Evaluate cost-effective methods to decrease crop losses due to frost injury

By: Michela Centinari

To get ready for my first growing season as a research viticulturist at Penn State University, I met several times with Mark Chien and Denise Gardner and read through all of Mark’s newsletters from the last couple of years. In the past few months I also visited several wine grape growers across the State with the objective of understanding the challenges that the PA wine grape industry is facing. By talking with Mark, Denise and growers, I established that crop yield loss related to late spring freeze injury is one of the economic challenges to the continued growth and advancement of the PA wine grape industry. It was a big relief for many growers that the 2014 spring, after a challenging winter, did not contain a (significant) freeze event recorded after grapevine budbreak. However, the cold temperatures that often occur in late spring, at the very cold-sensitive stages of shoot development, can result in severe crop losses and vine injury comparable to a severe midwinter freeze.

Below is a brief explanation of current frost damage/protection research that I have been working on at Penn State.

What can be done to reduce frost damage in vineyards?
“The best time to protect an orchard (or vineyard) against frost is when it is being established” (Humpries W.J., 1914). Selecting a site with good air drainage is extremely important to reduce the risk of freeze/frost damage. However, many vineyards are located in less than ideal sites. Best management practices for vineyards located in frost vulnerable sites include:

  • choosing the appropriate training system and variety,
  • strategies for delaying budbreak (double or delayed pruning; chemical application),
  • leaving additional canes post pruning, and
  • mowing the inter-row grass [1].

The most effective frost protection methods (i.e. wind machines, helicopters, over-tree covers, heaters, and sprinkling irrigation) may require large investments and not every grower can justify the costs involved. To enhance the profitability of growing grapes in PA the development of frost protection strategies affordable to many growers is critical.

With this in mind, in collaboration with Ryan Elias and Denise Gardner, I’m currently evaluating the effectiveness of spray-on materials (KDL and soybean oil) on reducing the risk of frost injury. In addition, the effect of these materials on vine performance, juice composition and wine sensory characteristics is being evaluated.

Specifically, we are looking at two potential ways to decrease freeze injury in vine green tissues:

1) Increase freeze tolerance of vine green tissue:
If your vineyard is located in a frost prone area, you’ve probably heard about a foliar potassium fertilizer called KDL (potassium dextrose lactose; Agro-K corporation, Minneapolis, MN, USA). According to the manufacturer’s literature, spraying KDL shortly before a frost event (24-48 hours) would increase the potassium and sugar levels within the plant and reduce the frost injury on young vine tissue. Although attractive to growers, there is not scientific literature that supports the effectiveness of this product in preventing/reducing frost damage. Numerous grower testimonials are available, but growers usually don’t leave an ‘untreated’ control area where the material was not applied, which is critical in order to evaluate the efficacy of KDL as cryo-protectant.

Freeze events are not easy to study; they are unpredictable and often variable across a single site. Therefore, a large scale study was set up in collaboration with Cornell University (Tim Martinson and other extension agents) and the Agro-K company (KDL manufacturer) to evaluate the effect of KDL at 25 vineyard sites located in NY and PA. With regards to PA, 6 commercial growers agreed to participate in the study, in addition to the PSU Lake Erie Grape Research & Extension Center. In the absence of a frost event we were unable to gather any data for the 2014 year but we hope to test the same protocol again next year (2015).

Since, as mentioned, frost events are unpredictable I am also using a temperature control chamber to simulate a frost event. In the spring, KDL was sprayed on several grapevine varieties at the PSU research vineyard established at Rock Spring. After 24, 36, and 48 hours, canes with healthy growing shoots were excised and placed in the frost simulation chamber. Several ‘frost’ runs were conducted and I am now in the process of analyzing the data.

Parallel experiments on vinifera and hybrid grapevine varieties are being conducted by Jason Londo at the USDA-Cornell University.

2) Avoid frost injury by delaying budbreak
Delaying of budbreak is a way to reduce the risk of frost and is used mostly for grapevine varieties that break bud early and are at the highest risk of spring frost injury and subsequent crop losses. Studies conducted in Ohio, reported that application of soybean oils delay grapevine bud deacclimation and budbreak anywhere from 2 to 20 days depending on several factors including variety, timing and coverage. However, since grapevine cultivars respond differently to soybean oil applications, optimal strategies for their use need to be established for grapevine varieties grown under PA environmental conditions. Moreover, the effect of soybean oils on fruit composition and wine quality needs to be evaluated, since oil applications could delay fruit ripening, affect yields, fruit chemistry and wine sensory characteristics.

