Coffee News: from Seed to Cup

A Producer’s Guide to Pruning & Stumping Coffee Trees

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Taking care of a coffee plantation is hard work, and it doesn’t end at harvest. After the last of the coffee cherries have been picked, you may want to turn your attention to pruning and stumping. These crop management techniques can help to keep trees healthy and optimize production.

Read on to find out how pruning and stumping can be beneficial, and when to use the techniques.

Lee este artículo en español Guía Del Productor: Cómo Podar y Zoquear Los Cafetos

Rows of evenly pruned coffee trees in Baxtla, Veracruz, Mexico. Credit: Jose Antonio San Roman

The Importance of Pruning & Stumping

Pruning and stumping help to improve the health and yield of your coffee plants. Coffee cherry production naturally decreases with age, exhaustion, and phytosanitary problems, but this kind of maintenance can help to maintain or boost productivity levels throughout the years.

Jose Antonio San Roman produces coffee for Sabormex. He tells me, “If you produce ten pounds [per hectare] and you don’t manage your crop, you’ll move on to having two pounds per hectare, even if the quality remains the same.”

Pruning and stumping can also help to prevent biennial bearing. This is when crops alternate between heavy and light crops, which can leave you uncertain of their yield and unable to plan ahead.

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Rows of Caturra coffee plants in bloom on a farm in Veracruz, Mexico. Credit: Jose Antonio San Roman

Many coffee varieties naturally grow very tall, which can make it hard to reach the cherries and make picking less efficient. Matti Foncha is the founder of Cameroon Boyo. He says that unless you maintain the shape of the tree by pruning, “you have to bend them to harvest and we often end up breaking them.” He tells me that on his farm, he limits the height of the coffee tree by cutting the tip.

If a coffee tree is allowed to become bushy, light and air won’t reach all the parts of the tree. This can reduce yield because trees that have a lot of leaves and branches will use energy to grow these parts, and may not produce as many flowers and cherries. Pests and diseases can also thrive in the dark, damp inside branches of dense trees.

Coffee trees at Finca El Paraiso in La Libertad, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Credit: Urisar Ferneldy de León for De Leon Coffees

Pruning & Stumping Techniques

There are various single-stem and multi-stem pruning and stumping systems and different coffee-producing regions around the world may use different techniques.

Maintenance Pruning

In general, pruning can be done annually to maintain the desired shape of your trees, promote fruit production, allow air circulation and sunlight penetration, and prevent malnutrition. Cut away any unproductive, damaged, unhealthy, or unnecessary branches and leaves using clean, angled cuts.

Pruning coffee trees at Finca Santa Matilde in El Salvador. Credit: Andres Acosta

The parameters for each pruning system vary. Jose Antonio tells me that the “rock ‘n’ roll” method in Mexico means “suspending growth vertically at around 1.20 m (3.9 ft) and horizontally at approximately 0.20 m (0.66 ft).”

He also says that in “traditional” pruning, “the smallholder producer explores the plantation and establishes which plant needs what type of crop management.” but that this system “has proven to be unreliable, unsystematic, that delivers poor results, […] it doesn’t bring stability as regards productivity. And it takes a lot of effort for the producer to establish what’s next.”

Stumping coffee trees at Finca Santa Matilde in El Salvador. Credit: Andres Acosta

Stumping

Stumping is more aggressive than pruning. It means removing a large part of the trunk and its stems, although some can be left to stimulate growth. When stumping coffee trees, you must be careful to provide enough nutrients for the tree to recover.

Stumping is usually performed when trees are old, infested, when their production or growth has declined drastically, or to make more space. Matti tells me that “you sometimes stump to just open up an area and then plant other crops, and then that young coffee tree begins to grow again.”

Jose Antonio explains that a type of single-stem stumping known as poda pulmón is very popular in Mexico. “[It’s] a vertical suspension [of growth] at 0.90 m (2.95 ft), leaving all the horizontal growth below that height, so as to not reduce yield so drastically,” he says.

Blooming Caturra and Typica coffee trees at a farm in Baxtla, Veracruz, Mexico. Credit: Jose Antonio San Roman

When to Prune & Stump a Coffee Tree

Trees should be routinely pruned after harvest for maintenance. And once productivity levels cannot be restored in any other way, you can choose to rejuvenate the plants by stumping.

