We Are Tapped!

We had a great turnout of folks to help tap maple trees on Monday and Tuesday at the OSU-Mansfield sugarbush.  A big thank you to Anthony Tambini and Rachel Coy – both former students who worked in the maple woods and returned for a fun day of tapping!  My gratitude to Marne Titchenell who appreciates maple amidst the larger sphere of wildlife, her Extension expertise.  Thank you Chelsea and Kris, current students who are working for me this semester.  Of course, Carri and Jake were there helping as always, and it was great to have Katie Gerber, one of ODNR’s State Service Forester, who came to get some hands-on maple experience too!  Many hands make light work and we are planning to shut the sap tank valve first thing in the morning and officially start our production season.  Happy sugaring to everyone already tapped, and may your crystal ball of weather forecasts and prognostications be clear if you are still trying to decide when to tap.

A Little Science behind Maple Sugaring Weather

Hands down, the number one question that comes up this time of year is “When should I tap?”

Due to the warmest December on record, I have heard a few Ohioans even asking “Should I have tapped in December?”.  When you look back over the years, the trend has been toward earlier tapping dates, but hoping that you can keep taps open for 3+ months is a bit of a stretch.  There is no way that will happen on a gravity system, and you will need more than a little luck even on high vacuum.

The scientific approach to planning involves studying climatological data and developing a plan based on that data. The maps below are long range weather predictions for the next three months. You can clearly see that all indications point to above normal temperatures for the next three months. For sugar makers what does this mean?

To quote a good friend and fellow maple researcher, “when you look at forecasts you need to look at it from the big producer / small producer perspective.”  Because most small producers tap everything at one time, they need to consider the value of a good short-term, 30-day forecast.  In most cases, especially if you are on a gravity system, you need to find the best 30-day window that will allow you to make the most syrup.  Once you tap, you are on the clock and that clock runs out shortly after 30 days.  On the other hand, if you are a large producer or even a medium producer on vacuum, you need to study yearly trends.  Trends will disclose what has happened over the last 3 to 5 years.  What we have seen is a trend to earlier tapping just about every year.  In most cases, early tapping has paid off in Ohio.  A major reason is that newer technology lends itself to pushing the envelope when it comes to tapping.  You have the advantage of running a semi-closed vacuum system utilizing 24/7 operation.  This lengthens your season considerably.

One of the most valuable pieces of data you can use are temperature history graphs for your location.  Weather Underground has some of the best.  They plot the maximum, minimum, and average temperatures.  Plotting the maximum and minimum will give you a good idea on the number of freeze-thaw days to anticipate for a month.  As we all know, freeze-thaw cycles are very important and drive daily sap runs.  You can look at these cycles over a five or even ten year period.  Over time you begin to see how various weather patterns play out.

Keeping in mind these are zip code specific but we are talking at the broad scale of an entire state, here are three February graphs. You can clearly see we started February leaving a warm end to January on two out of the three graphs.  In all the graphs, conditions continued to warm up as February wore on.  In two out of the three, the temps dropped going into March.  This may be a hint for what could happen this year.  2020 and 2022 were almost normal.  In both cases, our records show average to above average production.  2021 was the outlier and production was down for that year as temperatures stayed warm through most of March.  The other two years highlight the fact that starting out February warm does not mean you will march into March warm.

Too much science?  Here is a more common sense approach that prioritizes the size of your operation.  If you are tapping thousands of taps, you must start early to get the job done.  For a moment, think about a huge 50,000-tap operation.  Should they consider tapping right after the first of the year?  Definitely!  One of their strategies is to tap 5,000 taps super early.  This results in the Facebook posts you may have seen bragging about syrup being made over Christmas.  Several big producers in the East did this in December.  Does that mean they tapped everything?  Most likely not.  A large commercial producer hedges their season by tapping some early and the rest over the month of January with everything in the tree and ready by February 1.  Small producers who are setup to boil early can also do this, the only difference is they may start tapping their early running trees shortly after New Year’s but plan to finish out in February.  This keeps fresh taps in the system and prevents you from putting all your eggs in one basket.  The best way to accomplish this is to keep very good records.

That brings us back to our initial question.  When should I tap this year?  All indications are that we are going to have a warmer than normal winter.  If you are in Southern Ohio, you might be tapped already.  North of I-70, you should probably hold back until the end of January.  This is where analyzing the 30-day forecast is critical.  Studying several long-range forecasts a little closer, I noticed that we may have some of the coldest weather of the winter on the last week of January and the first week of February.  While the forecast is showing a warming trend coming off several weeks of genuine cold weather, depending on your situation you may even want to hold off until the first week of February.

