Texas fruit growers cautiously optimistic about yields

Paul Schattenberg, Texas AgriLife Today

April 16, 2024

Texas Crop and Weather Report – April 2, 2024

While it is too early to tell about the impact of chill hours for fruits grown in higher chill areas of the state, current conditions are good for the low-to-mid chill areas, said Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service experts.

The importance of chilling out

Larry Stein, Ph.D., AgriLife Extension horticulturist and professor in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Horticultural Sciences, Uvalde, said fruit trees like peaches and apples depend on cool, cloudy weather in the winter to promote proper physiological growth in the spring. 

Stein said fruit growers in most areas of the state were “cautiously optimistic” that chill hours and other conditions are and will continue to be favorable for this year’s fruit crop.

Fruit growers in different regions of the state have plants with different chilling requirements, he said. Orchards along and near the Gulf Coast might have trees that require 200-300 chill hours, while trees in the Winter Garden region need about 400-500 hours, and varieties in the Hill Country and North Texas might require 700-1,000 hours.

“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,” he said.

Stein said chill hours begin to add up after the first freeze each fall. 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 begin new growth, bloom and set fruit.

Typically, temperatures between 32 degrees and 50 degrees can meet the chilling requirements of many fruit plants, with the most effective temperature range being 32 degrees to 45 degrees.

Seeing doubles

Stein said chill hours have been sufficient in the mid-to-low chill areas, but were marginal in the higher chill areas, with a lot of growers reporting “doubles” on plant blooms. 

Doubles, also called conjoined fruits, are not an uncommon occurrence, especially in stone fruit, with some fruit varieties more prone to it than others.   

“Doubles or multiple fruit come about as the result of stress during the flower initiation stage, which would have been May and June of 2023,” he said. “These doubles seem to be the consensus when talking to area producers, with some saying they are getting three and four fruit from a single bloom.” 

Irregular or inadequate watering has also been identified as a likely cause of fruit splitting and doubling.

“Consumers usually consider conjoined fruits less visually appealing,” Stein said. “For producers, sometimes the extra piece of fruit is so small as to be insignificant and can be safely removed without harming the main fruit. To avoid the conjoined fruit, producers typically thin their fruit trees to get as many double or multiple fruits back to singles as possible.”  

Growth regulators and climatic conditions

Jim Kamas, AgriLife Extension fruit specialist based in Fredericksburg, said many fruit growers in the Hill Country and Central Texas, where chill hours were marginal, have benefited from the use of a chemical growth regulator that mimics chill hours.

“This helped the fruit plants to overcome insufficient chilling, and the extra effort and expense for these producers paid off,” he said. 

The use of these growth regulators helped many producers get to this point, but Kamas said the real elephant in the room when it comes to overall fruit production is drought.

“We are hearing that our brief and disappointing El Niño event is over and that the forecast is to be hot and dry,” he said. “The soil moisture is currently adequate for fruit crops as the fruit trees develop and expand canopy, but as the temperatures become warmer, drought could soon become a problem for producers.”

If the hot, dry weather arrives early, fruit producers may be at risk for lower yields, misshaped fruit with lower market appeal, and possibly delayed or inconsistent harvests.  

“They also have to hope that spring thunderstorms do not hinder the progress of their fruit production,” he said.

A map of the state of Texas divided into the 12 AgriLife Extension districts.

AgriLife Extension district reporters compiled the following summaries:

CENTRAL

Temperatures were cooler with windy days. Good soil moisture helped all crops and pastureland. Recent rainfall events improved soil moisture conditions. Tanks were mostly full and soil moisture was adequate to surplus. Conditions were wet but not muddy. Rangeland and pasture ratings ranged from fair to excellent. Oats and wheat were being grazed. One county reported cedar trees had been dying for the past few months. Conditions were favorable for planted annual grasses and other forages. Corn planting started but could be delayed in wet fields. Producers were spraying weeds and fertilizing fields, but some were unable to do so due to high winds. Wheat and oats headed out in some areas. Some oats were laying over due to thickness. Sorghum and corn were planted in some areas. Armyworms were increasing in one county. Many farmers started to grow cotton and will plant sorghum after all cotton is planted. Warmer conditions and improved pastures resulted in a stronger calf market. Cattle feeding was slowing. Fly numbers on livestock increased on sunny, warmer days. The livestock were reported to be in good condition.

ROLLING PLAINS

Mild temperatures contributed to favorable environments for all. A few counties reported sporadic fields with wheat rust but nothing widespread. Cattle on both winter wheat grazing and native pastures were looking good. Across the Rolling Plains, producers were starting to plow and prepare fields for cotton planting. 

COASTAL BEND

March concluded with 2-3 inches of total rainfall, providing favorable soil moisture conditions heading into April. Saturated soil conditions from previous rainfall affected cotton planting, though it resumed in well-drained areas. Corn and sorghum were progressing well, with cotton planting about halfway through and some already emerging. Rice planting was approximately 75% completed, with much of it already up. Corn and rice planting were ongoing, benefiting from fair weather conditions and steady growth in emerging crops. Rangeland and pasture conditions were favorable. Some early hay cuttings were observed as were ongoing fertilizer applications in hay fields. Additionally, there was an increase in forage in pastures, with mild temperatures contributing to favorable conditions. Livestock were reported to be in good condition.

