Texas Native Pecans

Larry A. Stein and George Ray McEachern
Extension Horticulturists
Texas A & M University
College Station, Texas 77843-2134
January 27, 1997

There are 600,000 to one million acres of native pecans along the numerous rivers, streams, and creeks in Texas. The major streams on which dense stands of trees are found are the Red, Sabine, Trinity, Neches, Brazos, Colorado, Guadalupe, and Nueces. Of the total number of native trees in Texas, approximately 40,000 acres are managed consistently as the native crop production is seldom over 20 million pounds. A native pecan management program should include cattle grazing, real estate, and timber production.

Native pecans are a weak economic crop when compared to planted orchards because of alternate bearing, small nut size, low percentage of kernel, and traditionally low market price. It is difficult to make significant management inputs when the economic return will be low.

All native pecan groves are different. Those growing along large rivers or streams have more economic potential because of deep soils and subsurface irrigation as opposed to those on small creeks. Flooding during the fall harvest can destroy the entire crop.

Remove Foreign Timber
The first step to rejuvenating a native pecan bottom is to remove all foreign timber--oak, elm, hackberry, mesquite, etc. regardless of size. A common situation in many groves is to have a few large pecan trees surrounded by very dense stands of smaller pecan trees. Remove foreign timber without harming the pecan trees. The trees can be pushed out using a bulldozer or chain sawed and drug out. Individual trees can be girdled and burned out.

Do not use brush herbicides containing Picloram or 2,4-D around pecan trees. The brush herbicide choice would be Remedy. All foreign timber should be removed prior to beginning a management program.

Establishing Pasture
Native pecans must be managed in combination with cattle. Establish a native grass sod immediately after tree thinning. Many times the native grasses will reclaim the land once sunlight again hits the grove floor. Smooth the soil with discing, seed, and fertilize with a very high rate of nitrogen for a few years to shock the trees back into growth. The nitrogen will be used by both the grass and the trees. Sometimes 3 to 5 years are required for the trees to bear. Foliar zinc sprays will also be needed to stimulate growth.

Select the Best Trees
Evaluate each tree for production potential and nut size. Once a tree is identified as a good producer of large nuts, it should be marked to remain as a permanent tree. On the other hand, trees with small nuts need to be marked for immediate removal. Weak, inferior, and damaged trees should be removed right away. Trees should receive full sunlight over the entire canopy for maximum production. In reality, this is never the case. A native pecan grove often contains numerous tall, spindly, trees which have to be thinned. It is ideal to have 50% of the ground shaded and 50% of it covered in sunlight for optimum spacing in a native bottom. In addition, pecan trees should be evaluated on individual tree productivity, nut quality, and susceptibility to disease (scab) and insects (phylloxera, weevil). Tree evaluation and removal should continue with some trees being removed every year indefinitely. Thinning has to be a long term, on-going event for best results.

Before trees are removed, contact potential buyers of veneer logs, sawlogs, cross ties, and/or firewood to obtain timber buyers. In large native bottoms, a trained forester will be needed to estimate the economic value and help locate a buyer. The initial thinning operations to increase nut production in a native pecan stand may include as much as 2,500 board feet of veneer logs and sawlogs and five to eight cords of firewood. Timber product sales could reduce total costs of thinning and may result in partial profits.

Large industrial timber buyers have not developed in Texas; however, there are over 50 small sawmills which purchase pecan timber. Texas native pecan wood is dark colored with numerous markings, which is atypical in the national hardwood trade; however, this does not rule out a market for handmade paneling, furniture, and floors.

The best timber sales have come from individuals who have small portable sawmills. They have been able to cut and dry their timber for their own use or for retail sale. Such mills do a good job, but it requires a lot of work. Pecan logs have been sold for mushroom production and firewood. In addition, firewood has probably accounted for most of the sales, although the market can become saturated.

Improving Small Trees
Small pecan trees are ideal for topworking to improved varieties. Only very small, pecan scab resistant varieties such as Caddo, Candy, Prilop, Pcou 2, Osage, and Kanza should be used. In Central and West Texas, Sioux could also be used. Topwork the trees at least six feet off the ground to prevent cattle and deer damage.

Protect the Good Crops
Profit margins will be narrow for native pecans. Attention must be paid to management costs, grove yields, and anticipated prices. Most managed native pecan groves average 500 pounds of nuts per acre per year, though this is usually 1,000 pounds one year and none the next. Management practices must be directed toward maximizing the on-year crops. Increased production could help offset low prices. Nitrogen, zinc, pecan nut case bearer, and pecan weevil must be managed according to crop load. Every effort must be taken to protect the good crops. Money should not be used on the off-years. Nitrogen fertilizer stimulates growth which improves production. It also benefits pasture grasses. The pasture grass should always be fertilized in the late winter or early spring. If a good crop is set, a second application should be made in late May or June. Zinc sprays are essential for leaf and shoot growth and to fill the pecans on good years. One application should be made every year at bud break. A second application will be needed in the good crop year. Zinc is a low cost spray treatment and more than two sprays will be beneficial on the good years.

Varmint Control
Crows, raccoons, deer, and turkey can drastically reduce crop production and profits. In short crop years, the damage is obvious; however, it is always a problem. Hunting is an integral part of the native management program.

Management / Harvest Options
There are numerous lease agreements in effect in Texas in regards to native pecans. Each owner/operator should try to work an agreement most acceptable to one’s economic involvement. Some of the more common systems include:

  1. Owner-Operated
    The owner takes care of the grove and performs all operations including harvest.

  2. 80:20
    This is a lease agreement where the grove manager provides all labor, all equipment, and pays all expenses. He receives 80% of the gross whereas the owner receives 20% of the gross.

  3. 60:40
    A lease agreement that is occasionally used on groves under minimal or no management. The gatherer harvests and markets the crop for 60% of the gross and the owner gets 40% of the gross.

  4. 50:50
    This is the most common form of lease agreements. The owner and the manager split the costs 50:50. The manager provides all labor and equipment and markets the crop. Gross returns are split 50:50.

  5. Lease
    The lease is a common situation in which the grove is leased for a set price. Some groves are leased just prior to harvest and others are leased for a number of years.

  6. Custom Harvesters
    Sometimes an owner will take care of a grove and then hire a custom harvester to come in and gather the crop.