Of course, the joker in the deck is the El Nino weather event we are experiencing.  El Nino’s are known for extremes and all it takes is a bend in the jet stream and you could be looking at 10 more days of below average weather.  Once this happens, you usually go right back to the warmer than normal pattern.  In this case, cold weather is your friend.  What we do not want is 10 days straight above normal!

As for my prediction!  I will tell you what kind of season we had in 2024 on the first week in April.  May your sugar season be long and sweet.

Anyone Tapping Yet?

When to tap?  That is the question.  And when it comes to maple sugaring, that is THE question.  Currently, we are in the holding position at our Mansfield sugarbush and thankful for the cold temperatures that have descended on the region.  The longer the woods stay cold, the closer our trees will get to meeting their chilling requirement, and the more optimistic I will be when we do eventually start our season.  Put simply, if trees don’t sleep well, they can wake up cranky!

When we look to the south along the Ohio River, I see more good signs of zero accumulated growing degree days since the start of the year.  Note, this does not account for any warm spells we had around Christmas.

With that map in mind, a peek at online chat forums like the Maple Trader’s Ohio Forum reveals that several folks are already tapped in part or in full (January 2nd in Ross County, another early report out of Muskingum County).  Looking even further south to states like Kentucky and West Virginia, only early tappers were rewarded with last year’s ultra-warm and sporadic 2023 season.  That likely pushed some producers to move their tapping date earlier on the calendar.  Still, others are crossing their fingers that last year was an anomaly and going with a more traditional schedule again for 2024.

Taking the forecast up top at face value and speaking directly to our Mansfield site, there aren’t many (if any) quality freeze-thaw cycle days for a truly big run in the next 2 weeks.  If we do decide to tap in a week or so, we should at least get all our lines flushed and spot check the vacuum on the system while we wait for better conditions to kick things fully in gear.

Come back next week for a post from Les Ober where he discusses the question of tap timing and the effects of El Nino as we all wring our hands and stare into muddy crystal balls in search of the right answer to our question!

U-Kentucky/Ohio State Partnership Event

Mixing Big 10 and SEC schools generally results in a brouhaha – not this time.  The University of Kentucky and Ohio State’s Maple team partnered to host a well-attended workshop last Monday evening just across the Ohio River in Boone County, Kentucky.  Strategically located to attract new and existing producers from southern Ohio and across Kentucky, 70 folks showed out for the event.  Beginning outdoors at the Boone County Nature Center, speakers covered topics ranging from maple identification to sustainable tapping practices and showcased demonstrations of different sap collection methods (buckets, bags, tubing) and a steaming boil on the local evaporator.


(Image Courtesy of University of Kentucky)

Along the way, attendees participated in a discussion of different grades and tastes of maple syrup profiled by a couple taste tests.  With a side-by-side comparison, many people were surprised just how different the same basic product – pure maple syrup – can taste.  That taste bud tease led us back to the Boone County Extension Center for a catered City BBQ meal and more presentations on value-added products, a couple short videos on sugarhouse design, and an excellent round of Q&A and conversations that lingered well after the event officially ended at 7 PM.

Many thanks to all who attended, and we look forward to continuing this partnership to expand the good news of maple across the southern tier!  To join up with your local community of maple producers, everyone should strongly consider joining their state association.  The Ohio Maple Producers Association annual event is Friday and Saturday, November 3-4th with Detailed Agenda here and a link to Register here.  The Kentucky Maple Syrup Association is also hosting their Maple School on Saturday, November 4th at the Berea Forestry Outreach Center and there is a button to join their ranks at the bottom of their webpage.

WV Maple Event Opportunity

Southern Ohioans have a great opportunity to slide across the Ohio River to join a wonderful maple event scheduled for October 14th in Wayne, West Virginia.  Just across the water from Lawrence County, OH, our partners at Future Generations University and West Virginia University are putting on a workshop titled “Forest Management for Sap Production: Why You Should ‘Think Maple’ .”

Lunch is provided and the workshop goes from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM and features sugarhouse and sugarbush tours at Tom’s Creek Maple.

Specific talk sessions are as follows:

  • Managing for sap production / Managing for timber production / or both!!
  • Sap collection systems
  • Managing a woodlot for sap production (hands-on and forestry tech talk heavy)
  • Integrating other forest farming activities into your sugaring operation
  • Forest health threats to maple
  • Technical resources through the OH/WV Maple Toolbox

Slots can be reserved by emailing syrup@future.edu.  Don’t miss out on a great learning opportunity to learn from syrupmakers in the far southern tier of what Ohio producers can expect to encounter in maple sugaring.

