Harvesting Pine Straw for Profit: Questions Landowners Should Ask Themselves - Alabama Cooperative Extension System (2023)

Harvesting Pine Straw for Profit: Questions Landowners Should Ask Themselves - Alabama Cooperative Extension System (1)

Production of nontimber forest products such aspine straw can be a good way for forestlandowners to earn an income, especially when traditionaltimber markets are down. Pine straw consists of theneedles that fall from pine trees. Freshly fallen needlescan be raked and sold to retailers, landscapers,and others who use the material as ground cover.

Pine straw production is often compatible with otherland uses, but landowners need to consider severalfactors before beginning pine straw harvesting on theirland. This publication includes questions landownersshould ask themselves to determine if pine strawproduction is right for them. It also provides a briefoverview, in three sections, of issues related to theproduction and harvesting of pine straw:

  • What landowners need to know about their property
  • What landowners need to know about their objectives and management strategies
  • What landowners need to know about the pine straw market

Note: A consulting forester can help provide answers tomany of the site- or treatment-specific questions posedin this publication.

Not all forestland—or even all land forested withpines—is appropriate for pine straw harvesting.Landowners must know certain market or productionrequirements and understand that their objectives mustmatch what is biologically possible on a site.

Questions to ask:

What species is growing?

Alabama has three pine species that are common tothe state and that produce straw frequently used acrossthe Southeast as landscape mulch. Loblolly pine (Pinustaeda) is often grown in plantations and accountsfor more than half of the pine volume in the South.Needles of the loblolly pine are usually 5 to 9 incheslong and occur in clusters of three, sometimes four.Slash pine (Pinus elliottii) is native to coastal areas andoften grows in wet areas, such as near swamps. Itsneedles are usually 6 to 11 inches long and occur inclusters of two or three. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris)grows better than other tree species in sandy, well drainedsoils, but it will grow in almost any soil exceptprairie soils. Longleaf pine needles are approximately 8to 18 inches long and usually occur in clusters of three.

Pine straw suppliers and retailers usually preferspecies with long needles (like longleaf or slash pine).Longer needle length facilitates collection, has slowerdeterioration rates, and allows needles to lock and stayin place, providing enhanced mulching benefits. Somebuyers prefer loblolly because the needles lay flatterand retain their initial appearance (rather than settlingover time), but loblolly does not usually bring a pricepremium. According to a report from the University ofGeorgia, prices paid to landowners for loblolly pinestraw range from $0.25 to $0.30 per bale while pinestraw from longleaf ranges from $0.40 to $1.00 perbale.

How much pine straw will the stand produce?

The amount of pine straw produced depends onseveral stand conditions. Among the major factors arebasal area, age, and site index. Basal area is a measurementof density; it is the area of the cross sections oftree trunks at 4.5 feet and is usually reported in squarefeet per acre. Stands with higher basal areas tendto produce higher amounts of pine straw. For moreinformation on basal area, see Extension publicationANR-1371, “Basal Area: A Measure Made for Management.” The amount of needle fall may also dependon the age of trees in the stand. Stands suitable forpine straw harvesting are usually raked starting whenthey are around 6 to 10 years old and continue to beraked regularly until the first thinning. The maximumyield for pine straw is estimated to be around age 15.As trees mature, pine straw productivity will decline.Site index is a measure of the overall productivity of asite and is based on the average heights of the tallesttrees in a stand at a given base age. Site index can alsoaffect the amount of needles produced—a stand witha higher site index will likely yield higher amounts ofpine straw.

A number of publications provide estimates for pinestraw yields based on different stand characteristics.Table 1 shows how yields may vary widely dependingon location, species, basal area, stand age, and siteindex. Landowners should consider the variabilityof pine straw and use caution when determiningexpected yields or income from pine strawharvesting operations.

