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Publication #HS-956

Extension Programs in Northeastern Florida Help Growers Produce Quality Strawberries by Improving Water and Nutrient Management1

Jim DeValerio, Robert Hochmuth, David Dinkins, Michael Sweat, and Eric Simonne2

The Florida strawberry industry is primarily located in the Plant City area with approximately 10,000 acres. There is scattered acreage in other parts of the state, including approximately 20 acres in Bradford and surrounding counties in Northeast Florida. Strawberries are grown commercially on an estimated 25–30 farms in Northeast Florida. The Bradford County area was once the main strawberry producing area in the state with 1,500 acres of strawberries grown during the period of 1915 to 1920. This rich heritage is still important to Bradford County's economy today. Strawberry acreage in northeastern Florida (Gainesville and north) was estimated at 11 acres in 2014 in Bradford County. Growers in northern Florida have traditionally used plastic mulch culture with overhead irrigation and have depended upon preplant fertilization to supply nutrients for the growing season. With heavy rainfall or excessive irrigation, this practice is inefficient and has resulted in nutrient deficiencies at the end of the growing season in part due to nutrient leaching, especially nitrogen. Extension programs in this production area have emphasized teaching growers the benefits of using drip irrigation as a tool for improved water and nutrient management (Figure 1).

On-farm Extension demonstrations throughout the 1990s provided opportunities for growers in the Suwannee Valley area and northeastern Florida to learn how to use drip irrigation for water and fertilizer delivery resulting in increased yield and quality. Drip irrigation is now used by over 95% of the growers in this region of northeastern Florida.

Figure 1. 

On-farm demonstration of strawberries grown on plastic mulch with drip irrigation.


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Drip irrigation systems on strawberry farms provide the opportunity to improve nutrient efficiency and reduce crop production costs. Petiole sap-testing programs (Table 1, Figure 2) provided by county Extension agents throughout Florida have taught growers the best nutrient management practices through this technology (Plant Petiole Sap-Testing Guide for Vegetable Crops, UF/IFAS Circular 1144, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/cv004). Information was collected during visits with North Florida strawberry growers during the spring fruiting seasons (Feb–May) from 1998–2003 to evaluate various fertilization programs being used (Strawberry Production in Florida, HS736, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/cv134). Potassium levels were within the ranges in 80% of the samples without drip fertilization, but were within the recommended ranges in 100% of the samples when UF/IFAS drip fertigation recommendations were used. This Extension effort revealed nitrogen management was much more difficult when drip fertigation was not used. The petiole sap tests indicated one preplant application of fertilizer was usually insufficient to meet the crop requirement for nitrogen, even when very high rates or some controlled-release nitrogen is used in the preplant application. In those crops where drip fertigation was not used, the nitrogen levels in the petiole sap dropped below recommended levels most years. Petiole sap nitrogen levels in March to April frequently fell below 100 ppm if drip fertigation was not used. In years with excessive rainfall, fields with no drip irrigation showed insufficient nitrogen sap levels 90% of the time.

Figure 2. 

Sap testing meter.


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

As growers adopted drip irrigation and used recommended fertigation practices (Table 2), nitrogen and potassium levels were maintained within the recommended ranges. During the spring harvest season of March–May, plants appeared healthy and vigorous when petiole sap nitrogen levels were 250–500 ppm. (Figure 3 and Figure 4) Plants with less than 200 ppm during that period appeared to have poor color and low vigor.

Extension efforts from 2007 to 2014 on 80% (4 of 5) of strawberry farms in Bradford consistently helped farmers manage fertilize N and K levels in the crop throughout the entire crop cycle. N and K levels were easily kept within recommended levels except during high leaching events from either excessive rains or high water use from overhead irrigation used for frost protection. During high leaching events N levels frequently became deficient, and sometimes K levels too, which resulted in more nitrogen and/or potassium having to be used to meet crop nutrient demand. Having drip irrigation made it possible to adjust fertilizer application to manage fertilizer demand when leaching events occur.

Figure 3. 

Healthy strawberry.


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

Figure 4. 

