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Improving Native Pecan Groves

By Charles Rohla, Ph.D.
Pecan and Specialty Agriculture Systems Manager

Posted Feb. 1, 2011

This article originally appeared in the May 2008 Ag News and Views newsletter.

Mother Nature has blessed several landowners in Oklahoma and Texas with a potential income enterprise. Native pecans are found along the rivers, streams and creeks in both states. On average, 35 million pounds of native pecans are harvested from both states. When you look at the native industry, one startling fact stands out. Out of the nearly 1 million acres of native pecan timber, less than 20 percent are harvested. Out of that 20 percent, less than 40 percent are managed. Most native producers do little to nothing to increase the production of their native pecans. A well managed native pecan grove can yield an average of 1,000 pounds of pecans per acre per year.

So how do you start to manage your pecan trees? If you have 50 or more trees, you may want to hire a custom manager to tend them for you. Larger groves may justify the purchase of equipment, depending on the type and size of equipment you plan to use.

Almost every native pecan grove is crowded with too many trees. Following is a guideline to use when determining which trees to remove during thinning. When first starting to clear out a native grove, leave it a little thick to avoid sunscald and wind breakage (if final thinning will be 25 trees per acre, leave 30-35 trees). The final thinning should leave approximately 50 percent shade on the grove floor at noon in July. It is all right to leave two or three trees in a bunch if there is plenty of room and sunlight on three sides of the trees.

  • Remove all underbrush and all timber that is not pecans.
  • Remove damaged and/or decaying pecan trees.
  • Remove multitrunk and unharvestable trees.

After these trees are removed, observe the performance of the remaining trees for a couple of years to determine which trees to keep. Use the following undesirable characteristics to determine the final thinning.

  • Trees susceptible to pecan phylloxera
  • Trees that are not productive
  • Trees susceptible to scab disease
  • Trees that produce small nuts (more than 100 nuts per pound)
  • Trees with low kernel percentage
  • Trees that ripen late
  • Trees that are too large for equipment

Native pecan thinning is a continuous process to maximize the production of a grove. Leaving small trees helps to rejuvenate the grove. You can graft known low input varieties such as Kanza, Caddo or Peruque onto these small trees to increase the overall quality of your native pecans.

After the trees are thinned to the final spacing, establish a ground cover that will benefit the overall operation of the land. The best ground cover for the pecan is a cool-season species that does not compete with the trees for water and nutrients during the growing season. However, if haying or cattle are in the mix, then bermudagrass may be the best for forage production, even though it will decrease the production of the pecans. Clovers can be used to improve the soil and provide nitrogen to the trees to decrease fertilizer inputs.

overgrown pecan grove

cleaned pecan groveRecovery time varies with tree age, size and thickness of wild timber. Trees may take three to five years or more to start good production as they grow new lateral branches and try to fill in areas where trees were removed.

Fertilization is important to maintain healthy productive trees. Trees usually require annual fertilization with nitrogen. Taking a leaf sample will help determine other nutrients that may be needed such as zinc, phosphorus, potassium, manganese and nickel.

Management of pests, such as pecan nut casebearer, hickory shuckworm, pecan weevil and stinkbugs, can greatly increase the productivity of a native pecan grove. To achieve this level of management, an air-blast sprayer is needed. I believe this to be the most important piece of equipment to own if you are managing pecans.

The final management strategy to maximize production in a native pecan grove is early harvest and control of wildlife depredation.