In a winter of unusual developments, it’s business as usual in the Mesilla Valley pecan orchards of Clayschulte Bros. LLC, Mesilla, N.M.
Ongoing activities, which began the first week of January, include hedging and pruning, grinding up the branches removed in the process, and as soon as that’s completed in each field, irrigating the orchards. Crews are also ripping the row middles to improve drainage and laser leveling to touch up orchard floors for more efficient flood irrigation.
The big surprise for Marshall Clayshulte, who manages the farming operations, and his fellow pecan producers, were the higher-than-normal yields this past off year.
He attributes it to favorable weather the previous winter, when the area received an unusually-high 6 inches of rainfall along with warm temperatures.
“Last year re-affirms why winter irrigation is so important to pecan trees in this region,” Clayshulte says. “Whenever possible, we try to provide our orchards with one good, leaching irrigation each winter.”
Unlike many past years, he was still shipping pecans into the middle of February, although he is about finished now. That’s the result of the industry’s highest pecan price in history, he says.
“The 2010 crop was worth quite a bit more than most packers and handlers anticipated, and that put them in a money crunch. They had to buy nuts as their financing allowed. Now, the crop is just about all swallowed up. Growers here didn’t begin shipping until after the first of the year. In only 30 to 40 days, many millions of pounds of pecans have been shipped, and they’re moving into the market just fine.”
Bitter cold the first week of February, when temperatures plummeted to 3 degrees below zero, threw another curve to growers. It was the coldest weather to hit the area in four decades, Clayshulte notes.
Growers won’t know for sure whether the trees suffered freeze damage until bud break in early April. But, because the pecan trees were completely dormant, he’s not expecting much, if any, damage.
“The cold sure wreaked havoc on landscape trees,” he says. “Every palm tree in the area is dead.”
This winter, Clayshulte is hedging his trees — sides and tops — prior to the upcoming on year. He began doing this on a regular basis eight years ago.
It’s designed to even out year-to-year fluctuations in quality and yields by limiting production in the on years in order to provide the trees more energy to produce more and better nuts in the off-years. At the same time, it keeps the trees producing new wood, maintains them at a more manageable size and opens up the orchards to more sunlight
When he first started doing this, crews were removing branches as large as 8 to 10 inches in diameter. Now, with hedging, the wood removed is much smaller, typically 2 inches or less in diameter.
“Hedging has worked well for us,” Clayshulte says. “It’s not the answer for everything, but with the varieties we grow (Western Schley, Bradley and Wichita) and density (35 feet between rows and 25 feetbetween trees within rows), it has been of great benefit.”
For the past 10 years, he has also been running a ripper to a depth of 2 feet down the center between the rows of trees growing on heavier soils to open up compaction for better drainage. It takes a 300-hp tractor to pull five 36-inch long shanks, loosening about a third of the area between the tree rows.
Leveling the orchards is another winter task. All the fields have been laser leveled multiple times to knock down the high spots and fill in the low areas that develop with disking, ripping or other soil-disturbing activities.
“We touch up what we can as weather and time permit,” Clayshulte says. “We try to treat each orchard every five years.