Strawberries grown on plastic mulch with drip irrigation.


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

The recommended rate of nitrogen (N) and potassium (K2O) for the main fruiting season is 0.75 lbs/ac/day (Strawberry Production in Florida, HS736, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/cv134. Drip fertigation programs at the rate of 0.75 lbs/ac/day of nitrogen and K2O were successful in maintaining excellent crop nutrient status. When once-a-week applications of the recommended rates were used, the growers were successful. The various fertilizer sources typically used and weekly amounts applied are shown in Table 3.

This overall Extension program effort resulted in reductions of water use by 50% on 30 acres of strawberries adopting drip irrigation. In addition, improved fertilizer management programs resulted in reducing fertilizer amounts by at least 20% through more efficient use. Fertigation programs can also improve crop yields and quality by maintaining proper nutrient levels for the duration of the harvest season.

Tables

Table 1. 

Sufficiency ranges for petiole sap testing for different growth stages of strawberry grown in northern Florida (from Strawberry Production Guide for Florida, HS736, http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/CV134).

 

Fresh Petiole Sap Concentration (ppm)

Crop Development Stage

NO3-N

K

November, soon after planting

800–900

3000–3500

December, first harvest

600–800

3000–3500

January, main season

600–800

2500–3000

February, main season

300–500

2000–2500

March, main season

200–500

1800–2500

April, late harvest, near end of season

200–500

1500–2000

When petiole sap test falls below sufficiency rates, check irrigation program or increase fertigation by 20% for one week, and re-determine sap nutrient content.

Table 2. 

Daily nitrogen (N) and potassium (K2O) application rates (lbs/ac/day) for strawberries grown in northern Florida with or without freeze protection.

 

With Freeze Protection

Without Freeze Protection

Month

Plant Status

N

K2O

Plant Status

N

K2O

October

planting (mid Oct)

0.4

0.4

planting (mid Oct)

0.4

0.4

November

vegetative

0.4

0.4

vegatative

0.4

0.4

December

fruit set

0.6

0.6

vegetative

0.4

0.4

January

1st picking

0.6

0.6

bloom

0.4

0.4

February

fruiting

0.75

0.75

fruit set

0.6

0.6

March

fruiting

0.75

0.75

fruiting

0.75

0.75

April

fruiting

0.75

0.75

fruiting

0.75

0.75

May

fruiting

0.75

0.75

fruiting

0.75

0.75

June

fruiting

z

fruiting

0.75

0.75

Total for season

 

145

145

 

152

152

If 30 lbs per acre of each N and K2O are applied preplant, then injections during the first 4 weeks after planting may be omitted.

Adjust rates based on petiole sap test readings.

z Freeze protected strawberry plants seldom fruit in June.

Table 3. 

Optional strawberry fertigation programs used in northern Florida for the main fruiting season.

Recommended Fertilizer Rate (lbs/ac/day)

 

Amounts of Fertilization Products Injected

Once a Week per Acrez

   

Premix Option 1

Premix Option 2

Grower Mix

Option 3y

N

K2O

Liquid 7-0-7

Liquid 8-0-8

Ammonium Nitrate 34-0-0

+

Potassium Nitrate 13.5-0-46

0.4

0.4

4.0 gal

3.5 gal

6.0 lbs

+

6.1 lbs

0.6

0.6

6.0 gal

5.2 gal

8.8 lbs

+

9.1 lbs

0.75

0.75

7.5 gal

6.5 gal

11.0 lbs

+

11.4 lbs

z One acre for strawberry is equal to 10,890 linear feet of bed.

y Growers would mix these ingredients on their own.

Footnotes

1.

This document is HS-956, one of a series of the Horticultural Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date August 2003. Revised April 2014. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Jim DeValerio, extension agent II, UF/IFAS Extension Bradford County; Robert Hochmuth, multi county extension agent, Suwannee Valley Research and Education Center; David Dinkins, extension agent, Tri-County; Michael Sweat, county extension director, UF/IFAS Extension Duval County; Eric Simonne, professor and District Extension Director, Horticultural Sciences Department, UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.