Jose Antonio says that “when you damage a plant and renew a big amount of foliage, you actually lose some roots, some ability to photosynthesize, some ability that the plant has to absorb nutrients.”

He recommends developing “a correct, systematic management of plant tissues, with a nutrition program which promotes the recovery of roots” in order to effectively stimulate healthy growth.

“When the plant has very little foliage, when the plant has a lot of dead branches (especially in the upper part, from the middle to the top), the smallholder producer usually stumps it,” he says. “When it has live branches in the upper part and the plant looks relatively healthy, then they prune it.”

The main stem and primary branches of a healthy coffee tree with unripe cherries in Baxtla, Veracruz, Mexico. Credit: Jose Antonio San Roman

Know Your Farm & Coffee Trees

Before jumping in to any pruning and stumping, consider the following factors

  • Your farm: plant variety, production age, plantation density and farm organization, shade system, fertilization practices.
  • Your region: incidence of pests and diseases, required phytosanitary treatments, and environmental conditions.
  • Your goals for quality, yield, and the degree of growth manipulation of your plant.

And don’t forget to consider economic and human resources and calculate your production costs. More intensive strategies mean more time and money spent on crop management practices, fertilization, labor, disinfection, monitoring, and equipment.  

The next step is to design a crop management plan. Jose Antonio recommends being systematic, but acknowledges that you might need to make some adjustments along the way.

Young, healthy coffee trees with green unripe cherries in Baxtla, Veracruz, Mexico. Credit: Jose Antonio San Roman

To design a crop management plan, you should be familiar with the characteristics of the coffee variety you grow and the structure of the plants and how they develop. 

Every coffee tree has a main trunk with vertical (or orthotropic) branches, which produce horizontal (or plagiotropic) stems, also known as primary, secondary, and tertiary branches. The nodes on primary branches produce the highest amount of quality cherries and they cannot be replaced once cut off. With time, the fruits will grow farther from the trunk. This is because each node produces cherries only once.

To effectively encourage cherry production and avoid fluctuations, SCA recommends dividing the plantation into sectors defined by variety and age and pruning and stumping each sector at different times.

Jose Antonio recommends pruning a row at a time, because this “redistributes the yield in a reliable way, which is easy to foresee. It simplifies the decision-making process a lot.”

Healthy Caturra coffee trees in Baxtla, Veracruz, Mexico. Credit: José Antonio San Roman

Pruning Techniques to Prevent Pests & Diseases

Whenever you cut a coffee tree, you are creating wounds and increasing the risk of infection. Jose Antonio explains that pruning and stumping should be done after the harvest and cold seasons, so “you don’t allow [the tree] to sprout and produce what you won’t collect and so that you don’t stimulate the growth of sprouts that will be victims of fungi and diseases.”

He tells me that “the best way to prune… is making one clean, even cut, at an oblique angle.”

“The cut mustn’t create a cavity in the wound,” he says. This would make a place for water to accumulate and increase the risk of infection. “The wound must be smooth so water drains off,” he tells me.

Coffee trees and other trees at Mapache Coffee in El Salvador. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

If a tree is being stumped because it has disease, make sure to pick all the good cherries and then burn the cut-off branches to prevent any spread of infection. Make sure all tools (secateurs, hoes, pruning saws, knives, machetes, and shears) are very sharp to avoid tearing or uneven cuts, and that they are disinfected regularly. 

Jose Antonio points out that you can also use contact fungicides, saying that they “have a wide spectrum, they are very cheap, and they spare you from incidents.”

Caturra coffee in bloom on a farm in Veracruz, Mexico. Credit: Jose Antonio San Roman

It’s impossible to recommend a single pruning or stumping system because each farm is different and each producer will have different goals and needs. But consider the unique factors of your farm and create a detailed, long-term plan to stimulate yield and maintain healthy plants.

When planned and performed correctly, pruning and stumping can help create more and higher quality coffee, which in turn can bring you a more reliable income.

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Written by Laura Fornero. Interviews translated from Spanish by Laura Fornero. Feature photo: Coffee tree at COOMIXPLAN Cooperative in Trojes, El Paraíso, Honduras. Feature photo credit: Jhairo D’Alfrediz

Please note: Before implementing the advice in this article, we advise also consulting with a local technical expert, since differences in climate, soil type, varieties, processing methods, and more can affect the best practices for production and processing.

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