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As an Agriculture Extension Agent for Texas AgriLife Extension Service I have had an opportunity to be involved in just about every aspect of agriculture. From the 5,000 cow dairy to the types of trees to use in a home landscape I have had a chance to learn how the different parts of an agriculture systems work together. Seedless watermelons, drip irrigation, pecan orchard management, fruit crop development, dairy nutrient management, environmental issues confronting agriculture, producer tours, field days, research projects and more have been a part of my life for over 30 years as I lived and breathed agriculture. Since 2004 I have been actively involved in consulting internationally working in Honduras, Guatemala, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, India, and China. I have worked with missionaries and other groups dedicated to alleviating poverty among third world farmers. I lived in the Middle East in 2007-2008 working on a project for the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University. In this project I was the Chief of Party and Team Leader for a $5.7 Million dollar effort to train Iraqi Extension agents and specialists in all aspects of agriculture.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chilling Accumulation: Its Importance and Estimation

This year we have had what has seemed like an unusually warm winter. In actuality it has been really cool overall with average temperatures in December being 51.3 degrees, in January 50.6 degrees and February being a cold 58.8 degrees. I get a lot of questions about chilling hours and if we have accumulated enough. Stone fruit trees such as peaches develop their vegetative and fruiting buds in the summer and, as winter approaches, the already developed buds go dormant in response to both shorter day lengths and cooler temperatures. This dormancy or sleeping stage protects these buds from oncoming cold weather. Once buds have entered dormancy, they will be tolerant to temperatures much below freezing and will not grow in response to mid-winter warm spells. These buds remain dormant until they have accumulated sufficient chilling units (CU) of cold weather. Almost any variety of stone fruit you buy will have its chilling requirement on the tag. When enough chilling accumulates, the buds are ready to grow in response to warm temperatures. As long as there have been enough CU’s the flower and leaf buds develop normally. If the buds do not receive sufficient chilling temperatures during winter to completely release dormancy, trees will develop one or more of the physiological symptoms associated with insufficient chilling: 1) delayed foliation, 2) reduced fruit set and increased buttoning and, 3) reduced fruit quality.

Delayed Foliation - A classic symptom of insufficient chilling is delayed leafing out. A tree may have a small tuft of leaves near the tips of the stems and have no leaves for 12 to 20 inches below the tips. Lower buds will break eventually but full foliation is significantly delayed, fruit set is reduced, and the tree is weakened.

Reduced Fruit Set and Buttoning - Flowering, in response to insufficient chilling, often follows the pattern seen with leaf development. Bloom is delayed, extended, and due to abnormalities in pistil and pollen development, fruit set is reduced. In many peach cultivars, flowers drop before or around shuck split, but in others such as ‘Jersey Queen’ and ‘Harvester’, buttons form. Buttons result from flowers which apparently have set but never develop into full-size fruit. The fruit remains small and misshapen as they ripen. If you cut these fruit open, the seed is dead.

Reduced Fruit Quality - The effects of insufficient chilling on fruit quality are probably the least discussed but appear to be very common especially in central and south Texas. The effects on leaf growth and fruit set are dramatic but the effects of insufficient chill on fruit quality are subtle, and can occur when other symptoms do not. Insufficient chilling will cause many cultivars to have an enlarged tip and reduced firmness. Furthermore, fruit ground coloration may be greener than usual, possibly due to the fruit losing firmness before the ground color can fully change from green to yellow. The extent of these quality problems depends on the cultivar and the degree of chilling deficiency.

Mean Temperature Model - The mean temperature model uses mean winter (December and/or January) monthly temperatures to estimate accumulated chilling units. The Stone Fruit Breeding Program at Texas A&M University developed a method to estimate chill accumulation which has demonstrated to be accurate for estimating chill accumulation in Texas from the Lower Rio Grande Valley up to the Red River. The coldest month or months are used for the calculation. In low chill regions (regions where average January temperature is 59-63 degrees F) where January represents the dormancy season, January mean temperature is most accurate for estimation. In high chill regions (regions where average January temperature is below 48 degrees F) a mean December-January temperature is recommended. For Williamson County we would use the December-January temperature model.

Also, this method will make it possible for the grower to know, before fruit thinning time, if chill accumulation was sufficient for a given cultivar. If insufficient chilling is suspected for a cultivar, the grower can implement management and marketing strategies to reduce the impact on costs and labor. Furthermore, chemical sprays such as Dormex that help break dormancy are being researched. These chemicals can be used in late January or early February if insufficient chilling is suspected. On the other hand, the expense of a dormancy-breaking chemical can be avoided if the grower knows that trees have received sufficient chill accumulation.

Williamson County Example
Mean December, 2008 temperature is 51.3°F and mean January, 2009 temperature is 50.6°F
Chilling Units = 4280 minus 68.8 X [(Dec. mean + Jan. mean)/2]
Chilling Units = 4280 - 68.8 X [(51.3° + 50.6°)/2]
Chilling Units = 4280 - 68.8 X 50.95
Chilling Units = 4280 - 3505.36
Chilling Units = 774.64
We normally recommend trees with 600 to 800 hour requirements and sure enough we have had enough chilling hours.

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