Pecan production is a complex practice, requiring considerable knowledge of the pecan tree and of the limiting factors involved in the production of the pecan crop.
One of the major constraints involved in the production of pecans is the alternate or irregular bearing tendency, which is an innate survival characteristic of the tree. Years of heavy crop load are termed “on” years, while those with poor crop loads are termed “off” years. In order for a commercial pecan operation or a backyard gardener to be consistently successful, the goal should be annual production of a moderate crop of high-quality nuts, rather than the production of a high yield in a single given year. Culturally, there are several basic factors that will help to promote optimum profitability and production with a pecan orchard/tree.
Nutrition for pecans should be managed by using visual observation, soil analysis, and foliar analysis. Pecan trees should grow at least 8 to 10 inches on lateral terminal branches each year for optimal production. If more or less growth occurs, the fertility program may need to be modified. Soil samples can be collected and submitted for analysis on a bi-annual basis for consistent fertility management. Samples should be taken from the soil surface at a depth of 8-inches to 16-inches. A rule of thumb for fertilizing nonbearing trees is to apply 1 pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer (10% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus, 10% potassium) per year of tree age, in late February or early March, not to exceed 25 pounds per tree. For bearing trees, apply 4 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter measured just below the scaffold branches. Broadcast the fertilizer in a broad band around the tree’s drip line. Pecan trees also require adequate zinc as determined by a soil analysis. If zinc deficiency symptoms are seen, foliar applications of 1.6 ounces of zinc sulfate in 5 gallons of water applied after 1-inch of new growth in the spring and repeated every 3 to 4 weeks will help correct the deficiency.
Old Tree Renovation
Many pecan plantings in North Carolina has been neglected for years. Renovating 75-foot-tall trees is costly and usually not economically feasible. Drastic pruning on older trees reduces their productivity for at least 3 years. This loss will never be recovered. The best way to manage these orchards is to thin out the trees as needed to attain proper light penetration and air movement. After removing the necessary trees, remove any dead, diseased, or damaged branches on the remaining trees. Any branches that are crowding and that cross within the trees also should be removed during the dormant season. If major pruning is planned, it should be done over a period of at least three years. Each year make several large cuts in each tree to minimize the production decrease and the resulting surge in growth from the pruning cuts. Under no circumstances should trees be “de-horned” by significantly cutting back all branches. Don’t go overboard with the fertilizer during the first year of rehab. The trees have already determined what size crop to make an attempt at producing. No amount of fertilizer will put more nuts on them the first year. Many of these older orchards or backyard plantings, though having been out of production for many years, will have adequate levels of P, K, and even Zn, if they were ever worked in the past. This is because there is an enormous amount of nutrient cycling in pecan orchards. So, soil test before making these applications. Lime as needed and apply only a moderate amount of N the first year in April.
Harvest and Storage
Pecans are harvested when the shuck opens, allowing the nuts to drop. For a small-scale operation, sheets can be spread under the tree to catch the falling nuts. Nuts also can be picked up with small, hand operated harvesters, larger push-propelled harvesters or by hand. Nuts harvested by hand should be picked up every other day to prevent the nuts from molding or being destroyed or removed by pests. Once harvested, the nuts need to be dried to 8 — 10% moisture. For small-scale production, the nuts can be dried by placing them in porous burlap bags in a location with moderate ventilation and heat. Pecans, like any nut, have a relatively high oil content and will spoil. For optimal storage, they can be held at 32 degrees for approximately one year. For longer storage periods, the nuts should be kept in a freezer. If pecans are sold in the shell, the price is determined by the kernel color, development, insect damage, percentage of mold, and size. One problem that commonly reduces the price of nuts is the presence of fuzzy or packing material on the kernel. This material is a result of the nut being stressed during the growing season, often by inadequate moisture. The only way to avoid this problem is by allowing tree growth to proceed season long without any stress disorders.
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