Pine Straw Harvesting

Cost Associated with Harvesting Pine Straw

In Texas, costs for harvesting and marketing of loblolly pine straw tend to be greater than in other Southern states in which the pine straw market is more established (e.g., Georgia, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas. For example, harvesters have successfully hand baled in Florida for some 15 years. This increased cost is largely due to the cost associated with preparing or “cleaning” an existing stand for the first time mechanical harvesting of pine straw. The cost of initial cleaning is estimated to be between $180 and $250 per acre. The cost of cleaning may be much lower if hand raking and hand baling.

Pine straw can be baled with a simple hand-powered box baler.
Click on the image to view the hand baling process.

Harvesting equipment and infrastructure costs depend upon whether or not the producer is baling on a large commercial scale, or on a part-time small operation. Generally, small operations may only need $200 worth of equipment to bale an averaged sized plantation, not including labor, because straw may be raked by hand and baled using a hand-powered baling box operation

Most small operations can bale and deliver straw with no need for storage. In addition, many forest landowners who also own farms may already have much of the necessary equipment for pine straw harvesting (e.g., dump rake, tedder rake, mechanical hay baler, small tractors, trailer, barn)

In Texas, the total costs for loblolly pine straw harvesting and marketing on a commercial scale are estimated to be between $2.00 and $2.50 per bale once the stand is established for straw harvesting. The first year, due to cleanup and marketing costs, harvesters have an estimated $4 to $6 tied up in each bale. A commercial scale operation may initially require more than $50,000 in specialized equipment (Fig. 5) and labor to be competitive. Because of the large volume of production, commercial operation must have seasonal storage large enough truck to economically haul bales to market.

Good Pine Straw Stand requirements

Not every plantation is suitable for pine straw baling. A candidate pine straw site should be free of any erosion concerns. Harvesters prefer to start harvesting in stands that are at least 10 years old but before the first thinning. Sites should carry from 90 to 110 sq ft of basal area to maximize both needle and wood production. At the very minimum a basal area of 70-75 square feet of basal area is required to provide enough shade to eliminate grasses on the forest floor. A 25 to 30 percent crown-to-total height ratio should be maintained to avoid overcrowding of the trees.

If mechanically baling, sites must be clean and flat. Planted pasturelands with few or no terraces provide the ideal pine straw harvesting stand. Many stands have too much herbaceous material, and cows are a potential problem if your market does not want extra nutrients added.

A Star Mini-Roll round baler used for commercial operations.
Click on the image to view a Quicktime movie.

If the site is to be mechanically baled, the optimum row spacing depends upon the size and shape of the equipment used for raking and baling. Old style equipment requires 12 to 16 feet between rows for equipment access. However newer, specialized equipment requires only 6 to 8 feet between rows to move the equipment. Yet, practical raking requirements still dictate 8 to 12 between rows, even for specialized equipment, to harvest pine straw efficiently. New plantations can be planted with wide row spacing to facilitate equipment use during harvesting. Wide row spacing also has advantages for timber production as well.

Harvesting Process

Surprisingly, raking and baling are the easiest and fastest parts of the process. Cleanup, gathering, and transporting the bales are the more difficult, labor intensive and expensive steps. For example, a highly productive crew of five people will require two to three weeks to prepare, clean, rake, bale, and haul pine straw bales from a typical, 30 acre plantation. The process for machine harvesting a typical pine plantation for pine straw requires that you:

  • Remove (prune) the lower limbs of every tree that might block the movement of equipment and laborers within the rows. Pruning may be performed by hand with machete or special saws for approximately $0.85 per tree. Limb removal may also be accomplished more cost effectively by using a modified cutter attached to a small tractor as shown in figure 6. Hand raking operations may not find pruning necessary depending upon tree height.

A blade attached vertically to a tractor can be used to prune trees quickly.

  • Remove all trees and shrubs that are within the baling rows. Special contractual arrangements might be made with the harvester to remove diseased trees within the rows as well.
  • Remove all limbs and other debris from the baling rows. The debris must be picked up or raked off site. Often, one out of 3 or 5 rows will be used as a “trash” rows in which the debris will be deposited. This eliminates the need to move the debris great distances and reduce labor cost.

A prepared stand in which every sixth row is used as a debris row.

  • Rake the pine needles either by hand or by machine into windrows. Make sure to exclude any insects (ants), excess litter, grass, hardwood leaves when baling that might reduce the value of the bale. Low-grade straw that contains extraneous debris or partially decomposed needles should be sold at a discount. Be careful to avoid seeds of noxious weeds, bahia grass and others flora that might present a problem in landscaping yards or flower beds.
  • Bale either by hand or by machine. Twine should be tight enough to hold bale securely without breaking.

Pine straw baled by machine to produce rectangular (square) bales.
Click on image to view a QuickTime movie.

  • Transport bales out of woods and deliver to markets or to a storage barn. Straw bales should be protected from rain to prevent molding and nutrient leaching.

A quality barn is essential to protecting and/or drying pine straw.
Click on image to view a QuickTime movie.