Overstory #67 - Optimizing Commercial Timber Potential from Farm Forestry
In this edition of The Overstory, special guest author Richard Finlay-Jones introduces some of the methods landholders can use to optimize commercial timber potential. While written primarily for production of hardwoods in plantations on the North Coast of New South Wales (NSW), Australia, the principles are also applicable to timber production in many kinds of agroforestry systems.
There are many ways growers can increase the commercial potential of timber stands on their land. These methods can be divided into separate areas: planning, establishment, management, and harvesting. Following harvest, marketing the product according to specific customer requirements may dictate the level of processing required and the potential for increased returns.
Plantation planning (Reid, Abel) provides a good method of working out a balance between environmental and economic benefits using commercial tree species. This requires that the landholder to develop a property management plan, which includes having an understanding of the existing problems of the property as well as some ideas about the local timber marketplace and its potential.
What Trees Where?
This is the hardest part of the planning process. As trees may take some time to grow and develop before any commercial returns can be made, it is important to work out where the trees can be grown without creating any major problems for the rest of the property. The trees should enhance the property, its appeal and function, whilst contributing to its commercial profitability.
Species selection can be difficult and can be determined by assessing:
- presence of existing commercial tree species in the landscape;
- presence of trials and demonstrations in the local catchment;
- discussions with local timber merchants and contractors;
- product specification and quality requirements;
- landholder species preferences.
Some small scale trials may often be required before any large scale planting is carried out. These trials often serve as a guide only in their early years and best assist in decision making at harvesting.
Layout and Design
The most efficient design for commercial plantations is the uniform block woodlot. Uniform spacings and row layouts allow access for vehicles, labour and machinery, reducing labour costs and increasing efficiencies, subsequently adding to the bottom line. These designs however do not always suit all landholders and properties, so design efficiency compromises may often occur. Species layout locations may also vary with the landscape, aspect, slope and soil type.
At this stage it is also important to work out how much can be managed as part of the entire property management plan given the restrictions on labour, finances and land.
Given that the species choices have been made and the design of the plantation determined (Cole-Clark), it is important that seedlings are ordered well in advance. Local provenance varieties of the desired species may result in increased local disease resistance, however this is often difficult given the amount and variety of commercial seed available. Some landholders may choose to collect their own seed and grow their own seedlings to save money. However commercial seed collectors and nurseries have developed specialised skills to do just that, and consequently the quality of seedlings grown by different sources may be variable.
Establishing a good planting site for the seedlings is important to give them a good start. Deep ripping may be a useful method, depending upon the soil type and the presence of hardpan. Mounding of rows may also serve to lift seedlings from poorer draining areas as well as concentrating the topsoil for better access to nutrients. For steeper slopes, spot cultivation is an option to increase the ability of air, water and roots to penetrate the surface soil layers.
Soil Analysis and Treatment
Soil analysis is useful to determine whether nutrients are limiting and if so which ones, whether pH is optimal or whether soil structural adjustments need to be made to the rows. It is surprising how little of this is actually carried out in practice. The process of soil treatment and/or fertilisation may be carried out in conjunction with cultivation of the rows and may serve to benefit plant growth and development.
Control of competitive weeds is particularly important in higher rainfall areas. Experiences to date on the North Coast of NSW suggest that herbicides remain the most efficient and effective method of controlling weeds in these areas. Some sites may require several herbicide treatments in the first few years, both pre and post planting.
Work is presently being carried out to assess the best use of grass species to reduce herbicide use and increase soil mulching potential.
Control of Browsing Animals Fencing to eliminate browsing animals is imperative. In areas where browsing animals present problems, strategies such as fences, sacrificial plantings and the use of farm dogs may prove useful.
All this work, and we still haven't planted a tree yet!
The essential part of all this planning is timing. The site is now prepared, fenced and clear of weeds. The seedlings are just about to arrive. Where's the labour to help? Is it going to rain?