Table 1. Pine Straw Yields Reported in Publications

1NR = not reported

2Excluding wood, fruit, and foliage from other species

3Weights given in kilograms per hectare; converted to pounds per acre and divided by 25 to get estimated number of bales

PublicationLocationCriteriaStand/criteria descriptionBales per acre per yearBale size
Dickens et al. 2005U.S. SoutheastSpeciesLoblolly, Slash, Longleaf150 to 275 125 to 250 80 to 200NR 1
Taylor and Foster 2004TexasBasal areaLoblolly, 75 sq.ft./ac. Loblolly, 125 sq.ft./ac.125,17530lbs
Duryea 2000FloridaAgeLongleaf, 6 years Longleaf, 10 years Longleaf, 15 years Longleaf, >15 years50 to 75, 125 to 200, 200 to 300, ~200NR
Hayes et al. 2009Southeast GeorgiaAverageSlash, spacing ranging from 726 to 807 trees per acre, average over nine years238NR
Blevins et al.1985North Carolina and South CarolinaSite index and basal areaLongleaf, site index of 60, basal area of 80 sq.ft./ac. Longleaf, site index of 90, basal area of 180 sq.ft./ac.88,19225lbs
Gholz et al.1985Northern FloridaAgeSlash, average from 6 to 36 years Slash, peak age (15 to 16 years)155,16025lbs
Gresham 1982Costal South CarolinaAverage weight of pine foliage 2Loblolly, 90 to 100 years old, basal area of 44 sq.ft./ac., Longleaf, 130 to 140 years old, basal area of 47 sq.ft./ac.156,74NR3

Are the stand characteristics favorablefor pine straw harvesting?

A number of stand characteristics determine thesuitability of the stand for pine straw harvesting.Landowners need to understand how these characteristicsaffect efficiency and profitability of pine strawoperations. Pine straw can be collected from bothnatural stands and plantations. It is frequently collectedfrom plantations (figure 1) where evenly spaced treesfacilitate mechanical gathering in which needles arecollected and bundled using a tractor-powered baler.Pine straw harvesting in natural stands is often done byhand-raking and by using a simple box baler (figure2). Because harvesters can maneuver between treesmore easily than equipment can, there may be fewerpreparations involved than if the site were a plantationto be mechanically harvested.

Figure 1. The widely spaced rows of longleaf pine in this stand are conducive to mechanical pine straw harvests. (Photo credit: Becky Barlow)
Figure 2. Hand raking pine straw in a planted longleaf pine stand in south Alabama. (Photo credit: Becky Barlow)
Figure 3. Hand pruning of lower branches facilitates mechanical harvesting of pine straw and can improve tree form. (Photo credit: Becky Barlow)

Stand density (the number of trees per acre) and thespacing of trees (distance between trees or rows inplantations) also affect the feasibility of harvesting andthe baling technique used. Commercial raking operationsoften bale mechanically. Needles are collectedby tractor-drawn rakes and then bundled together.Optimum row spacing depends on the size of theequipment to be used, but at least 8 feet is usuallyneeded between rows of trees. Mechanical harvestingmay require pruning of lower limbs from trees. Toprotect health and quality of standing trees, do thispruning by hand (figure 3).

What property characteristics are conduciveto pine straw harvesting?

Certain property characteristics are conducive toharvesting pine straw just as they are with harvestingfor timber. If a stand is to be mechanically raked,accessibility requirements are important to accommodatemachinery (for example, the presence of entryroads or tree rows wide enough to safely operate atractor). A stand may need to be commercially mowedor have large debris removed to gain or maintainaccess. The stand needs to be flat with few or noterraces. A sloping stand, especially a natural standwhere vegetation has not been controlled, is not an ideal site for mechanical harvesting of pine straw.

Pine straw sales are largely unregulated and illegalraking (known as poaching) occurs, so landownersshould consider ways to minimize such risks. Anotherconsideration is storage. Often after the pine strawis baled, it is loaded onto a closed trailer where itremains until it is hauled to the retailer or other salepoint; therefore, the site may need to accommodatesuch a trailer for whatever length of time it takes tocomplete harvesting operations.

Harvesting Pine Straw for Profit: Questions Landowners Should Ask Themselves - Alabama Cooperative Extension System (5)

Figure 4. Because pine straw harvesting requires limiting understory debris and vegetation that often serve as habitat and food for animals, straw removal may not be appropriate for every acre a landowner has. (Photo credit: John Gilbert)

Pine straw harvesting does not fit every landowner’sneeds. When considering pine straw harvesting,landowners must examine their overall objectives anddecide whether pine straw would hinder other landuses, such as managing for wildlife or timber production,that may involve treatments incompatible withpine straw operations. Plans for wildlife habitat maycall for wide tree spacing and fewer trees per acre (forexample, bobwhite quail plans often call for fewerthan 400 trees per acre to provide sufficient sunlightand retain seed-producing plants). This is not ideal forpine straw production. Because pine straw harvestingrequires limiting understory debris and vegetationthat often serve as habitat and food for animals, strawremoval may not be a good fit for landowner objectives(figure 4). Other land use objectives, however,may be compatible with pine straw. In fact, manysilvicultural practices used for timber managementmay also be applied when managing for pine straw.Whatever decisions are made regarding the land,a management plan should be in place andcontinually evaluated.

