Texas Field Reports: Vineyards Endure Rough Growing Season

Wine grape vineyard in Texas. Photo: Adam Russell, Texas AgriLife Extension

Erratic weather dealt Texas vineyards a difficult growing season as the industry continues to recover from pandemic-related setbacks, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

Michael Cook, AgriLife Extension viticulturist, Denton, said much of 2020 put financial stress on destination wineries and vineyards that relied heavily on visitors, dining and events like weddings.

Weather events were the primary problem for individual growers across the state, and below-average yields, especially in certain grape varieties, are expected. Every region from East Texas to the High Plains, the Gulf Coast and Hill Country reported crop losses attributed to weather, including Winter Storm Uri, a late-spring frost and torrential spring rains that caused a multitude of potential problems for wine grape producers.

In February, Winter Storm Uri blanketed the entire state with ice and freezing temperatures and negatively impacted yields at many wine grape-producing vineyards this season. The extremely low temperatures killed some vines back to the ground and will require years of recovery before they produce fruit again, Cook said.

“Usually, we have one region that might be exposed to conditions that affect production, but everyone was impacted this year,” he said. “Significant damage was hit or miss, but weather certainly contributed to vine losses in certain regions and yield losses around the state.”

East Texas vineyards suffered losses

Cook said most of the severe vine damage related to the week-long freeze was located in East Texas and affected Blanc du Bois grapes, which are typically grown around the Gulf Coast and are not as cold-hardy as other varieties.

Many growers lost 12-to-15-year-old vines to the ground that will take 2-3 years of retraining before producing grapes again.

As much as 95% of the Blanc du Bois crop in East Texas was lost due to the winter storm. These losses have caused concern among wineries because Blanc du Bois grapes are in high demand for the production of sweet, dry and sparkling wines, he said.

East Texas vineyards also experienced significant crop loss of Black Spanish grapes, a variety used in red wines, and Tempranillo grapevines in North Texas vineyards from Stephenville to the Red River were impacted by a late spring frost in mid-April when vines were near bloom.

Cook said vineyards reported up to 50% losses in their Tempranillo crop, but that vines did not sustain damage that could impact next season.

Central Texas vineyards avoided major losses

Brianna Crowley, AgriLife Extension viticulturist, Fredericksburg, said the winter storm contributed to 80%-90% bud mortality for some producers, which translated into losses of primary vine shoots that produce fruit, so yields are expected to be below average overall in Central Texas.

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Producers also experienced heavy spring rains that prevented growers from applying fungicides to keep vine diseases in check, she said. Diseases like black rot and cotton root rot were also expected to add to yield losses.

“It was a very wet year, and diseases like black rot exploded, even in vineyards that maintained a tight spray plan,” she said. “It was everywhere.”

The expected short supply of wine grapes has winemakers scrambling for fruit, Crowley said. They are trying to find grapes but are also asking about alternative options like pears.

But recent drier conditions have Crowley expecting quality fruit, barring any unforeseen calamity before they are harvested. The first round of lab sampling showed grapes were two to three weeks behind schedule on ripening but were maturing well.

“It will definitely impact the supply and demand aspect of wine grapes,” she said. “Growers with moderate to decent crops should expect a premium for their fruit. I would expect a lot of negotiation on grapes, especially popular varieties that are in short supply, and it could mean bottle prices go up for this year.”

Grape growers expect quality over quantity

Fran Pontasch, AgriLife Extension viticulturist, Bryan-College Station, said wine grapes along the Gulf Coast experienced a similar growing season filled with uncertainty for growers and winemakers. Yields will also be down in the region, but there is still hope that quality grapes will lead to quality wines.

The winter storm caused uneven ripening in the region in varieties like Blanc du Bois, but weeks of rain have been detrimental to vines. Disease pressure was high and waterlogged grapes were splitting.

But overall, Pontasch said much of the harvest potential in the region remained uncertain, but that there was high hope for 2021 wines. The cooler temperatures are allowing grapes to mature slower and more gently, which will affect the wines they produce.

“For all the work growers have put in to get these grapes to maturity, I hope they do get good prices,” she said. “The vintage is a snapshot of that year and what it takes to get grapes from vine to bottle, and so 2021 will definitely be interesting and set it apart.”

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

CENTRAL

No report.

ROLLING PLAINS

More rain limited field activity. The wheat harvest was coming to an end with producers abandoning unharvested acres due to poor quality and weeds and worsening conditions due to wet weather. Cotton planting was also limited. Planted cotton had emerged and was establishing well except in saturated fields with standing water.

Cornfields looked good for the most part and were at a variety of stages, from flowering to denting, based on planting dates. Sorghum conditions were similar with fields just now booting, some headed out and others coloring. Pastures looked excellent with plenty of forage. Hay quality continued to be poor, with most cuttings getting rained on.

Some hay producers missed harvesting opportunities due to forecasted rains that never materialized. Sudan grass was growing well and getting close to harvest. Some areas needed rain. Not many hay producers were fertilizing due to high input costs. Most cattle were in good body condition, and calves were making good gains.

COASTAL BEND

Flash flooding occurred with up to 12 inches of rainfall reported. Many creeks and rivers were out of their banks. Rain stopped all fieldwork. Fields were still holding water, but most of the high water receded. Sorghum harvest was severely delayed due to saturated fields but resumed over the weekend.

