Precision Cold Protection Pointing To Profit For Blueberry Producers

Precision Cold Protection Pointing To Profit For Blueberry Producers

One University of Florida student’s assignment to help develop cold-weather protection strategies so blueberry growers can save money has come up all aces.

UF/IFAS grad student Tori Bradley studying cold weather's effects on growing blueberries

Tori Bradley
Photo courtesy of UF/IFAS

Tori Bradley, a UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences graduate student, interned with faculty and studied the economic advantages for growers who use precision cold protection, according to a new UF/IFAS Extension document, “Improving The Precision Of Blueberry Frost Protection Irrigation.”

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Bradley analyzed the differences between precision cold protection and uniform cold protection. Blueberries bloom in late winter or early spring in Florida, making them susceptible to frosts. For uniform strategy, growers start frost protection irrigation when the temperature hovers between 31°F and 35°F.

By using the precision method, growers can save an average of $44 per acre per season on irrigation pumping costs, depending on their location in Florida, according to Bradley and her faculty mentors.

After consulting with her graduate coordinator, Bradley approached Tatiana Borisova, an associate professor and Extension specialist in the UF/IFAS Department of Food and Resource Economics, to do a six-week research project on protecting blueberries during cold periods. She also worked with Mercy Olmstead, a UF/IFAS assistant professor in horticultural sciences and stone fruit Extension specialist, Jeff Williamson, a UF/IFAS horticultural sciences professor and Extension horticulturist, and Elizabeth Conlan, UF/IFAS horticultural sciences graduate student.

Precision agriculture recommends management strategies to growers, Borisova said. These recommendations are based on research and real-time monitoring of plant and environmental conditions. Specifically, the system calls for growers to apply water only when the plant can be damaged by cold, based on horticultural science research and real-time weather data, not necessarily based on the temperature dipping to near or below 32°F. The method implies that for every bud stage for a crop – in this case, blueberries – water is turned on at different temperatures. That’s because a crop’s sensitivity to cold increases from one bud stage to the next.

But frequently, growers do not have real-time weather information, or they don’t trust it, Borisova said. UF/IFAS faculty are working to further improve the bud-sensitivity recommendations for blueberry cultivars grown in Florida, and trying to help growers adopt bud-sensitivity recommendations these methods to better protect their blueberry crops.

Bradley’s research was made possible through the UF/IFAS research internship program. The research-Extension project, “Critical Bud Temperature Determination in Low-Chill Peach and Blueberries,” is funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Specialty Crop Grant Program and is being led by Olmstead.