Pecan Orchard Floor Maintenance And Management
Providing proper care for your pecan trees goes beyond maintaining your trees. The ground beneath your pecan trees also requires constant attention. Managing your orchard floor properly alleviates many problems for your trees.
I'd like to address the 'till or no till' controversy. It is typical orchard practice in this area to 'break the ground,' keep the orchard floor plowed and disked. I hesitate to declare this practice 'totally wrong' but I feel it may be a contributing factor to several problems that must be dealt with in the aftermath. When I purchased our orchard in the mid-nineties, I made a decision not to till based on one sole factor: the West Texas wind. Our house sits within the pecan orchard, and I could not imagine trying to live in the center of a plowed field with the common thirty to forty mile an hour winds. In the spring there is plenty of dust flying around West Texas without me making a contribution. In the years since, I theorize that there may be several benefits to leaving the orchard untilled.
Of course the obvious in our situation is preventing soil erosion. I see orchards throughout this area that are tilled and the most noticable difference between those and our orchard is the exposure of tree roots, a sure sign of ongoing soil erosion, or more aptly called in west Texas, 'soil displacement.' Orchard tilling also runs the risk of feeder root damage. A tilled orchard is an open invitation to a host of insects, including the most feared in the pecan industry, the pecan weevil, who resides in the soil during the winter and comes out to spread its damage to your trees just as soon as...you till in the spring? I could ramble on about the till or no-till controversy, but I think I'll end it with "WHY?" I suspect it is the farmer in them...they just feel the need to 'go plow something.'
If you choose not to till your orchard floor, you will probably find yourself mowing. (And some of you now ask, WHY?) I'll head the debate off with the thought that it probably takes the same amount of fuel whether you're mowing or plowing your orchard. Besides, our orchard looks pretty sharp just after I mow, like a golf course with trees. We'll come back to the mowing, but first discuss weed control.
Orchard Weed Control
Weeds will grow whether your orchard is tilled or not, and they must be controlled. Vegetation beneath your trees rob them of needed moisture and nutrients and provide a hiding place for insects. If left uncontrolled, weeds will take over your orchard. A herbicide will solve weed growth beneath your trees. We've used various 'weed killers' and have found Round-up to work longer for us and be the best value for our money. I suggest if you wish to use this particular brand, you purchase the strongest mixture available. If you are able to buy the 'industrial strength' from a local chemical dealer, (gotta get a license for it in Texas,) go for it. If you must use the 'over-the-counter' stuff, get the super strength. (I don't have any for reference at the moment...purple label, a thick syrupy liquid.) We purchase it by the gallon at Sam's Club for around a hundred bucks and one gallon will just about get us through an entire season.
You will need a sprayer to apply your herbicide. If you use the same spraying equipment for pesticide and zinc application, you must clean your sprayer after spraying your herbicide. Spraying Roundup on the leaves of your trees would be devastating. Our most valuable piece of equipment in our orchard is our garden tractor. It is small enough to carry us beneath the trees and with a small trailer, can be a workhorse and a time saver. We rig our 25-gallon sprayer onto the trailer and take off up and down the rows, spraying our weed killer. I suggest you kill all vegetation beneath your tree as far out as your canopy of branches reach. Choose a calm day (a challenge in West Texas) , and a time period that the weatherman promises to be dry and warm. Use caution when applying herbicide and avoid getting any spray on your trees' leaves. Within seven to ten days, your herbicide should have done its job and you should have a neat weedless circle beneath your trees. Typically an application tends to last a month to six weeks. Then you will need to repeat the process. For our small 100 tree orchard, a twenty-five-gallon mixture will treat the entire orchard, with a little left for the weeds around the barn and well house.
Orchard Floor Management
With the weeds under control beneath the canopy of our trees, we now need to deal with the remaining vegetation. In our operation, this is a two-step process. Using our trusty garden tractor, we mow up and down the tree line as far out as our tree branches extend. You can see the need for a clean, rock free and limb free orchard if you are going to set out into the orchard with the lawn mower. Once we have mowed beneath our trees, we crank up the Farmall 560 and head into the orchard with the shredder. It is very feasible to mow the entire orchard with a garden tractor if you don't have access to larger equipment. Our garden tractor has a mowing deck of 40 inches and our shredder mows a 48-inch strip, so we gain very little time in using the shredder...but using the big tractor is maybe 'just a farmer thing?' The entire process of keeping the vegetation under control in our orchard consists of around four hours, and depending on how often you receive rainfall, may need to be done anywhere from a weekly basis to only a few times during the season. This should be all the orchard floor maintenance required during the summer months.
As harvest season approaches, you will need to make plans to accommodate whatever method of harvesting you utilize. If you have utilized the till method for your orchard, you will now find it necessary to level your floor by blading or similar procedures. If you use the no-till approach, preparation is as simple as keeping any broken branches and other debris picked up out of the orchard. You may have some 'early-drop' sticktights fall to the orchard floor beginning in late August through September. These should be removed from the orchard as soon as possible as they provide an excellent refuge for pecan weevils. Some of these sticktights may contain Pecan Casebearers who are eager to work their way out into your orchard and begin infesting your crop of pecans. It is extremely important to get anything that doesn't belong in the orchard out prior to the fall nut drop.
A whole new challenge arises as your pecan crop begins to mature and approaches harvest. The leaves from your pecan trees will inevitably fall either before or during nut drop. A good stiff northerly wind usually takes care of our leaf removal out here in West Texas, however we have found it necessary to handle this problem on our own. A gas powered leaf blower is an invaluable piece of equipment when preparing for the fall harvest. A blower will move leaves, hulls, small branches, and debris away from the base of your trees, leaving a clear area for your pecans to fall into. I highly recommend you maintain a clean area around your trees as you prepare for the nut harvest. It will speed up your harvest process tremendously when that time arrives.
Some Things To Ponder
I receive this question quite often since we also maintain a small herd of goats. Can goats be used in the pecan orchard. This subject is covered in more detail in our Miscellaneous Section, but I cautiously answer 'yes' if you maintain control. Goats are an excellent form of weed control, however they prefer to eat the leaves on your tree. Old billy goat will rub his horns on your tree trunk, and could rub the bark off the tree, which will result in death to your tree. Goats love pecans even more than pecan leaves, so they most certainly need to be removed from the orchard prior to nut drop.
If you have a young orchard with lots of 'wasted space' between rows, it is feasible to plant a ground crop of hay grass or something similiar. Some pecan producers plant legumes in their orchard to provide a natural source of nitrogen, but we must keep in mind that other crops will tend to compete for water and will provide a breeding ground for insects.
In this day and age, agriculture producers often 'take the easy route' by over-reliance on pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and yes, even fertilizers in maintaining their crops. When it comes to pecan production, use of many of these expensive and often somewhat dangerous chemicals can be minimized or even eliminated by proper, natural, and organic orchard management procedures. By managing your orchard floor, controlling weeds, eliminating hiding places for insects to breed and reproduce, and removing any insect or disease infected debris, you can produce a more profitable pecan crop...more efficiently.