It looks like a cold one going into the first part of the 2014 maple season. I do not believe we will see many trees tapped during the month of January. That being said, there are always a few hardy souls in Southern Ohio that venture out into the cold, trying to tap before Mr. Groundhog leaves his burrow.
Looking at the 30-day forecast maps by NOAA Weather for the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes, the forecast is for more of the same. The weather pattern that has been bringing waves of cold air into the region all winter appears to be staying in place. We can expect very short warm ups between these low pressure systems. What has set this year apart from other similarly cold winters, is the extreme cold caused by the polar vortex drifting farther south than normal. Some agricultural forecasters are predicting this pattern of below normal temperatures and above normal precipitation to continue through mid-March, with the above normal precipitation continuing for an additional 60 to 90 days beyond that. The one thing to remember is that predicting weather more than 5 days in advance is an inexact science.
In a normal year, the low temperatures at the start of February would be in the twenties with highs reaching into the mid-forties. This sets up a well-defined freeze/thaw pattern. The freeze/thaw pattern does not begin in New England until early March. Their season typically runs through April, but Ohio is about a month earlier. If we continue with a prolonged period of cold weather running through most of February, this could have an impact on the season. And if the weather remained cold and then suddenly warmed up and stayed warm, we could be looking at a short maple season this year. One thing is for certain, no matter how hard you try, you cannot completely forecast a maple sugaring season so you should be ready to jump when conditions change for the better. Remember, the only weather that counts is the weather that occurs from the time you put the tap in the tree to the time you pull it out. All you can do is be ready and tap as soon as Mother Nature gives you the green light.
This year, early tappers will, most likely, will be tapping into frozen wood. This is very different than the last two seasons which were very mild, and producers tapped under unfrozen conditions statewide. Frozen wood presents a few problems. The first thing you need is a very sharp bit. There is more resistance in frozen conditions, and bits will become duller quicker. You should check your bits frequently and change them as needed. Today, many companies make bits that are designed to drill under frozen conditions and this is a very common practice in Canada – and as we all know, the Canadians drive the maple innovation market. Because tapping into frozen wood takes a little extra force, you need to take care and not drill an oblong hole. Producers also need to be very careful when setting the spout. It is very easy to split frozen wood and cause a leak at the top and bottom of the taphole. An oblong taphole or splitting can cause vacuum leaks, so steady your drill hand and go straight in allowing the drill to do the work. Then seat the spout very carefully with a proper tapping hammer. Once the woods thaw a bit, you will probably need to go back and check the taps resetting where needed. There is a little extra work required when tapping early but you know what they say about the early bird. In this case no worm, but a lot more sap.