In March field trails were established at two commercial vineyards in Central PA. A soybean oil-based adjuvant, Amigo (Loveland Industries, Greeley, CO) was applied at a 10% concentration (v/v) to runoff with a backpack sprayer during the dormant season (Figure 1A). Amigo oil was applied on March 7 at vineyard “Site 1” on Traminette and Noiret vines, and on March 27 at vineyard “Site 2” on Riesling and Lemberger vines. Temperature sensors were installed in the fruiting wire of selected vines to continuously monitor air temperature throughout the growing season (Figure 1B and 1C).

In the spring, control vines (not-sprayed) and treated vines (sprayed with oil) were visually evaluated for budbreak. Budbreak was determined as stage five of the Eichorn and Lorenz (1977) scale of grapevine development. The grapevine growth stage is being periodically monitored and recorded to date.

Figure 1. A) Don Smith sprays Amigo oil at Happy Valley vineyard. B&C) Temperature sensors installed at the vineyard.

Figure 1. A) Don Smith sprays Amigo oil on grapevines. B&C) Temperature sensors installed at the vineyard.

The oil application caused various levels of delay in budbreak. At “Site 2,” budbreak delay of approximately 7 and 14 days was observed in the oil-treated Riesling and Lemberger vines, respectively, compared to the control (Figure 2). Looking at Figure 2 you will see how stage 5 (budbreak) was reached on May 13 for the control Lembeger vines and on May 29 in the oil-treated Lemberger vines. Although reduced, a phenological delay was still present at bloom (stage 23) in the Lemberger and Riesling oil-treated vines.

Figure 2. Growth stage of control and oil-treated Riesling and Lemberger vines.

Figure 2. Growth stage of control and oil-treated Riesling and Lemberger vines.

Pictures of Riesling vines were taken on May 20 (Figure 3) and July 9 (Figure 4). On May 20 the difference between oil-treated and control vines was striking. On July 9: both oil-treated vines and control vines showed fully developed and healthy canopies.

Figure 3. Control and oil-treated Riesling vines (May 20, 2014).

Figure 3. Control and oil-treated Riesling vines (May 20, 2014).

Figure 4. Control and oil-treated Riesling vines (July 9, 2014).

Figure 4. Control and oil-treated Riesling vines (July 9, 2014).

The delay in budbreak was much less pronounced in the Noiret at “Site 1” (figure 5). The delay in budbreak in the oil-treated vines was only of a couple of days. Traminette data have not yet been analyzed.

Figure 5. Growth stage of control and oil-treated Noiret vines.

Figure 5. Growth stage of control and oil-treated Noiret vines.

In agreement with previous work [2] our data suggests that varieties respond differently to soybean oil application. Varieties such as Noiret may need multiple oil applications in order to increase the delay in budbreak. Moreover, environmental conditions may also in part explain the different results obtained at the two sites. Finally, it is important to remember that multiple years of evaluation are needed in order to gather meaningful results and give growers reliable recommendations

What is left to do for the 2014 research season?

  • Measure Brix, pH and TA during grape ripening and at harvest to check if the delay in budbreak may cause an un-even fruit ripening.
  • At harvest collect yield data (number and weight of cluster per vine) and make wine from the Riesling and Lemberger control and oil-treated vines. Our final goal is to analyze if the oil application has any effect on wine chemistry and sensory perception.



 The project “Evaluation of cost effective practices for reducing the risk of spring frost injury in vineyards” is being funded by a Pennsylvania Wine Marketing and Research Board (PWMRB) grant.

Thanks to Don Smith for his technical support and help in field data collection.


Literature cited

[1]. Trought et al. (1999). Practical considerations for reducing frost damage in vineyards. Report to New Zealand winegrowers.

[2]. Dami, I. and B. Beam. 2004. Response of grapevines to soybean oil application. Amer. J. Enol. Vitic. 55: 269-275.

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