Red Maple In Middlefield Township Sugarbush on March 1, 2017
Les Ober, OSU Extension
It is March 2nd and we have just seen the warmest February on record in the Cleveland, Ohio area The 77 degree day that we experienced on Friday February 24th shattered every record for a high temperature in the month of February and it was also the highest winter temperature in Cleveland for any winter month. The way the month of February ended created a dark shadow on our ability to make maple Syrup in Ohio. Now we are in March, the cold temperatures have come back. It looks like we will see temperatures dipping into the teens or low twenties. Where does that leave us?
Many trees have budded out. All of the Silver Maple and many Red Maples that are out in the open have full buds. The Sugar Maples did not budded and this is why we prize and select for this species of Maple. Let me say this going forward. If you are a commercial producer who has not tapped the potential to make significant amount of syrup is gone. The next warm spell will likely end the season for everyone. If you are a hobby producer who has not tapped, it is too late, forget about it. If you are hobby producer who has tapped and your taps are not running, do not re-tap, I repeat do not re-tap. You will most likely not make any useable syrup and you will not be doing your trees any favors.
Now let’s address the producers that have been making syrup and have the potential to make more syrup. If you have Red Maples make sure you look at them very carefully or just pull the taps, especially road side trees. Several producers with large populations of Reds have called it quits altogether due to budding. For those with Sugar Maples the potential is there to make more syrup. You do not want to spoil that sap by collecting sap from a Red Maple that has budded.
At this point your biggest enemy is bacteria. Everything needs to be cleaned out and drained. You could see high levels of bacteria building in the lines and tanks over the previous week of warm weather. Many producers just kept the vacuum pumps running during that period and hoped for the best. Many collected a fair amount of sap due to weather fronts that pushed through. I am sure it paid to operate the pumps regardless of the temperatures and it kept their lines clear. If you shut of the vacuum because the trees just quit running I hope you were using check valves because this gave you some degree of protection from bacteria at the tap hole.
Now that the cold weather has returned what kind of syrup will we make? The answer will come once your fire up the evaporator. If it is buddy you will know it. Most likely you will be producing a darker grade of syrup. That is not bad because most producers produced a good volume of Golden Delicate early on. If the producer chooses the two could be blended but taste will determine that. You can blend for color but you cannot blend for taste. If you syrup has a slight off flavor from sour sap or budding it will show up in the blended grade. There is virtually no way to mask an off flavor in syrup once it is there and no reason to ruin what you have previously made. That is why some producers chose to call it quits rather than trying to sell and off flavored syrup to their customers. Keep the syrup separate and find a market for it. If the flavor is not pronounced there is a market for this syrup but be beware the bulk price may be below the cost of production.
Producers that tapped in early January have had a normal season. The biggest question is, after last year and this year, have we established a new normal for Ohio Maple Syrup Production or maybe the two distinct zones of production in Ohio are consolidating. I say this because if you produce syrup near the Ohio River you would normally tap in January. If you live in NE Ohio you would normally tap in mid-February. Maybe we are now seeing a climate shift that will establish a universal tapping date for the entire state. For sure, after this year producers must realize you can no longer tap by the calendar. If you produce maple syrup in Ohio you need to be ready to go by New Year’s Day. This will require spending time over the holidays getting the sugarbush ready to tap. If the season does not start until February so be it, but at least if we have established a new normal you will be ready. Climate change is just that, change and the only certainty in life is change. We change our systems, we change out tapping technology, we adapt. This is the only way you will survive in this business or any business.
Les Ober OSU Extension
There have multiple posts on the Ohio Maple Blog Facebook page concerning the weather and how it will affect the maple syrup season in Ohio. Let me say this at the onset, no one is able to predict the weather long range with a great degree of accuracy more than a few days out and this year has proven that. What I do know is that we are faced with up to 6 days of temperatures above 50 degrees. If that does happen it will be the first time in 80 years for the last week in February. It will also push our trees closer to bud break. Right now we have accumulated 20 growing degree days. A Red Maple could experience bud break at 44 growing degree days (Gdd). That means we have to accumulate 24 more days in Burton Ohio to break the buds on a Red Maple. It is possible that we will accumulate almost one third of those this upcoming week. That being said this will change as we move further south in the state. There are areas right now in the southern part of the state that may very well see first bud break on Red Maples and Silver Maples by the end of next week.