Tips for Working Volunteers into Your Maple Woods

Whether you have children eager to help or new volunteers wanting to participate in your woods, you are undoubtedly familiar with the tug-of-war.  On one side, you want to get new hands engaged and interested.  On the other hand, if you want something to be done right the first time, do it yourself!  At the Ohio State Mansfield sugarbush, I am constantly balancing the need to get volunteers into the woods while still maintaining standards of quality and efficiency.  Here are a few tips that we use to make sure our volunteers are a help and not a hinderance.  Hopefully you can use one or more of these ideas to streamline your own efforts to reach this delicate balance.

Precision tappers are expensive, but precision tappers are also efficient and effective at controlling the single most important activity in your woods – tapping!  Precision tappers allow you to set the exact tapping depth and reliably expect that the grip points on the end of the device will result in a steady straight taphole each and every time.  While they are costly, our taphole consistently went through the roof when we employed these this sap season for the first time ever.  Precision tappers are probably not for the average producer, but if education and outreach is a central part of your mission, they may well be worth the cost.

An extra step for ensuring excellent tapping is to clearly mark your tapholes at season’s end with a dot of forestry paint.  If you are employing geometric tapping (e.g, over 3 inches-up 6 inches, over 3 inches-down 6 inches, …), then next year’s instructions simply become “find the [insert color of your choice] dot, space over, and tap.”

While we are on the subject of tapping, choose a sacrificial tree to train your tapping crew.  This double-trunked specimen is below our sap shed, has half its crown busted out, and has been tapped no fewer than 100 times in the past 5 years.  Our sacrificial tree is a classic “take one for the team” scenario.  Drilling a good taphole is only part of proper tapping.  How to properly set the spout is just as important, and in my experience, more apt for abuse and mistakes.  Repetition with back-and-forth feedback are minutes worth their weight in gold if volunteers or new help tap a significant portion of your woods.  Make your mistakes here – not on your production trees.

Lead by example in the sanitation department.  If your sap tank is filthy and scummed over, it’s hard to expect your help to take you seriously about sanitation in the rest of the woods.  If your tapping gear is mud-caked and filthy, it’s probably a bit hypocritical to expect your volunteer crew to keep your gear spotless and spit-shined.  Be diligent about sanitation, speak often about sanitation, and your help will take sanitation seriously as well.

Keep a volunteer’s job simple but always give them a roll of flagging tape to pinpoint potential issues they may run across.  If they see something suspect, have them tie up some flagging tape so you can check it out later.  Better yet, and particularly useful for keeping track of progress and directions in the woods, if you incorporate some numbering system into your main lines and laterals.  Below you’ll see an aluminum write-on tag that we tie on each lateral loop starting with main line number and ending with lateral line number.  So in this case, you’re looking at the 3rd lateral line on main line #1.  Navigation and giving directions becomes exponentially easier with this numbering system in place.

While we are talking about lateral loops, show your volunteers the rapid visual checks a producer has to ensure their woods are working properly.  As volunteers walk the woods, it’s easy to visually confirm that sap is traveling around the loops signaling a functioning system.  The same goes for sap flow through the drops into the laterals.  If the loops or drops are empty but the rest of the woods is running good, a strip of flagging tape might be warranted.

And lastly, do not realistically expect perfection.  I found this double spout tree untapped just last week.  It’s too bad we didn’t get this one tapped earlier, but if 1 big tree’s production is the price I pay to get someone excited about maple – that’s a price I suppose I’m willing to pay.

Fall Maple Assessment – Get Ready for Next Season

The leaves have changed and have mostly fallen from the trees.  In some corners of Ohio, the first snow has already fallen.  For maple syrup producers, that means the push to get ready for a new season is upon us.  This is the best time of year to walk through your entire operation and systematically appraise your operation.  Now is the time to walk your sugarbush with a notebook in hand.  This assessment process allows you to locate the little things that make a big difference when the sap starts flowing.

Begin by looking at the most logical place first – your trees!  What condition are the trees in?  Are they healthy?  Did the June storms cause wind damage to the crowns?  The health of the trees will determine the number of taps per tree, and to some extent, the depth of your taphole.  If trees appear stressed, consider tapping a bit shallower (1.5 inches) rather than the full 1.75” or 2” depth.  It is not unusual to rest a tree for a season, allowing it to overcome obvious stressors.

