Explore Forage Alternatives in Southern Plains Pecan Orchards
With the price of pecans this year being close to 200 percent of their normal value, it's easy to overlook the other attributes that come with pecan management in this region of the country - namely forage. Pecan production in the southern Great Plains ranges from a few dozen native pecan trees in the "back forty" to improved varieties managed under an irrigation system. In contrast to pecan production in the southwest, most of the pecan orchards in this region also consist of a base forage. This attribute gives producers the benefit of having multiple enterprises. During the establishment years, a haying operation can be managed on an orchard with properly spaced trees. Once trees reach a minimum height of around 15 feet, stocker and/or cow-calf enterprises can be managed to produce added income from the same piece of ground. Although we are fortunate that these forages can provide extra income, they can also be detrimental to a pecan crop during drought conditions as they compete for needed precipitation and nutrients. The following are some characteristics of what I would consider an optimal forage for pecan orchards in this region:
- potential for high productivity when pecan trees are dormant,
- adapted to climate and soil texture,
- shade tolerant,
- tolerant of grazing pressure,
- perennial or re-seeding annual,
- high in crude protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN),
- highly responsive to nitrogen inputs.
The combination of these attributes suggests a cool-season annual or perennial grass. In fact, such a grass combined with a re-seeding annual/perennial clover would be an optimum forage base. However, many of the pecan trees harvested in this region are grown on bermudagrass. While more easily managed than a cool-season grass/legume combination, a warm-season grass poses these challenges:
- highly competitive with trees for soil moisture and nutrients,
- habitat for insects such as grasshoppers,
- demonstrated allelopathic effects with some species.
I have witnessed firsthand the first two problems severely restrict pecan production on the Noble Research Institute's dryland bermudagrass-based pecan orchard in Burneyville, Okla. I have been convinced if we were starting over on the pecan orchard, we would develop cool-season forages only, entertaining the production of a warm-season annual only after a wet spring. Below are some forage combinations based on soil texture. You will notice that warm-season grasses are included. This is only because warm-season grass is already a staple in most dryland orchards in this region.
Light Textured Soils
- rose clover/rescuegrass
- arrowleaf clover/rescuegrass
- cereal rye/bermudagrass
- ryegrass/bermudagrass (sandy loam to loam)
- ryegrass/bahiagrass (sandy loam to loam in southeastern extremes of Oklahoma and Texas)
Heavier Textured Soils
- ryegrass/white clover
- ryegrass/berseem clover
- ryegrass/red clover
- white clover/bermudagrass
- white clover/dallisgrass (southeastern extremes of Oklahoma and Texas)
- ryegrass/dallisgrass (southeastern extremes of Oklahoma and Texas)
Notice that a common denominator of the forage combinations for lighter soils is rescuegrass in contrast to ryegrass for the heavier soils. Both will work fine on loamy soils, but ryegrass establishes and performs much better on heavier soils, while rescuegrass does much better on the sandier soils. For forage combinations involving clovers, it is normally best to establish the clover component prior to the grass species, unless you are planting white clover. Then, results are normally better if the grass is established first. Even if you have a pure bermudagrass orchard floor, it is never too late to add the appropriate cool-season forage component to compliment warm-season grass production. In some cases, particularly ryegrass on loamy to clay loam soils, early spring planting can produce good stands on a bermudagrass stand that has been mowed or grazed short for pecan harvest. If you are considering such an option, mid-February through very early March is the window for doing this. Contact a forage specialist at the Noble Research Institute at (580) 224-6500 to discuss your options.