Buds coming out this time of year is very early even for southern Ohio. There are many factors that lead to what I will call premature budding of maple trees. Day time temperatures have the biggest influence on budding. Anything above 50 degrees is counted as a Gdd. However, the temperatures in a woodlot tend to be lower than at the street level. The trees on the street will bud faster than those in the woods. How much snow do you have? Right now we have 4 to 5 inches on the ground and that will keep the woods colder during the first part of the upcoming weekend due to convective cooling, especially at night. The bigger question is how much snow will show up in March? Snow is good not only to cool the trees but slow release moisture for sap flow. How much cloud cover do you have? Cloud cover keeps the warming sun rays away from the tree branches. It is those bright sunny days that move a tree closer to bud break. Northern Ohio has more cloud cover than southern Ohio especially close to Lake Erie.
What will tell the story is the forecast going into the first week of March? Right now it is calling for cold weather. I think the weather pattern that sets up after March first will determine the length of our season this year just as it did last year. Area north of Columbus will survive this warm spell but south of Columbus is questionable. The long range NOAA Weather forecast for Columbus north shows that we will trend below normal up until St. Patrick’s Day after that it will trend slightly above normal. In the Cincinnati area the trend will be to go above normal and will osculate close to the freezing during the night. Northeast Ohio once again appears to have the best chance of making syrup through the end of March due to fact that our average daily lows are in the high twenties throughout the month. If it freezes at night we will be ok.
The good news is that the early tappers have reached the halfway mark of a normal season. The run this weekend will be big one. If you have not tapped you had better get in the woods and get the job done and catch this run. Take what is given to you in the days ahead and be thankful for what you have produced so far. We are definitely in era of change in how and when we produce maple syrup. If this trend continues for one will plan on having everything ready to tap on New Years Days. If it sits for a month so be it but if the weather patterns are right the trees will get tapped. “Fool me once shame on you fool me twice shame on me”.
The Steam has finally cleared! What a January it has been, when it comes to making maple syrup. There had to be some kind of record set in Ohio for the amount of syrup produced in the first month of the year. Locally most of the bigger producers tapped and produced between 200 and 400 gallon of syrup. This was a personal best for most of them in the month of January. For many who tapped around the 12th of January it was the earliest they had ever tapped. Geauga Maple Company and Grossmans Sugarbush in Claridon Twp. Geauga County were both going early. Talking to Jason Grossman at the Ohio Maple Days he indicated that they had boiled 5 times prior to the winter meetings. Sugar Valley Farms in Middlefield, made right at 400 gallon as did the Gingerich Family Sugarbush in Burton Township. The Howel’s Family in Northwest Pa. also had a good early run and made a considerable amount of syrup. Reports were coming in all over New England on Facebook from early tappers with the same results. The easiest way to keep up on the season’s progress in Ohio and elsewhere is to go on the Ohio Maple Blog Facebook page. I will also keep a running summary of events on the 2017 Maple Progress Report.
On the 30th of January old man winter returned with an outbreak of winter weather in NE Ohio. Overnight we received 12 inches of Lake Effect. This will make tapping and working lines harder in this part of Ohio. It looks like a two week lockdown of cold weather with very little time above freezing. Looking at several weather sites, I do not see anything much above 32 or 34 degrees before February 15th. That forecast would parallel what NOAA Weather had predicted for the first half of February. Long Range forecasts predict this trend of below normal temps will continue on into March. This means cold weather up front but cooler weather as we move toward April. This is a good thing if the normal air temp is 45 to 50 degrees in Mid-March it means we will maintain conditions conducive to sap flow. Another good thing is that no day time/night time lows are predicted to be below zero. Tell you how this all works out when we get to the middle of March.
The other thing to consider for the early tappers is will your taps hold up over almost 3 months of exposure to the elements. Again this comes down to what kind of plan you had prior to early tapping. Did you use new taps, did you change out drops and taps or did you install check valves? Is your plan to keep the vacuum pumps running whenever the air temperature is above freezing. For many this is uncharted territory. Last year was similar with cold stretching almost into March and then the season abruptly ended on the 10t of March. Early tappers were really only in for a little over 6 weeks at the most. That would be the length of a normal season. In the east the season started a little later and ran well into April. For those that did tap early the reward was a near normal season in Ohio and a spectacular season in the East. Only time will tell the outcome. I think we stand to learn a lot about the new technology we are using.