EAST

Rains made some areas like Polk County too wet for good warm-season forage growth. Producers in many counties were able to stop feeding hay. Ponds, lakes and creeks remained full. Cattle markets continued to be strong and steady. Livestock were in fair to good condition. Anderson County reported wild pigs had been very destructive recently.

SOUTH PLAINS

The area received spotty to no rain showers last week. Producers were making plans for planting. Pre-emergent herbicides were being put out when the winds allowed. There were extreme wind events with gusts reaching over 70 mph. Temperatures were extremely variable, with highs in the upper 70s one day and mid-30s the next. Producers started spraying winter wheat to prepare for planting cotton and corn. The wheat crop was reported to be the best since 2021. With recent rains in the past few weeks, soil moisture was looking good going into planting season.

PANHANDLE

Although the region remains very dry, snow events brought on by cold fronts delivered needed moisture to small grain and other species planted for cover and forage, dual-purpose or grain production. The effect of recent wind events was noticeable on fields lacking cover, whether a currently growing crop or carryover residue from the previous season. Wind speeds were generally low most days in March, reducing evaporative water loss at the soil surface and any supplemental irrigation efforts needed to increase soil moisture. Spring field work involving tillage, fertilizer additions and preemergent herbicide applications was underway on various farms in the area as growers prepared to plant warm season crops later in April. All dryland wheat was suffering due to drought. Producers were actively irrigating in preparation for planting corn and cotton. Producers continued supplemental feeding for cattle. Rangelands were starting to green up. Overall, soil conditions were reported to be adequate to short. Pasture and rangeland were reported to be fair to very poor. Winter wheat was reported good to poor.

NORTH

Topsoil and subsoil were adequate to surplus for many counties across the district. Pasture and rangelands were fair to good for most of the counties within the district. Temperatures were cooler, dropping to the 30s, and rainfall reached up to 2 inches in some counties. The rainfall helped promote growth in many cool-season crops, and ponds were full. Winter pastures were greening up. Winter wheat was doing very well across some counties. Spring grass was growing in the pastures, and cattle were moving away from the hay. Corn was emerging but not looking great in some counties. Corn planting was halted in some areas because of wet field conditions. A few counties reported aphids and foliar disease in wheat. Livestock were in great condition. Cattle inventories were relatively low. There were no significant insects or disease outbreaks to report.

FAR WEST

A cold front moved in early in the week. Winds were extremely high, with averages over 20 mph and gusts well over 40 mph. There was no precipitation and rain was desperately needed to improve rangeland, soil moisture and winter wheat conditions. Most wheat showed signs of drought stress. Wheat that was not harvested this season has been terminated to use as a cover crop for cotton. The only wheat remaining was a few acres of irrigated wheat. Fieldwork slowed down tremendously, and sprayers were running. Corn was coming along fine, as the cold did not affect it. Producers were preparing for watermelon planting. Pecan trees have started to get leaves. Livestock producers continued supplementing with hay and grain to keep livestock in fair condition. Some producers were scrambling for what to do with their livestock and finding other means to keep cattle fed and watered. Producers were preparing to start marking lambs.

WEST CENTRAL

The district experienced cold mornings, winds and scattered showers. Soil moisture conditions dried out quickly. Pastures were showing green up but had very little grazing available. Producers were preparing fields for spring forage plants. Pecan trees had not broken winter dormancy. Many producers were planting Sudan grass early and spreading fertilizer on coastal fields. Sorghum planting was in full swing. Wheat crops were looking good. Lake and tank water levels were dropping. Producers began spring cattle work and started decreasing supplemental feeding for their herds.

SOUTHEAST

Ryegrass was up, and pastures were being harvested or prepared for harvest. Winter wheat and oats were maturing. Corn planting was complete and growing while pasture conditions remained good. Rice fields were almost dry enough to resume planting. Producers were preparing for cotton planting. Pastures were improving and ponds were full. Cattle prices remained firm, with calf and slaughter bull prices dropping slightly.

SOUTHWEST

A few counties reported an average of 1 to 2 inches of rainfall. Corn and sorghum continued to emerge with little failed germination. All row crops were reported to be in good to excellent condition. Rangeland and pasture conditions continued to improve due to mild weather and relatively wet conditions, as cool-season grasses and forbs flower and go to seed. The average cattle body condition was rated between 4 and 5. Livestock markets remained strong. Weed control and fertilization of pastures were evident. Spring shearing of sheep and goats continued. Bud break on mesquite began. Guajillo has started to emerge significantly and could greatly benefit from additional moisture. Irrigated crops were in good shape. Producers were still heavily supplementing livestock. Temperatures were within normal ranges.

SOUTH

Conditions were favorable, with enough rain to encourage planting row crops and to allow pastures to green up. More rain was needed to help those pastures fully recover. Strawberry production was in full swing. Corn crops emerged while wheat and oat crops were in the dough stage. Onions and citrus were being harvested. Most cotton has been planted. Producers were busy spraying weeds, fertilizing pastures and planting hay grazers. Local beef cattle markets were sustaining average to above-average offerings of cattle with notable price increases for all classes of beef cattle. Wildlife was doing well.

Southern Livestock

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