Questions to ask:

How will fertilizer treatments affect pinestraw production?

On low fertility sites and those cut over or with lowwater-holding capacity, fertilizer can increase productionof pine straw. If fertilizer is not used on standsraked annually, diameter growth may decline significantlyfor several years after raking ceases. However,on highly fertile sites and old fields with good nutrientand water-holding capacity, fertilizer has not provento increase pine straw yields beyond one year. Reportsshow that in unthinned stands with high basal area,fertilizer and annual raking can lead to increased treemortality and disease.

According to one source, fertilization on nutrient limitedsites has been shown to generate a return oninvestment through increased pine straw production.The need to fertilize may also depend on what speciesof pine you have; different species respond to fertilizationin different ways. Loblolly stands are likely to needfertilization more than stands of other species. In fact,over fertilization in longleaf forests can make treesmore susceptible to insects and diseases, such aspitch canker.

A laboratory analysis of the soil and needles canidentify nutrient deficiencies and help determine iffertilization is needed on your lands. Such analysescan also determine likelihood of response to fertilizerin terms of timber production. For more informationon soil samples and testing, contact your county Extension office orvisit the Auburn Soil, Water, and Forage Testing Lab online.

How will herbicide treatments affectpine straw production?

Good competition control is necessary to keep rakedstands clean. Early herbicide treatments ensure thata landowner can harvest needles from a higherpercentage of the stand. Harvesting pine straw opensthe forest floor, facilitating new undergrowth. A herbicideregime, therefore, may be necessary to controlherbaceous material and hardwoods to maximize quality pine straw production.

How will prescribed burning affect pine straw production?

As with all silvicultural treatments, use and schedulingof prescribed burning depend on landowner objectivesand stand conditions. Burning is commonly appliedbefore the first pine straw harvest. Regular burningmay also continue during pine straw harvest years(for example, to promote grass growth for wildlife).

If properly timed, burning can help control growthof unwanted species, such as hardwoods, and alsopromote needle drop.Winter burns can help encourage growth of legumesand forbs favored by wildlife species. If scheduled lateenough in the season, a winter burn should not affectpine straw raking. Spring burns are often conductedto reduce hardwood species and likely would notinterfere with raking operations. Late-summer burns aresometimes used to prepare a site for natural seedlingestablishment. A burn at this time may also clear theforest floor before needle fall. Remember that burnscan influence the effectiveness of other treatments,such as application of herbicide or fertilizer. Consulta professional when making decisions about implementinga burning program.

Natural needle fall is usually heaviest in the fall months(September, October, and November). Time burnsbefore this season to promote needle drop. If rakingevery other year, schedule burns in off years duringwhatever season best suits the landowner’s needs.

How will thinning affect pine straw production?

Thinning is often a routine part of timber managementplans. It can improve and maintain forest healthand vigor, often while providing the landowner withmid-rotation income. When a stand is thinned, leftovertree limbs and other debris should be cleaned upbefore raking straw again. Thinning also opens thestand allowing more sunlight to reach the forest floor,leading to new undergrowth, which may requirecontrol. Pine straw harvesting sometimes ends withthat first thinning, but once the debris is cleaned upand understory growth is under control, pine strawharvesting can usually resume.

How will pine straw removal affect the site?

Pine straw provides many mulching benefits, makingit a valuable commodity among landowners and homeowners. Pine needles provide protection againstsurface erosion and moderate soil temperature andmoisture, and they inhibit growth of weeds. But it’sthese same characteristics that make pine straw a valuableresource on the forest floor as well.

Pine forests provide important benefits to the environmentand too many wildlife species. Studies showthat raking increases loss of vegetation species in theunderstory of longleaf forests. These losses, however,may be temporary. In one study, losses observed andthe length of time those effects were experienceddiffered based on other site conditions. Landownersneed to be aware, especially if managing simultaneouslyfor wildlife, that the understory may experiencethese kinds of disruptions. Landowners should alsobe vigilant about identifying and controlling invasivespecies, such as cogongrass. Equipment—evenpeople—can spread seeds when operating incontaminated areas.