It is now the 20th of February and the temperatures have dipped to 20 below zero. In Rome, Ohio, Central Ashtabula County the temps dipped to 39 below zero. Enough already! Last year at this time many of us in Northeast Ohio were headed to the woods to tap. In 2014 we had extremely cold temperatures but they occurred in January. None of us will forget the “Polar Vortex”. This was a new weather term and it quickly became the definition of extremely cold weather. This time around we have to go back 20 years to become reacquainted with a very old weather term “The Siberian Express.” This is cold air that is literally pushed across the North Pole and driven deep into the heart of the United States. The last time we had this kind of outbreak was in 1994. We set a record cold record on January 21, 1994. However, that did not affect maple syrup production that year. In 1994 Ohio had one of its better years producing 90,000 gallons of syrup. The only difference was that the cold weather came in January. In fact we had a hard winter in 2008 and had a break out year with 150,000 gallon produced.
The secret to producing syrup in a cold year is to be ready to go when the weather breaks and it will break. Another thing you may have to deal with is tapping into frozen wood. Trees are like glass, very fragile in cold weather. Drive a spout to hard and you run the risk of splitting the tree above and below the spout. This crack will leak not only sap but vacuum. On the other hand if your spout is loose it will need to be reset once the tree has thawed out. Under these conditions it always better to under drive the spout than split the tree. In many cases you will probably need to reset a large percentage of spouts anyway installed under frozen conditions. This is something that large producers deal with annually because the often start tapping early during very cold weather.
The snow in the woods is another thing that you have to deal with, unless we get a big thaw. The snow can be your enemy and it can be your friend. Snow creates all kinds of problems. Mainlines and laterals can be pinned under the snow and gathering trails will be blocked. In this case I would much rather have to deal with a few lines under snow than having to clear trails. The amount of snow at the base of your trees is your guide to what has to be done first. With mainlines you may have to do some shoveling in the areas where the lines are close to the ground or if they are pinned by a fallen branch. Be very careful digging out around saddles, you do not want to damage your saddle connections. If you damage a hole where a saddle is connected you will run the risk of creating a vacuum leak. In this case you may have to splice the mainline so that you do not run the risk of a vacuum leak. There is no real good way to seal a damaged mainline at the saddle connection. These can turn into some of your worst leakage problems. With pinned laterals you simply cut the lines, pull them out from under the snow and reconnect. Try to do this at existing connection points to avoid adding more splices. In many cases the line is down because a limb has fallen on it. This means that all of the connecting points have been stressed resulting in possible vacuum leaks. In most cases a few warm days and the snow will settle away from the lines. The big thing is to be tapped when this happens. Having a snow pack in the woods can be beneficial in that it will keep your woods cool and wet. A slow melt off of a snow bank will not only keep the woods cool during the day but will promote reflective cooling at night often resulting in below freezing temperatures. A good thing! The big thing is the slow release of moisture from the snow pack. This is additional moisture to be sucked up by the trees creating a sap flow. Something that often occurs in cold weather is that a portion of the sugar bush, that is exposed to long periods of sunlight, southern exposures, will run first and the areas that are more shaded like a northern slope will run last. Using the above facts as a guide, get your traditionally warmer areas tapped first and then concentrate on the colder portions. In cold years the cool areas hold snow longer and tend run very good at the end of the season. This can be a real season stretcher. However, do not use this as an excuse to put all of your taps on the warm side of the tree. This is an old wives tail and a bad practice. It is always best to follow some form of systematic tapping.
A few thoughts on getting around in deep snow cover, aka; snowshoes. I have tried them with mixed feelings. Do not go the metro park, try them out and think this is easy. Walking on a groomed trail is way different than walking in the woods. The size of the shoe required is determined by weight. Use as small pair as you can in the woods to help getting snagged on brush. Yes they keep you on top of the snow but for me it was like trying to walk with a bushel basket on each foot. On our first adventure my partner and I looked like Yogi Bear and Boo Boo going through the woods. One other tip, you had better be in good physical shape before you go out. This will be one of the best cardio workouts you will ever experience. One of the first things I learned was that snowshoes can quickly turn into skis on a slope. You need to master the side step or risk a dangerous slide into a ravine. Been there done that, not fun! Yes they get the job done and will get you across the snow. However, I will leave snowshoes to the thin athletic New Englanders and French Canadians who promote them. Have good start to the season and until then stay warm.
Geauga County OSU Extension