Maybe next year: 2024 longleaf cone crop outlook not great

Jun 18, 2024

The 2024 longleaf pine cone crop report is out and it spells out a poor year for those valued pine seeds.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service survey labels 2024 as a failed year for longleaf pine cone production with an average of 6.6 cones found per tree.

Using binocular counts of green cones, surveyors collected data from 11 mature longleaf pine stand sites across the Southeast in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana.

In the Red Hills, data were collected from the Jones Center at Ichuaway, Tall Timbers and the Apalachicola National Forest.

Read the full 2024 Longleaf Pine Cone Prospects report 

Although labeled as a failed year for production, 25% more cones were found at Tall Timbers this year, at 7.6 cones per tree. However, there is a lot of variation in cone counts in North Florida and in South Georgia, so your property might have better potential than Forest Service sampling.

The volume of viable seed, measured by counting the number of productive, green cones per tree, can help determine whether there is enough seed to successfully regenerate even-aged longleaf pine stands. Seeds typically drop in October.

The minimum cone crop needed for successful natural regeneration is 30 cones per tree, with 25 seed bearing trees per acre.

Although some longleaf seed is generally produced each year even in poor years, the seed is highly sought after by quail and other ground foraging birds, as well as small mammals and turkey, because of its excellent nutritional quality.

Because there is a chance of local variation, if you want to estimate your cone crop, take binoculars into the field and examine individual longleaf stands. Higher cone crop tallies can be an indicator for managers to begin preparing the seedbeds so they will be receptive to capturing and deriving the most benefit from the upcoming seed fall.

Be sure to check the cone crop on your property and specifically in the stands where you may be seeking to develop regeneration. Longleaf cones are large and conspicuous so it’s not difficult to get an indication of the cone crop on your trees.

We recommend that you use this annual report as a prompt to go take a look at your stands. In years like this, you may want to consider planting containerized seedlings to achieve your regeneration needs, if they are pressing. Or you might consider banking whatever regeneration you get and waiting until next year to do your site preparation.

The Forest Service recommends the following method and tips.

Reminder: Green cones tell you how much production will happen this year. Brown cones tell you how much production occurred last year.

Equipment:  8 or 10x binoculars, field data sheet, clipboard, pencil, and diameter-tape.

Print out the field data sheet here

  1. Locate a stand that is growing at a shelterwood basal area of less than 40 square feet per acre (30 to 60 square feet per acre is a typical range in Red Hills quail properties) and contains numerous trees of at least 10 inches at dbh (diameter at breast height). Better cone crops generally come from larger-diameter trees and poorer cone crops come from smaller-diameter trees.  A key consideration is that high brush and/or trees should not visually obscure the crowns of your sample trees, or your data collection will be impaired.  The midstory must be relatively open, so you can see the entire crown of each sample tree.
  2. Using the field data sheet, enter the following data at the top: location, date, and crew.  Then for each sample tree:  measure its DBH in inches (to the nearest 0.1 of an inch) and record that measurement.  Now, you are ready to count the green cones.
  3. Walk away from the tree and toward the sun. The precise distance away from the tree is not crucial, but it should be far enough away to give your neck a comfortable angle while looking up, but not so far away that you cannot clearly see the cones with 8 or 10 power binoculars.  With the sun at your back, you may need to adjust your position a bit to the left or to the right, so that you can view the entire tree crown without moving from your counting location.  An uncrowded midstory will be helpful at this point.
  4. Count the number of green cones that can be seen from the single spot on which you are standing. We usually start at the lower left of the crown and work up to the top of the crown, then across the top of the crown to the right and then down the right side of the crown all the way to the bottom-most branches.  This is a systematic approach that scans across the entire crown (left half, top, right half) and leads to consistently accurate counts.  Once you have done this, enter the number of green cones into the data sheet.


About the Author
Karl Etters
A Tallahassee native, Karl has a background in journalism and an even deeper background in exploring North Florida's wild spaces. Merge the two, and he's Tall Timbers' communication coordinator. When he's not spending time with family and friends, he can be found fly fishing, hunting, biking or walking the woods looking for turkeys.
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