How will pine straw removal affect water resources?

Raking pine straw can potentially negatively affect thequality of local water resources. Raking annually canlead to decreased soil infiltration rates, increased runoffvolume, greater sediment loads, and increased soilerosion. These effects can be more severe on longeror steeper slopes. Stands with more frequent rakingschedules have demonstrated increased concentrationsof phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon in runoffcollected following raking of research plots. Pineneedles have great water-holding capacity, and litteron the forest floor can also reduce evaporation fromthe ground surface. Vehicle traffic and use of heavymachinery can also lead to soil compaction, which canlead to increased runoff and reduce plant uptake ofwater and nutrients. Soil compaction also impedes rootgrowth and can affect soil temperature and decompositionrates of organic matter.

How can negative effects of pine straw harvestingbe mitigated?

Negative impacts created by pine straw harvesting maybe minimized by less-frequent harvesting schedulesand utilization of best management practices (BMPs),especially on steep slopes or soils susceptible toerosion. Recommendations for landowners includeleaving organic matter as undisturbed as possibleduring raking, raking only during dry conditions,raking every other year or every two years, andraking earlier in the season (for example, in October)so additional straw can accumulate post harvest andprovide cover until the next harvest. During the intervalbetween pine straw harvests, a cover crop of cool seasongrasses can be planted to help protect the soil,suppress growth of weeds, and add soil organic matter.It can also serve as livestock forage.

Pine straw harvesting operations require some upfrontinvestment from the landowner. One of the biggestexpenses is preparing the land and making sure it isclean and free from debris, such as dead wood, pinecones, or tree limbs, and unsuitable vegetation, suchas hardwoods, vines, or shrubs. Before making thesekinds of investments, landowners must first ensure thatthere’s a market and understand its demands.

Questions to ask:

Is there local demand for pine straw?

Harvesting Pine Straw for Profit: Questions Landowners Should Ask Themselves - Alabama Cooperative Extension System (6)

Figure 5. Pine straw is often baled into round (left) or square (right) bales. (Photo credits: Becky Barlow, photo of round bales, Janice Dyer, photo of square bale.)

Demand for pine straw may vary from region toregion. Landowners should make sure that there issomeone who wants to buy pine straw and that theirpine straw meets the quality specifications of thebuyer. Some buyers have characteristic preferences. Forexample, they may prefer round bales to square bales(figure 5). Other preferences include baling technique(hand-raked or mechanically baled), bale binding(twine or wire), and species. One of the most importantcharacteristics buyers look for is bales that arefree of debris, such as sticks, cones, vines, or leaves.

Landowners need to be aware of these preferencesand what they require in terms of forest management.Demand may also vary from season to season. Pinestraw can be harvested any time of year but is usuallydone after the main needle drop in fall (Septemberthrough November). It is best to harvest straw whenit is dry—wet straw is heavier and can mold whenbaled and stored. Baled pine straw is usually storedon-site in a closed trailer until harvesting operationsare complete. Proper storage is important becausepeak demand for pine straw from homeowners andlandscapers is usually in spring—months after the strawhas been harvested.

What type of contract is appropriate?

Landowners can collect pine straw themselves, usuallyby hand raking and using a box baler (figure 2). Landownersmust then not only perform hard manual laborbut also market the pine straw themselves, receivingpayment on a per-bale basis. This process is labor andtime intensive and requires investment in equipment.

Landowners usually sign contracts with a pine strawdealer. Before signing a contract, a landowner mayseek sealed bids, especially if he or she has a lotof land with high-quality pine straw. In most cases,contracts between landowners and pine straw dealersare either on a per-bale basis or a per-acre basis.If paid on a per-bale basis, the landowner may beresponsible for ensuring a proper bale count. The priceshould also be for a specified bale size. If paid on aper-acre basis, the landowner is paid a set amount peracre per year, regardless of the number of bales thatcome off the site. Prices paid will vary depending onthe condition of the site and, therefore, should fluctuatewith changes in stand condition. The amount paid mayalso vary depending on the level of involvement by thelandowner and his or her willingness to prepare andmaintain the stand. It is always a good idea to have aprofessional look at any contracts before signing.

Are there reliable contractors who can do the work?

