Hello and welcome to the first post of the 2023 maple season! Spring weather has (in a most unwelcome fashion) sprung in the last few days on the heels of an unpredictable winter. Sap flow has already begun in certain areas of the province and many producers are stepping up their plans to tap. Some who were tapped in in December and January have already had their first boils. The question for many others is: should I tap this early?
Factors to Consider When Deciding on Early Tapping
While it is not possible to speculate about how the coming season will progress, here are some considerations that may help you arrive at a decision.
The unpredictability of the weather means being prepared for all situations, including a shortened season. In previous years, sap flow has been as short as one week, and if one missed the large early runs, yield that year was greatly compromised. This concern is top of mind for many producers who are tapping now.
Consider how long it will take you to finish tapping your sugarbush. Small producers and those who can quickly muster a large labour force can finish in a day or two, while others may need several weeks. If you fall into the latter category, you may wish to begin earlier than you normally would.
Other labour-intensive activities to account for include: finding and fixing leaks in the lines, collecting and changing out buckets (frustrating to do if there’s only a small quantity of sap), and fixing issues brought about by frost heave.
Collection System and Sanitation
Producers on buckets typically have a shorter collection window than those on a vacuum system, as the taphole is exposed to microbial contamination that will cause the tree to wall off the surrounding vessels. In a normal year, producers on buckets would typically wait to tap until a robust period of good sugaring weather is imminent. However, this year may be atypical and the traditional method of timing via weather may not be as reliable.
If you are on buckets and wish to tap earlier than usual, make sure to incorporate as many good sanitation practices as possible to extend the life of your taphole: use new spouts wherever possible, or sanitize your spouts using a chlorine soak for 30 minutes then triple-rinse with potable water before using. If you drop a spile on the ground, don’t use it until it’s been cleaned.
Producers on vacuum can have a significantly longer sap collection window, as vacuum will generally ensure that there is a clean environment around the taphole. However, sap can flow backwards into the taphole if vacuum is turned off and the tree freezes, similar to the issues that gravity systems can have. This will introduce bacteria that has been forming in the lines back into the tapholes and cause premature closure. One way to get around this is to use check valves. Another is to optimize sanitation of spouts and droplines by changing them to new ones this season or relying on sanitation methods implemented in the previous year.
Another potential issue with vacuum and gravity lines is sap freezing (shown in photo below). A hard freeze may result in sap freezing and expanding in the tubing and spiles, pushing spiles out of tapholes, causing tubing connections to come loose, and warping the droplines. If this happens, a significant amount of effort may be needed to fix the issue before the season can progress normally.
Long-term Weather Forecast
Experienced producers will often plan their first tapping date using a 2- or even 3-week forecast, to determine whether or not it’s “worth it” to tap. Getting everything tapped and ready ahead of schedule can be a significant amount of extra work, especially if it runs up unexpectedly against other commitments.
Furthermore, tapping when weather is too cold can result in bark splitting if the person doing the tapping is inexperienced. Bark splitting will result in a loose spile and lots of wasted sap, not to mention unnecessary stress on the tree and lots of stained wood formation.
Evaporator Size/Storage Capacity
Sometimes, producers will find that they have tapped and set everything up, and ultimately the runs they have prepared for are too small to run the evaporator. The sap ends up getting dumped because it will spoil before there is enough to process. Cold storage can be one way to get around this issue and preserve the sap quality until enough can be collected.
At the end of the day, it is up to each producer to determine the largest risks for their operation and how to minimize them. If your greatest concern is missing significant early sap flows during a particularly short season, then you may wish to tap early. If labour is a major issue and you do not have the capacity to fix spouts that have been ejected from the tapholes by frost heave, then you may wish to wait. This is a great and terrible aspect of agriculture – you get to decide exactly what works for you!
Sap Flow Report
In a normal year, producers will usually begin tapping around Feb 14 in the warmer regions and around Feb 20 in the cooler regions. However, the warmer weather means that many producers began tapping this week to catch the early sap runs. Most are trying to get their taps in by the end of this week. There is significantly less snow in bushes than is considered normal for this time of year.
In this particular stretch of warm weather, sap was reported to have been flowing this weekend. A producer in Essex county reported a good run on Sunday. His advice to others in his area are to keep an eye on what producers in Indiana and Ohio are doing through Facebook groups or Maple Trader. Folks are worried that this year will bring a shorter sugaring season, so many are trying to finish tapping as soon as possible.
Producers in this region are split; some consider the warm spell too short to take advantage of and are planning to begin tapping next week, or sticking to their normal schedule of tapping around Feb 15-20th. Others are 80% to fully tapped, or are beginning tapping this week in response to the weather, similar to folks in Southwest. One producer around Freelton tapped in mid-January and had his first boil on January 23rd. Sap brix was just under 1.8 and made a lighter amber syrup. There was a fair amount of niter.
Producers are noting dryness in the bushes and a lack of snowpack.
Reports from this region have producers either tapping now or tapping as soon as their sugarhouses are ready, this week. Like other areas, this is the earliest that many producers have tapped, mostly as insurance in case the season is shortened. Some are also starting early due to labour considerations.
Most producers around and north of Kawartha Lakes are not yet tapping as weather is still wintry; many are expecting to hold off for a few more weeks at least. However, one producer in Norland is hoping to take advantage of the weather in the next week or so is fully tapped. Producers further south – Millbrook/South Monoghan area – are either tapping or beginning to consider it. Larger producers have begun tapping.
There have been no reports of sap flow yet in this region – please comment on this post or fill out the survey below if you have heard/seen differently.
Similar to H-K, producers in this area are split on whether or not to begin tapping now. Some producers are hesitant as they’ve experienced issues cropping up when there’s a freeze after sap has begun running, and some are not planning to put taps in until next week. Others have decided that the weather is sending enough of a signal for them to begin tapping and try to get done by this week, again usually at a record early date. Some further to the south have already begun collecting sap.
What’s happening in your bush?
I aim to update this blog weekly throughout the season. Bookmark this quick and easy 9-question survey – all responses welcome, but responses on Mondays or Tuesdays are preferred. You can also text, call, or email me with updates at:
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can’t get your `quick and easy ..to work
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Just tapped trees today Feb 12th in Gravenhurst and Sap is running. Expect temps above 0 the next 5 to 10 days.
I’m in Seguin Falls and did a test tap. Sap is flowing, but I’m holding off until after the next cold spell.
Tapped in buckhorn area on Feb 11th and sap was running . Collected today ( I use pails) and getting about a third of a regular amount when going really good . I expect to have enough to boil by Feb 17th .
Good flows today in buckhorn Kawartha area . Expect a boil after this week .
Tapped in Lewiston NY a week ago. First 2 days filled buckets, THEN nothing. Only a few ounces each day since. EVEN when the SapApp says conditions are favorable? Bee’s are happily flying, tho!
Northern panhandle of WV 17 taps in Jan 6. 105 gals of sap and 2.1 gal syrup for the season that ended Feb 14 2023
Trees tapped in Deep River, no significant sap flow yet
Sap was flowing good last week, weather is now a little cold, expected high of +1 for next 10 days
March 8 ottawa area