There were reports of sprouting in grain sorghum and corn. Cotton was doing OK, but too much water was causing plants to abort some squares, and blooms and roots were likely under stress. Poor rice pollination was a concern during weeks of heavy rainfall. Rangeland and pasture conditions were unseasonably good due to adequate moisture and mild temperatures.

Armyworm infestations were very heavy on hay fields and improved pastures. Cattle were heading to high ground due to wet conditions. Cattle prices remained higher, and inventories were steady.

EAST

Subsoil and topsoil conditions were adequate. As much as 7 inches of rain fell across the district. Some counties, like Jasper and Gregg, received little to no rain. Harrison and Sabine counties reported some producers have yet to get a single cutting of hay due to wet conditions.

Pasture and rangeland conditions were good to excellent. Armyworm and grasshopper reports increased. Horn fly numbers remained high. Wild pigs caused more damage due to soil moisture, taller grass, and cloudy, cooler conditions that were ideal for rooting.

SOUTH PLAINS

Farmers were busy spraying for weeds after weeks of rain. Areas continued to receive rain showers on a regular basis, and many farmers were reporting the worst cropping conditions in years. Recent moisture was great for corn, and most farmers were irrigating very little.

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Farmers needed warmer weather in the coming weeks to provide cotton heat units needed to start setting bolls. Cotton fleahopper numbers remained very low. A few individual growers reported cotton aphids. No sugarcane aphids were present in sorghum fields.

All crops that made it to this point were in fair to excellent condition. Cattle were in good condition. Pastures and rangelands were in excellent condition, though grasshoppers were a concern.

PANHANDLE

Northern and central areas reported short to adequate soil moisture levels, while southern areas reported adequate to surplus moisture. Warmer, drier conditions were favorable for row crops with temperatures in the low 90s. Pasture and rangeland reported fair to excellent. Oats and winter wheat were being harvested.

Corn conditions were good to excellent. Sorghum and cotton were in fair to excellent condition. Most irrigated cotton was in excellent condition. Soybeans and peanuts were in good condition. Producers continued to fight weeds due to short herbicide supplies. Livestock were in good condition, but some supplemental feeding continued on a very small scale.

NORTH

Soil moisture was adequate in some counties and short in others. Rainfall was sporadic. Temperatures were mostly in the upper 80s to low 90s. Pastures and hay meadows were looking great. Some producers were cutting hay. Winter wheat harvest continued. Corn was doing well for the most part, and grain sorghum was looking better. Livestock were in good condition. Armyworm outbreaks were reported in some counties.

FAR WEST

Daytime highs were in the lower 90s, with lows in the upper 70s. Monsoon rains continued across the district, with scattered rains to heavy rainfall with totals of 0.5-3 inches reported. Pasture and rangeland conditions were improving daily, but producers continued to feed livestock and wildlife.

Cotton began to grow and make very good progress with sun and drier soils. There were still fields and low areas showing signs of water stress. Growers continued to fight weeds. Cotton fleahoppers were increasing, and growers were applying pesticides.

Corn and grain sorghum were doing very well. Cantaloupe and watermelon harvests were underway. Overall harvests were about 10-14 days behind average.

WEST CENTRAL

No report.

SOUTHEAST

Rice was starting to head, while some organic fields were not planted yet. Fields were saturated from rains over the last two weeks, so spraying for rice and fertilizer applications were delayed. Continued rain kept pastures saturated.

Most livestock were in good health, but hay harvest was behind schedule due to rain. Rangeland and pasture ratings were very poor to excellent, with good ratings being the most common. Soil moisture levels were very short to surplus with surplus levels being the most common.

SOUTHWEST

Scattered showers were reported across the district.  Blanco County reported up to 5.5 inches. Rangeland and pasture conditions were improving with recent rains. Producers were still able to cut and bale hay despite the moisture. Caldwell County reports sorghum was mature, and producers were waiting for the crop to dry down before harvesting starts.

Corn crops continued to mature. Travis County reported cotton fields were progressing nicely. Livestock and wildlife were in fair to good condition. Cattle, sheep and goat markets remained steady.

SOUTH

More rain was reported throughout the district, along with mild temperatures. Frio County reported 3-8 inches of rainfall, while La Salle reported 1-5 inches. Live Oak County reported 3-12 inches of rainfall, and Willacy County reported 8-12 inches. Corn was being harvested or getting close to harvest.

Sorghum and sunflower fields were progressing, but producers in Zapata County reported waterlogged sorghum fields. Grain producers were starting to worry about rain impacting harvest access and crop conditions. Some sorghum was harvested, but there were reports of sprouting. Peanut crops reached pegging stage.

Cotton was progressing rapidly, and producers were working to slow it down. Some cotton fields were setting bolls. Vegetable crops continued to produce. Strawberry acres were being prepared. Weeds were becoming a problem in fields due to all the rainfall. Livestock ponds were filled to levels not seen in years.

Cattle looked good, and prices were improving. Whitetail deer were fawning. Hay producers needed drier conditions to access fields and time to cut and bale. Grazing was abundant as pasture and rangeland conditions continued to improve. Watermelon and cantaloupe vines continued to produce. Rains halted irrigation in sugarcane and citrus. Citrus trees continued to be bulldozed after the winter freeze.




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