Associate Professor with Auburn University, Becky Barlow, introduces the loblolly pine which is valued for timber because it is a fast-growing pine species that gains height and width before other trees within the stand can compete. Loblolly is most easily recognized by its needle structure. The needles are in groups of three and run along the length of the branches. Its bark is thinner and flakes off easily, in part due to its failure to adapt to fire. Loblolly pine is best suited for low-lying, marshy regions. It consumes nutrients and water quickly and will not flourish on higher ground with rocky soil. If loblolly is planted on higher ground, there is a good chance that it will eventually produce an abundance of pine cones as a last effort to establish new seedlings before the tree dies. While loblolly pine needles are frequently raked for straw, it is the longleaf pine needle that is the most highly prized for pine straw yard cover.
Longleaf Pine has a very thick bark and has evolved to be a fire adapted species. Its needle clusters resemble a ball on the tips of the branches rather than the loblolly needles which run up the lengths of the branches. In its grass stage, the needles are the longest. Should a fire occur, the long needles protect the inner bud of the young trees. Longleaf pine has the biggest cones of the southern pine species. Cone production will slow when the trees are stocked at higher levels. In order to promote cone production with viable seed, it is recommended that the trees be thinned to about 40 square feet of basal area. Longleaf pine needles are valued more so than loblolly due in part to the its adaptation to fire. Once dry, the longleaf needles have a rich brown color that is enhanced by their waxy coating unlike those of loblolly which tend to be more of a dull grey-brown.
Slash Pine and short leaf pine are two other pine species that are common throughout the Southeast. Slash pine is the second most preferred pine for straw and is most often in bundles of two whereas long leaf and loblolly come in bundles of three. Although short leaf pine is not ideal for pine straw, as the leaves are short and are difficult to bale, it does have ecological value. Becky Barlow, Associate Professor at Auburn University, explains how to identify both of these pine species in this video.
Fire can be an important tool in your toolbox when managing a longleaf pine stand for pine straw. Woody stems and understory debris can be controlled through the introduction of fire at regular intervals. This can help keep the understory relatively clear, which will allow for easier raking. Prescribed burns also help to cultivate a healthy native habitat for wildlife, as the practice promotes the growth of grasses which are essential for birds such as quail and turkeys. If fire is excluded for too long, woody material can start to take over. The larger the mass of woody material, the more difficult it is to use fire as a means to control the understory. Once the woody stems and brush reach this stage, mechanical removal and understory mulching is the preferred method of control.
Large sticks, pine cones, and other forest debris should be removed from the site prior to raking. If selling pine straw bales, it is important to avoid raking up insects, invasive species, or anything else which may be harmful to handle or detrimental to someone's property. While mechanical raking may be more appropriate for a pine plantation with little understory, hand raking is a more ecological approach that leaves grasses, pine seedlings, and some woody debris behind for wildlife cover. Hand raking is the preferred method in order to keep a diverse and healthy understory intact. Pine needles typically fall in October, November, and December, depending on location. Raking follows in January and February with the sale of pine straw occurring in the spring when people generally begin landscaping.
Associate Professor with Auburn University, Becky Barlow, explains how a hand-made pine straw baler is used. A hand baler is a helpful piece of equipment to have if you're considering raking and baling pine straw for a profit. The baler is loaded onto a dolly and carted into the forest where the raking will take place. Alternatively, the pine straw can be raked onto a tarp and then brought to the baler to tie into bales. Through trial and error, Becky has constructed several designs of the baler, one of which is shown here. The pine straw is simply loaded into the main chamber and compressed with the plunger until a full bale is formed. Twine is connected to nails on the inside of the baler and is then threaded through the holes so that once the baler is fully loaded and compressed, the twine is already in place to tie up the bale.
Associate Professor at Auburn University, Becky Barlow, demonstrates how to use a hand-loaded pine straw baler. Before loading the baler with straw, it must be outfitted with twine in order to tie the bale once it has been packed. All sticks, pine cones, invasive species, and insects should be removed from the pine straw before loading it into the baler. If a burning regime is practiced on the property, only the freshly fallen pine straw should be raked. Burnt or old straw should be left on the ground. Once the baler is fully loaded, it is packed with the wooden plunger and then loaded again. The string is tightened around the bale and then knotted. After opening the door, the bale is pulled out and is ready for sale.
Baling pine straw on a pine plantation is often done mechanically as the set spaces between trees make it easier for mechanical balers to move through the forest. In this video, we take a look at a pine plantation that will be converted into a silvopasture and also raked for pine needles. By combining various aspects of agroforestry such as forest farming and silvopasture, multiple methods for income can be adopted on a single plot of land.