Most landowners who have a contract with a pinestraw dealer are likely to use harvesters hired by aforest labor contractor. Landowners need to find outwhether reliable contractors are available and whatdistance the workers are willing to travel. When hiringa contractor, it is a good idea to request references orask others who have used the contractor about theirexperiences. Landowners also need to make sure anycontract they sign specifies conditions of sale, whenthe baling will occur, when payment will be made,and what will be done about any damage done totrees during the harvesting operations. Landownersor a trusted friend or relative should visit the siteduring harvesting to make sure that workers areusing appropriate management practices and fulfillingcontractual obligations.

Pine straw offers landowners the opportunity toearn short-term income while managing their propertyfor other land uses. However, there are a number ofimportant factors to consider before investing timeand money into pine straw harvesting operations.Owners must first consider what is biologically possibleon their sites. Second, they must carefully evaluatecurrent management plans and whether pine strawoperations would interfere with other land uses andownership objectives. And, third, before investing insite preparation or signing contracts, landowners mustensure that their product has a market and meetsquality specifications.

Alabama Cooperative Extension System. 2011. “SoilTesting Laboratory at Auburn University.” AuburnUniversity.

Blevins, D., H.L. Allen, S. Colbett, W. Gardner. 2005.“Woodland Owner Notes: Nutrition Management forLongleaf Pinestraw.” North Carolina Cooperative ExtensionService. Available at http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/forestry/pdf/WON/won30.pdf.

Casanova, V. 2007. “Three Essays on the Pine StrawIndustry in a Georgia Community.” Ph.D. dissertation,Auburn University.

Dickens, E.D., D.J. Moorhead, L.A. Morris, and B.C.McElvany. 2005. “Straw Raking in Southern Pine Standsand Fertilization Recommendations.”

Duryea, M.L. 2000. “Pine Straw Management in Florida’sForests.” University of Florida Institute of Food andAgricultural Sciences (IFAS). CIR 831. Available athttps://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FR/FR03000.pdf.

Elledge, J. and B. Barlow. 2010. Extension publicationANR-1371, “Basal Area: A Measure Made for Management.” ANR-1371. Alabama CooperativeExtension System.

Gholz, H.L., Perry, C.S., Cropper, Jr., W.P., and L.C.Hendry. 1985. “Litterfall, Decomposition, and Nitrogenand Phosphorus Dynamics in a Chronosequence ofSlash Pine (Pinus Elliotii) Plantations.” Forest Science31(2):463-78.

Gresham, C.A. 1982. “Litterfall Patterns in MatureLoblolly and Longleaf Pine Stands in Coastal SouthCarolina.” Forest Science 28(2):223-31.

Hayes, M.D., B.C. McElvany, E.D. Dickens, and D.J.Moorhead. 2009. “Intensive Pine Straw Managementon Post CRP Pine Stands.” Georgia Forest ProductivityPublication Series. University of Georgia: WarnellSchool of Forestry and Natural Resources. Available athttp://www.bugwood.org/productivity/pdfs/pinestraw.pdf.

Kelly, L.A., T.R. Wentworth, and C. Brownie. 2002.“Scaling Species Dynamics in Pinus Palustris Communities:Effects of Pine Straw Raking.” Journal ofVegetation Science 13:755-64.

Mance, K., S. Warren, and E. Sills. n.d. “Tree Tips:Making a Profit from Pine Straw.” North Carolina CooperativeExtension. Available at http://www.ncsu.edu/woodlands/treetips/pinestraw.pdf.

Pote, D.H., and T.C. Daniel. 2008. “Managing PineStraw Harvests to Minimize Soil and Water Losses.”Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(1):27A-28A.

Pote, D.H., B.C. Grigg, C.A. Blanche, and T.C. Daniel.2004. “Effects of Pine Straw Harvesting on Quantity andQuality of Surface Runoff.” Journal of Soil and WaterConservation 59(5):197+.

Taylor, E.L., and C.D. Foster. 2004. “Producing PineStraw in East Texas Forests.” Texas Cooperative Extension,Publication B-6145.

Wolfe, K., M. Best, and T. Price. 2005. “Pine StrawMarket Analysis for Southwest Georgia.” MarketAnalysis 05-01. University of Georgia: Center forAgribusiness and Economic Development. Availableat http://www.caed.uga.edu/publications/2005/pdf/MA-05-01.pdf.

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