Central Oklahoma and North Texas farmers and ranchers looking for a new enterprise might consider pecans — if they're patient and willing to invest the management and money necessary to produce a profitable crop.
“We've seen a lot of interest and a lot of new pecan plantings going in,” says Charles Rohla, pecan specialist at The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma.
Rohla and James Locke, soils and crop specialist, say pecans provide promising profit potential for the right producers with the right conditions.
“Pecans offer more profit potential than a typical row crop enterprise, a cow/calf farm or a stocker operation, even at peak cycles,” Locke says.
But it takes good yields to make good money. “We set a target of 2,000 pounds per acre,” Rohla says. With a $2 per pound retail market, opportunities are pretty good. “A few do that well,” he says. “I know one producer who says he's made a profit of $3800 per acre on pecans. But that includes his retail center.”
They say others have compared pecans to soybeans, even with the increased price for soybeans. “They still come out ahead with pecans,” Rohla says. “But it's a long-term investment. It may take 10 years before a grower gets to half production. It's 12 years to full production.”
“And the grower will spend from $4,000 to $6,000 per acre, including an irrigation system, in the interim,” Locke says. “Some land owners are putting in dryland pecans and production costs are considerably less, but so is production, 1,000 to 1,200 pounds per acre, with the right varieties. They also can add four to five years until full production.”
They say dryland production also comes with “alternate bearing” problems. A good year often is followed by a poor one as the trees recover. “With irrigation, improved varieties, and other management practices, we can lessen the effect of alternate bearing,” Rohla says.
Gearing up to grow pecans on a commercial scale is not something landowners should take on without considerable preparation. Rohla and Locke say growers should consider three key factors before planting the first tree.
Soil and water availability is the first, they say. “We need deep, well-drained soil,” Locke says. “The tree needs at least 3 to 4 feet of available rooting depth.”
Water amount and quality also is important. “Pecans are very sensitive to salt,” Rohla says. “With some of the water from the Red River aquifer salt is an issue. Water out of the river is also high in salt.”
Pecans need 2 inches of water per week, 50 inches to 60 inches per year. Typical irrigation would be either a micro-jet or drip tape system.
Determining varieties is the second key pre-production decision and variety selection depends on soil and water. “In shallow soil, smaller varieties work best. Also, that's the best choice with limited water,” Rohla says.
They recommend planting several varieties to assure proper pollination and staggered maturity. “Select different maturity dates to match market trends and to allow timely harvest,” Locke says.
They recommend Pawnee and Kanza as two excellent choices for improved varieties. “These are good at pollinating each other and are early ripening,” Rohla says. Pawnee is a large nut, 50 to 45 nuts per pound. Kanza is smaller, around 70 nuts per pound. Both produce excellent quality nuts with 55 percent to 58 percent kernels.
“Earliness is an advantage with both these varieties,” Rohla says. “Growers can harvest and get them to market before Thanksgiving.”
Early harvest also has the advantage of getting the crop in before crows and squirrels can cause damage.
“Those pests can cause one pound of damage per day per animal,” Rohla says. “Blue jays cause about half that much.”
Determining size of planting is the final factor. “For a new producer, a big issue is deciding how much to plant,” Locke says, “and that decision depends on management ability.” He says a grower with no crop production background may want to be a bit more cautious than someone with more experience growing tree or row crops. They recommend a newcomer who has a native stand try to improve what's available and add improved varieties as they learn the ropes.
Native trees would mean less upfront costs for irrigation and less cost and management for disease and insect scouting and control.
“If a producers has native trees, we can find improved varieties that match well with them,” Rohla says.
They say experienced farmers may opt to put in a more high management orchard.
“Anyone can learn how to grow pecans,” Locke says. “It depends on how hard a grower is willing to work.”
In some cases, high management may allow growers to push the crop to production within seven to eight years. Typically, trees produce 40 to 50 pounds per acre at five years. “The record for a 5-year production average is 1,000 pounds per acre,” Rohla says.
Production costs for initial outlay for land preparation, planting and irrigation range from $1,000 to $2,000 per acre “in our old budget,” says Rohla. “Now, it's probably double that, especially with irrigation costs. We see a lot of variability between varieties, irrigation systems and management options.”
He says growers who have to put in all new irrigation systems will shell out more money to get going. If they have irrigation systems in place and just have to renovate or tap into existing lines, they save a lot of money.
Growers typically space tees in new, improved variety orchards at 35 trees per acre. That spacing remains through the first 14 years. “The high tree population helps pay for initial costs,” Rohla says. “At 14 years we recommend thinning to maximize production.”
During the first 14 years trees are not so big they compete with each other for sunlight, nutrients and moisture.
After the orchard is established, growers will spend from $250 to $1,000 per year per acre to maintain the crop. Variability depends on varieties and year-to-year insect infestations and disease infection. Bad scab years and susceptible varieties may run costs up significantly. Some varieties require less disease management than others.
“We had a bad scab year in 2007 and we did not have to spray Pawnee and Kanza,” Rohla says.
Ample fertility is also critical to establish new orchards. “For improved varieties zinc is the most important nutrient,” Locke says. “Improved varieties need foliar applications of zinc every two weeks, starting at bud break and for as long as the tree is growing in-season, usually July or August.”
Pecan trees do not need a lot of nitrogen, but do need some for adequate growth. Nitrogen typically goes on the ground.
“A lot of growers are showing interest in using a legume to supply nitrogen,” Locke says. “A legume that leaves 100 to 150 pounds of nitrogen provides more than enough for pecan trees.”
They say producers allow the legume to grow into summer, when, as a cool-season crop, it declines. Growers mow in the fall to facilitate harvest. Alfalfa “is too competitive,” Locke says. “White clover has done well and vetch looks pretty good, too.”
Annual production costs for native varieties are considerably less, typically from $200 to $300 per acre.
“In a good year, we can produce more pecans on native trees than we do on improved,” Rohla says. “But we can't control alternate bearing.”
He says a lot of producers are getting into native pecan production by cleaning up timberland. “A big factor in making native trees productive is thinning. We need to make certain trees are structurally sound and free of diseases. We thin to 50 percent shade and encourage grass to grow on the orchard floor.”
Some producers graze cattle in the native pecan groves.
Rohla says prices for pecans have remained relatively strong for the past few years, averaging 85 cents per pound for native pecans and $1.40 per pound for improved varieties (wholesale prices) the past five years.
Oklahoma growers report 86,000 acres in pecans with 85 percent of those natives. “From one-third to one-half of those are commercially harvested,” Rohla says. “We have potential for significantly more acreage in Oklahoma and North Texas. In the last two years we have had 2,200 acres either planted or projected.
“Interest is growing.”