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!