the warmest on record and has experts and producers concerned the lack of chill hours could impact the state’s fruit crops, especially peaches.

“Fruit trees need sufficient chill hours,” he said. “The lack of chill hours is a big deal.”

The lack of chill hours around the state has confused plants, Stein said, because growth inhibitors remain and are holding the trees back physiologically.

“Hormones in the buds are telling trees to remain dormant because the inhibitors are still there,” he said. “Bloom has been delayed. Fruit set is erratic at best. Some fruit sets look like they may abort.”

Jim Kamas, AgriLife Extension horticulturist in Fredericksburg, said it was the warmest winter in Central Texas he can remember in 22 growing seasons. And local news reports noted this winter was the warmest in Central Texas since 1906.

Most peach trees in the Fredericksburg area need 800-850 chilling hours to break dormancy and set fruit properly, Kamas said. The area received 525 chill hours this year.

“The trees look like it’s still winter,” he said. “Leaves are still slow to emerge.”

Some producers applied BudPro, a growth regulator that replaces winter chill and induces uniform bud break, to help fruit trees along.

“It helps speed up the termination of dormancy as if flower buds were exposed to chilling and fully differentiated,” Kamas said. “But it’s still stressful on plants and we’re waiting to see how they perform. Insufficient chilling can detract from the size and shape of the fruit.”

Kamas said fruit with low chillhour requirements, including some peach varieties, could perform well, though he said bloom and ripening times will be out of normal sequence.

Peach producers should know the extent of the damage within the next few weeks Kamas said. They will be cutting open fruit to see if viable seeds have formed.

Other fruits like grapes and blackberries, depending on the variety, were not affected by the warmer conditions, Kamas said.  Strawberries were being harvested and appeared to be fine. However, he said it could be a tough year for apple orchards because the fruit trees are more susceptible to lack of chilling than peaches.

“Usually low chill hour varieties are hit or miss because they bud so early and typically face a freeze,” Kamas said. “But this looks like it could be their year.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

CENTRAL: Conditions looked much better as rain occurred in most portions of the district. Field work was slightly halted because of rain, but grasses and pastures continued to thrive and green up. Pastures and rangelands were in excellent condition. More rain was in the forecast and may halt planting.

The planting of cotton and soybeans was behind schedule. Producers were fertilizing hay fields. Oats and wheat headed out, but not much height growth has occurred. Wheat was not as good as expected. Rust in both oats and wheat were present. Corn looked good. However, wild pig damages were increasing. All counties reported good soil moisture. Overall crop and livestock conditions were mostly good.

ROLLING PLAINS: Conditions looked good in the district following rains. Pastures were greening up, and wheat was beginning to head. Field work continued, and cotton producers were beginning to apply pre-emergent herbicides. Area reservoirs and livestock tank levels improved due to the rain. Calving continued. Livestock were in good condition.

COASTAL BEND: High winds, warmer temperatures and lack of rainfall caused a rapid decline in soil moisture conditions. However, the lack of rainfall enabled some row crop farmers to make tremendous progress. Cotton planting was near completion. Rice planting continued. Corn was starting to show stress from a lack of rain. Fertilizer was applied to hay fields and herbicides were applied to some pastures. Many producers worked to control weeds and scouted for insects. Livestock remained in good condition.

EAST: Several counties around the district received rain following a cold front that moved through. Subsoil and topsoil condition in most counties were adequate. Only Shelby, Newton and Tyler counties reported short to very short conditions. Most counties still needed moisture.

Jasper County reported a total of more than 3 inches and Shelby County reported up to 4 inches of rain. Shelby County had funnel clouds in the area but no confirmed touchdowns. Pasture and rangeland conditions were mostly fair to good. Pastures and hay fields in Polk County made good growth with adequate moisture and mild temperatures. Cooler nighttime temperatures slowed growth, but that was expected to change.

Anderson County producers were still planting coastal Bermuda grass. Farmers were still harvesting cool-season vegetables. Corn fields were fair to good and in the eight-leaf stage and about 34 inches tall. Watermelon fields were ahead of schedule. Applications of herbicides and fertilizers continued. Warm-season vegetables continued to be planted in Gregg County.

Smith County reported spring fever has people wanting to fertilize and manage their lawns, gardens, and pastures. Producers were grazing winter pastures heavily or getting ready to cut hay.

Some producers in Cherokee County began to harvest ryegrass hay and silage. Cattle were in good condition with a good crop of spring calves on the ground. Spring cattle work continued. Weaning and selling of market-ready calves and cull cows continued.

Cattle prices were down in Anderson County and remained the same in Shelby and Gregg counties. The goat market was steady. Wild pigs continued to be a problem.

SOUTH PLAINS: Temperatures reached the upper 80s, with gusty winds and blowing dust. Rain was in the forecast. Soil temperatures at the eight-inch depth were in the 60s. Field preparations continued, and many growers started pre-irrigation in preparation for planting.

