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Space... the Final Frontier

Posted May 1, 1998

Space is a valuable commodity. Ranchers today have to make the most of their acreage by using tools like rotational grazing with high stock densities, retained ownership, hunting leases, or maybe taking advantage of the existing pecan trees.

While most people are reluctant to remove a pecan tree, most have never really considered them a crop that would pay to manage. In the old days pecans were considered a "gravy" crop. Every few years all the stars and planets aligned and the signs were right and there was a big crop which was picked up by hand on the halves by the neighbors and some people from town.

It was kind of a gift which helped buy Christmas presents and pay the taxes. Times got better, the small income the pecans had provided was not as crucial and hand pickers became scarce. So the pecan fell into the background but it did not go away. Unfortunately neither did the taxes. More and more ranchers are starting to look for more efficient ways to utilize their space. Some are reconsidering their old pecan trees and wondering what they can do to improve the quantity, quality and consistency of their pecan crops.

There are many management activities that can improve a pecan crop. These include but are not limited to fertilization, insect pest management, removing non-pecan trees, pruning, and leveling the orchard floor both for drainage and for a better picking surface. While these are all important, there is one activity that is key to good production, but it seems to be the hardest for most people to do... THINNING. It is hard to take out a tree that seems to be in the prime of its productive life. However, if the trees are in a crowded state none of the other activities listed will likely give a positive return on your investment.

Have you ever noticed that pecan tree that stands out by itself in the pasture hardly ever misses a crop? And that grove in the creek bottom misses more often than not. Why is that? Well like everything else in the world there are a lot of contributing factors, some are hard to define but some seem pretty obvious when we think about them.

The most obvious is space. Think for a minute about a pecan tree in the woods. It never has a really bumper crop; it is trying to survive by stretching up to whatever sunlight it can get. Now stand back and take a good look at the trees in your grove.

Are all the branches upright because they have a neighbor taking up the space next to them? Those trees have the same problem as the ones in the deep woods; they need to make enough top to just survive. Reproduction (making nuts) is a luxury that these trees often can't afford even though the creek bottom probably has a better, deeper soil than the pasture does. On the other hand, the tree all by itself has all the room to grow it can use. There is no competition from other trees for sunlight, water, nutrients or space. There is also good air flow around the tree allowing good pollenation and less favorable conditions for scab or other pecan diseases to flourish.

An added benefit that ranchers thinning their groves will enjoy is more grass. With more sunlight reaching the ground, warm season grasses will be able to thrive. This is a positive situation for each enterprise. More grass under the trees increases grazing opportunities in the summer and provides a better surface for mechanical pecan harvest as well as quicker return to harvest after a rain.

High stock density works well grazing cattle but remember they rotate to another pasture. Taking out trees is never an easy decision and it isn't free but having adequate space is really crucial for a tree to be productive. I guess we all have one thing in common; we all need our space.