Now reflect on your tubing system’s performance the very first year it was installed.   Compare that year to the way your system performed last year.  Have you noticed a drop-off in performance? It is easy to blame a poor season on the weather; in reality, the cause could be the age of your system and some neglected repairs.  For many producers, the first inclination is run out into the woods looking for squirrel chews and start repairing lines.  Do not get me wrong, that is important, but it is just one stage of a more holistic leak detection process.  The first order of business should be to inspect the lines for more systemic degradation and disrepair.  I hope that everyone is starting every season with all new spouts?!  However, your assessment should look deeper still.

When was the last time you changed the drops?  How long are the drops?  Are they long enough to allow you to reach around the tree?  Thirty-two inches is a good starting point for drop length in established systems.  What condition are your tees in?  Bad tees lead to micro leaks that sometimes are worse than squirrel chews because they are harder to locate and might be ignored an entire season.  What condition are your laterals?  Do they need to be replaced?  Are you noticing a mold buildup in the lines?  Are your lines patched together because of multiple repairs and damage?  When you replace laterals, it is a good time to look at the overall layout of the lateral system?  Count your taps on each lateral to determine if one is overloaded.  Remember, any given lateral should only be carrying 5 to 7 taps.  Also look at the slope of each lateral.  Is it running straight and tight and downhill for best performance?  What about your saddles, are they leaking?  Old saddles, just like old tees, need to be replaced on a regular basis – at least every 5 years.  Old saddles are often one of the major causes of leakage in maple tubing systems.

The next area of concern is the mainlines.  Ultraviolet light and wind damage are major causes of stress on mainlines.  Mainlines are good for 10 to 15 years, but eventually they must be replaced.  Yes, that is an expensive project!  However, the benefits outweigh the cost.  Installing new lines also allows you to remove damaged and unwanted trees during the repair.  Sugarbush stand improvement is important as it will improve the overall health and productivity of your sugarbush in the long-term.  Hazard trees, such as standing dead ash, should also be dealt with during a mainline replacement project.

It is easy to see how performing a pre-season assessment of your tubing system can be beneficial.  And that is just the tubing system!  After you walk your sugarbush – clipboard in hand – go back to the sugarhouse and develop an improvement plan. What must you buy?  In what quantity?  When will it arrive?  Are their supply chain delays?  Rank everything you have found in order of importance and start chipping away at your list – sap season will be here before you know it!

Sap Yields: Why CODIT and Non-Conductive Wood Matter

CODIT stands for Compartmentalization of Decay in Trees, and sugar maples are darn good at CODIT!  Mark Isselhardt, during the 2021 virtual Ohio Society of American Foresters spring meeting, gave an excellent microscopic and physiological explanation of how maple trees wall off and seal up old tapholes.

Why does understanding compartmentalization matter to a maple producer?  Compartmentalization creates the all-important non-conductive wood that sugarmakers try to avoid with each year’s new taphole.  And just in case you were wondering – how much does it matter?  Through work conducted at University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, Mark Isselhardt document sap yield declines of 70-75% when a taphole intersects non-conductive wood.

When to Tap?

The last 10 days of January 2018 had some very good weather for sap flow. If you live in the southern states or even southern Ohio, the decision to tap was a good one because you are never guaranteed a season past mid March. However, the decision to tap early becomes a lot more uncertain for producers further north. I present three maps for your consideration. The top graph is the temperature forecast for NE Ohio from AccuWeather. In my experience, their 30 day forecasts have been reasonably reliable.  The solid orange line is the average historical high temperature for the given dates, and the solid blue line is the historical low average. The broken orange line is the daily high forecasted temperature and the broken blue is the forecasted daily low temps. Once we get past the 5th of February, it appears we are going to drop below normal and stay there through the end of the month. Again this is a 30 day outlook, but it does match up with what all of the local weather stations are predicting.

february Forecast

The next graph is NOAA’s Weather Forecast for February. This Graph is indicating we will have equal chances of being above normal, normal or below normal, at least for Ohio. Looks like the likelihood for above normal weather extends up through New England.

Februar Temp

The last graph is the AccuWeather Forecast for Underhill, Vermont, home of the UVM Proctor Maple Research Center. I picked this location because they do a marvelous job of tracking weather data. The temperature graph appears to be slightly milder than the Ohio graph, with a couple of above normal spikes.  The thing to notice is the sharp rise in daily low and high temperatures at the end of February.