Wheat was heading in many fields.  Planting of feed grains was expected to begin within the next 10 days. The rains in late March helped pasture conditions and decreased some available fuels in relation to wildfire threats.

PANHANDLE: Temperatures were near normal then increased to above normal. Rain was needed throughout the district. Deaf Smith County producers were preparing for planting. Corn planters should be running in two weeks or less with the warmer temperatures and chances for rain.

Winter wheat fields got a shot in the arm with the recent rain events, but many acres were destined to be grazed out. Some disease issues were being seen in wheat fields but not widespread yet. Hansford County reported 1.64 inches of rain and snow in one day. Some fields had standing water.

Cattle were doing well. Recent wildfires made it tough for many ranchers in Hemphill and Lipscomb counties, but over the last week the counties received more than 3 inches of general rain. Spring calving season was expected to be over in the next month.

Cows were grazing on new growth. Wind erosion was a concern as the sand hills, especially along the Canadian River, were bald and exposed. Wildfire recovery was still in progress. Livestock supply points were still meeting rancher needs.

NORTH: Rains were received, with up to 1 inch in most areas. Strong winds and pea-size hail blew through, but no crop damage was reported. Despite the rain, the warm daytime temperatures and the high winds dried surface moisture.  Winter wheat started to head out.

About 75 percent of corn fields were planted and 50 percent of fields emerged. Milo planting was complete. Livestock pastures were doing well, and most cattle producers stopped feeding hay and supplements. Cattle looked good, and calves were growing and putting on weight. Flies and windy conditions were still causing stress to livestock.

FAR WEST: Temperature highs were in the 90s with lows in the 40s. Wind speeds reached 35 mph.  Precipitation reported for the week averaged between 0.7 and 1.5 inches. Leaf rust was starting to build throughout the county and was more prevalent in susceptible varieties. Tolerant varieties were holding on well.

Sorghum planting started. Winds were drying out pastures and there was still a concern for wildfires. Pecan trees were in major need of moisture. Spring gardens were progressing. Supplemental feeding continued for livestock and wildlife. Working of lambs and kid goats should begin soon.

WEST CENTRAL: Rainfall varied from 2-3 inches. Stock tanks were full, and pastures were green. The cattle market was very active and demand was strong with stocker steers and heifers selling steady. Packer cows and bulls, pairs and bred cows all also sold steady. Bluebonnets were emerging, but red and yellow wildflowers were thriving.

Cattle were looking good. Good moisture helped wheat grow and mature. Spring was progressing well, but high winds and temperatures could deplete moisture surpluses. Spring rains will hopefully extend the growing season. Many producers started preparing land for summer crops.

SOUTHEAST: Soil moisture levels throughout the district ranged widely from adequate to surplus with most ratings in the adequate range. High winds, dry weather and warm days have resulted in loss of topsoil moisture in parts of the district. Some areas were reaching drought-level conditions.

Rice planting should resume soon. Livestock were in good condition. In Brazos County, the cooler nighttime temperatures slowed warm-season grass growth. Rangeland and pasture ratings varied widely, from excellent to poor, with fair ratings being most common.

SOUTHWEST: Good rains followed by ample sunshine provided great amounts of forage as pastures continued to green. Weeds were emerging in great numbers. Weather was favorable for small grains. Corn and milo planting were completed, and cotton planting was expected to start soon.

Rangelands were doing great as spring lambing and kidding continued. Livestock continued to be in good condition as spring calving slowed. Horn fly populations were on the rise.

SOUTH: Conditions were fair throughout the district. Warm temperatures and windy conditions continued. Temperature highs were mostly in the mid-70s but reached the 90s a few days in some areas. Soil moisture conditions declined in some areas due to lack of rain. Pastures looked good overall, and some first cuttings of hay were made. Potato fields were sprayed and prepared for harvest.

Wheat fields were turning color and maturing. Corn crops were irrigated, and sorghum crops were still being planted. Growing conditions were very favorable for corn and sorghum following nice rains in some areas.

Pasture and row crop conditions were declining in some areas due to above-average temperatures and lack of rainfall. Cattle body condition scores showed improvement. Live cattle market prices increased. Livestock on native rangeland and pastures continued to do well thanks to rapidly growing and improved native grasses producing an abundance of forage for grazing.

Strip tillers were running again to re-break fields still yet to be planted. Due to very cool nights and mornings in some areas, late-planted spinach progressed well. The carrot harvest was completed in Zavala County.  Wheat and oats crops were finishing off well across the county as well.

The cabbage harvest was at a standstill but was expected to resume soon. The beginning of the onion harvest was still a month out. Vegetable crops in southern portions of the district progressed well with tomato plants already setting fruit. Cabbage harvests there were expected to end soon.

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