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A Tale of Two Enterprises: Pecans and Cattle

Integrating cattle in a native pecan management system requires careful consideration of many factors.

Two cows graze underneath a native pecan tree.

Cows graze in a native pecan grove in Oklahoma. (Photo by Catherine Clark)

Regardless of the total acreage of a pecan grove, the trees themselves occupy only a small portion of the physical ground space most of the time. This leaves much of the total acreage as simply ground cover, usually grass, which can be maintained by regular mowing or haying of the grove floor. Many producers choose to view grassy ground cover as a forage and have maintained the grove floor by grazing cattle.

Across much of the southern Great Plains, cattle can be found peacefully grazing beneath native pecan trees, which may just so happen to be found in their pasture. Choosing to purposefully integrate cattle into a pecan management system offers producers some potential benefits and drawbacks, especially for those managing low-input groves. However, each individual producer should first consider their goals and available resources.

Pecan groves and cattle operations exist extensively as separate enterprises. Therefore, integrating cattle and pecans should be thought of as combining two enterprises with different needs and management requirements. Thinking of them as separate entities can allow a manager to understand how to allocate their resources most efficiently and also to consider actions which must be taken to ensure that the enterprises can co-exist rather than conflict.

A producer must first answer some important questions about their grove. These questions include things like: what is my total acreage? How much is covered in grazeable forages? How long can I graze? How will my pecan yields be impacted? How will my fertilizer requirements change? What pesticides can I use?

The question of integrating cattle does not come with a simple yes or no answer. The answer depends on the answers to the above questions and many others. Cattle, first and foremost, will require additional labor. If the labor requirement cannot be met, then a manager should stop there. A producer choosing to utilize and maintain their own cow-calf herd for their grove will face much more work than a producer who is able to graze stocker cattle.

Cattle can be grazed starting after harvest until the fall. During these times cattle can be grazed on the cool season forage that normally occurs under pecan trees during the winter and early spring and then the warm season forages that occur among the trees during the summer.

The stocking rate is going to depend on the amount of available forage which can be increased by applying additional nitrogen fertilizer or by removing trees when tree density is too high. This will not only improve the available forage but will increase pecan production in areas where trees are crowded and sunlight is not penetrating through the trees canopies to the ground.

When considering fertilizing for increased forage, a producer should consider the fact that they are managing two crops and that these two crops require different management. Fertilizer is needed at different times for the trees and the forage. Therefore, a producer will apply fertilizer in late winter prior to budbreak for the pecan trees and then again in the spring for the forage. This will help increase both pecan production and forage production.

When fertilizing for the trees, the forage will benefit a little from the application, and when the forage is fertilized, the trees will be able to take up some of the fertilizer that the grass does not.

Cattle should be removed from the grove at least 90 to 120 days before harvest. This will allow plenty of time for the manure to decompose so that it doesn’t contaminate the pecans at harvest time.

Cattle will also require additional fencing if there is none already present. In that case, portable electric fencing may be the most feasible since it is easy to maintain and can be easily moved so that it doesn’t inhibit the movement of equipment through the grove.

A producer should also be careful to read the labels of any pesticides they use. Some pesticides labeled for use in pecan groves may not be labeled for use with grazing cattle or may carry grazing restrictions.

Remember: the label is the law.

The main benefit of grazing cattle is the potentially reduced cost of mowing the grove floor through the summertime and the provided additional income. However, integrating cattle may reduce the total yield of the pecan production, yet it may increase the overall financial stability of the grove. For cattle to be economical, the reduced cost and additional income must be greater than the income lost from decreased yields. This will largely depend on the prices of both cattle and pecans.

Recently, at the Noble Research Institute, we estimated the economic feasibility of running summer stocker cattle in a native pecan grove versus only managing for native pecans over a 10-year period. We assumed that the 250-acre native pecan grove with bermudagrass was located in South Central Oklahoma. In both scenarios, we assume there were 17 trees per acre, three zinc applications per year, and that fungicide and harvesting costs were not different among the two scenarios, as well as the price received for the pecans.

With stocker cattle integrated into the system, we assumed that on average pecan yield was 50 pounds per acre lower, that 1.15 acres per animal was required on average and that the stockers each gained 1.4 pounds per day on average. Integrating cattle also increased the capital outlay as additional items such as portable pens, a livestock trailer, and other equipment were needed in caring for the stocker cattle. Using stocker cattle to manage the grove floor reduced the number of mowings required from three to one per year. However, one additional urea application was required with stocker cattle.

On average over the 10 years, the scenario that integrated cattle with pecans had a 15.2 percent higher net cash income. Several factors contributed to this. Income was more consistent with cattle as they added diversity to the pecan enterprise, buffering the effect of the alternate bearing pecan trees. The reduced mowings provided a substantial cost savings; however, urea fertilizer costs were increased.

In year 5, cash costs for the cattle and pecans scenario were $6,206 lower. So even though revenue was greater with just pecans, it was not enough to overcome the increased costs. Albeit, net cash income was only $450 greater with both cattle and pecans versus just pecans in year 5.

Combining cattle and pecans leads to more consistent profits over time. Having the two in combination will most likely not lead to the highest absolute profit possible, but it will help to avoid lower profits. So, even though small, there is less financial risk to the producer that combines both enterprises.

As mentioned previously, there are many considerations to evaluate before combining two enterprises. However, if integrating cattle into your native pecan grove is an option, it may bring you more financial stability. As always, it is best to tailor the assumptions to your operation to ensure that you can achieve the same results or better before embarking on this journey.

Author Photo

Barrett A. Moore, Myriah D. Johnson, and Charles T. Rohla

Barrett Moore is a graduate student at Oklahoma State University, and Myriah Johnson (Ph.D.) is an Ag Economist at Noble Research Institute. Charles Rohla is Manager of the Center of Pecan and Specialty Agriculture at the Noble Research Institute in Ardmore.