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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Managing pine straw harvests to minimize soil and water losses)

item Pote, Daniel - Dan
item Daniel, Tommy

Submitted to: Journal of Soil and Water Conservation
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 11/1/2007
Publication Date: 1/1/2008
Citation: Pote, D.H., Daniel, T.C. 2008. Managing pine straw harvests to minimize soil and water losses. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 63(1):27A-28A.

Interpretive Summary: Pine straw harvesting has become a multi-million dollar business in several southeastern states because of its value as a landscaping mulch, but loss of those mulching benefits from pine forests can increase runoff, soil erosion and nutrient losses in areas where pine straw is harvested. To help minimize such losses and replace nutrients removed during the harvest, researchers at USDA-ARS in Booneville, Arkansas and at the University of Arkansas conducted studies to evaluate management options and develop minimal fertilizer recommendations for pine straw harvesting. They determined that wherever possible it is best to schedule long intervals (at least two years) between harvests, rake only the fresh (red) straw that accumulated during the most recent pine needle fall, and apply fertilizer the following spring; but they also developed conservation practices for landowners who need to harvest more frequently or more extensively. The study is of interest to scientists, foresters, extension personnel, landowners and producers because it provides science-based strategies and recommendations for making pine straw harvesting more sustainable by replacing lost nutrients and minimizing environmental impacts.

Technical Abstract: Pine straw is a valuable landscape mulch because it conserves soil moisture, moderates soil temperature, inhibits weed growth, and protects the soil surface against erosion, while retaining a loose structure that allows water, air, and fertilizer to easily reach the soil surface. As a result, marketing pine straw has become a multi-million dollar industry, but the loss of those mulching benefits from pine forests can increase runoff, soil erosion and nutrient losses in watersheds where pine straw is harvested. Forest nutrients removed in pine straw should be replaced by applying manure or fertilizer in the spring. Recommended strategies to help minimize soil and water losses include: wherever possible, harvesting only the top layer of pine straw (red straw) that has been on the ground less than one year, while leaving older pine straw layers undisturbed to protect the soil, and harvesting less frequently (intervals of at least two years). If all the straw layers must be harvested, scheduled intervals of three years or more between harvests are recommended. Furthermore, our research showed that soil erosion and nutrient losses in runoff can at least be mitigated by harvesting relatively early in the fall (October), so that needles dropping on the bare soil later in the season provide partial soil cover throughout the year. Harvesting early in the fall also allows time before cold weather arrives to immediately establish a cool-season grass cover crop for better soil protection as well as livestock forage. Landowners who choose to harvest their pine straw every year may be able to increase short-term profits; but sustaining annual harvests long-term will likely require intensive management practices such as early harvesting, establishment of a grass-cover grazing system, and adequate fertilization.

Last Modified: 8/24/2016
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