Underhill

I hope this information will help to make your decision easier and that you will seek out these planning resources in future years. Keep in mind that these are long-range forecasts with considerable margin of error.

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension

Should I Tap?

I got up this morning (January 12, 2017) and it was 60 degrees! All I could think of was that a lot of my friends who make maple syrup saw the same thing I did and headed straight to the sugarhouse to find their drills. To say the least, 60 degrees in early January is unusually warm and the recent weather pattern has everyone scratching their heads.  The decision of when to tap is one of the most important decisions you will make in any given year – hear are my thoughts on the subject.

First a little science! To quote New York Maple Specialist Steve Childs, we need to know “how does sap happen.” Sap flow is the result of sap rising and falling through the tree’s vascular system known as sapwood. Sap flows to provide nutrients to all of the vegetative growth above ground. Sap flows from the roots to the very tips of branches nourishing the buds that will develop into leaves. This process is on a phenological clock that limits the amount of time that we have to intercept a very small portion of that sap to convert into maple syrup. Once the buds emerge or “break”, sap is no longer usable for syrup production. Sap rises because of fluctuation in spring temperatures that we call the freeze-thaw cycle. As a tree freezes, a suction draws nutrients and water from the ground and through the roots. Once the temperature rises above 32 degrees Fahrenheit, gases begin to form inside the tree which then pushes the sap through the sapwood all the way into the very tops of the branches. Considerable pressure is produced in the process. In fact, pressures have been measured at 40 psi (pounds per square inch). When you drill a hole in the tree sap leaks out into a bucket and continues until the tree quits pushing sap or it freezes again. We can increase that flow by applying vacuum to the tap with a vacuum pump and tubing. If temperatures stay warm, sap flow will gradually decline; however, sap may flow up to 72 hours without the repeat of the freeze-thaw cycle. Without freezing, the sap level in the tree drops below the taphole and flow stops. Once the temperatures drop below freezing, the whole cycle starts again. This is a very simple explanation of a very complex process.

What else may stop sap from flowing? Once a taphole is drilled into a tree, the maple season clock starts to run. Using buckets and open tapholes, that window of opportunity is around 4 weeks before the taphole starts to heal up and sap flow diminishes. This healing is the result of the taphole being exposed to air and from the growth of bacteria in and around the hole. Air dries out the taphole and supplies oxygen to bacteria that coat the hole with slime eventually sealing off the exposed sap wood – similar to what happens when you get a cut. Blood flows for a while but eventually it coagulates and the bleeding stops. A vacuum tubing system is different in that the taphole is not exposed directly to the outside air and sap is kept flowing under vacuum for a longer period of time. If operated correctly, the taphole will be kept free of bacteria for most of the season. This can be accomplished two ways. First, you can keep the vacuum running continuously whenever the air temperature is above freezing. This keeps the sap moving, keeps the lines clear, and keeps the taphole cool. Producers have found that they can gather enough sap during extended warm periods to make enough syrup to pay for the cost of running the pumps during that period of time. The other method is to us a vacuum system with check valves to prevent bacteria-laden sap from the lines being pulled back in the tree. A tree will draw sap from the lines just like a hose will siphon water from a tank when you turn the tap off. The sap, because it has been exposed to the tubing, has some amount of bacterial contamination – however slight – and will speed healing of the taphole if drawn back to the tree. Check valves close when vacuum is released, and these simple devices seal off the tapholes from sap backflow.

Now to answer the question – “Should I tap during an early warm spell?” My suggestion is first to obtain all the information from a variety of sources that you can about upcoming weather patterns. Next, consider your system. If you are a small producer or a backyard producer looking for the ideal 30 day window, January is most likely too early to tap. Your taps may dry out and you may miss some of the really good runs in late February and March. You could re-tap but that is hard on the tree and is never recommended. The best approach is to watch the weather and be ready to get those good runs in February and March. For those of us who have vacuum tubing. We can stretch the season with taphole sanitation techniques. Watch the weather and tap when the opportunity arises. You may get some very good early runs. If you are going to tap now make sure you change out last year’s spouts and/or use check valves. You have to create a closed system at the tree to prevent taphole healing. If you have enough taps, consider tapping the side of the woods that runs early now and then tapping the later running sections a bit later on the calendar, effectively spreading your season. The best you can realistically hope for is two months before your taps start to shut down. I have personally kept my system flowing from the 10th of February to the 10th of April with the use of check valves and continuous vacuum operation. No matter what you decide to do, it is a gamble. Here is hoping your decision pays off!

Author: Les Ober, Geauga County OSU Extension