The best time to plant the seedlings is when regular periods of rain are forecast. Welcome to the risky part of establishment. Ensure the seedlings are well watered prior to planting, and that the soil is either moist or rain is due. Planting in light regular rain is ideal on the North Coast, as soils can dry out very quickly and stress the planted seedlings.
Check the Seedlings (again)
When the seedlings are picked up, or they arrive at the property, they need to be thoroughly checked for:
- root:shoot ratio
- root deformations
- presence of pests or disease
- soil moisture
It may be necessary to order a few extra seedlings to allow for inspection of root development and soil mix.
Planting should be carried out by experienced planters and planting crews. This will ensure good survival rates and early growth, without problems associated with root deformation. Experienced crews also ensure more uniform planting densities and spacing between trees. In many cases, it may be cheaper to plant trees more densely and allow greater selection between trees at thinning.
Plantations need to be managed for the target market(s). In some areas, such as the North Coast of New South Wales, Australia, the highest prices are being achieved for pole and veneer markets. Access to these markets is somewhat limited by distance, however where these markets are accessible the need to thin and prune the trees becomes greater.
The closer the landholder is to the mill, the better the potential for commercial returns.
Thinning is required in densely planted plantations to remove the smaller and lower quality trees in order to allow the better trees to grow on. This ensures that the quality and growth of the entire stand is improved.
The more dense the plantation, and the better the site quality, the earlier thinning will be required. Thinning should be carried out when growth of the better quality trees is limited by the stand. This can be monitored using the diameter tape.
Models for growth rates may provide some indication as to the presence of markets for plantation thinnings. On the NSW North Coast first plantation thinnings markets are beginning to appear in the form of fibre for pulp, biomass for power generation and ethanol production although returns at this stage are limited and much of this work is in trial phase.
Pruning to ensure a single leader (bole) and pruning to ensure clearwood production (branch) should occur early in the stand life and be carried out regularly. A balance needs to be struck between the costs of pruning and the potential economic returns from the product. Veneer logs on the NSW North Coast has be turned down to 7.5cm, indicating that this may be the desirable size of the knotty core for product destined for this market.
Less emphasis needs to be placed on branch pruning for pole markets, particularly if the species are self pruning.
The trees and soil should be monitored regularly for nutrient deficiencies and/or problems. Some plantation owners utilise both soil and foliar fertilisers to maximise growth rates during the plantation's life.
Pests and Diseases
Like any agricultural crop, the trees should be monitored for pest and disease invasion. Christmas beetle can have a devastating annual effect on some plantations, and some control techniques are presently being trialed. At this stage on the NSW North Coast, little work is being carried out to test the economics of pest and disease control.
lntegrated Grazing and Cropping
With the plantation up and away, there may be commercial opportunities awaiting landholders within the inter-rows of the plantations. The use of shade tolerant pasture species for stock grazing is being trialed in Northern NSW, increasing the potential of land being utilised for commercial plantations.
In addition there may also be some potential for the use of the inter-rows for production of commercial vegetation species, such as shade tolerant foliage and flower varieties, although this is also very much in the trial phase.
Integrated Native Forest Management
On the NSW North Coast many private properties have an abundance of private native regrowth forest which is often underutilised as a commercial resource. The growing of plantations close to such areas can result in both commercial and environmental benefits for the landholder and the community. In NSW, native forests are vigorous competitors and can assist plantations by providing some pest and disease control mechanisms. In addition, native forests can provide a valuable seed source for vegetative regeneration following final harvest of a plantation.
Some plantation owners are trialing the establishment of higher value rainforest species below the eucalypt canopy in order to maximise production and returns per hectare. There are some questions as to the efficiency of management, the competition for water and nutrients, and the impacts of other forms of competition from mixing species.
Harvest time is often determined by the growth and the development of the trees, the nature of the marketplace and the attitude of the grower to risk. Harvest may be a gradual process taking many years or the single process of removal of the final crop. Harvesting to maximise commercial returns theoretically occurs at a time when product prices are high (demand is high, supply is limited).
Due to the high level of risk involved, harvest operations should be carried out by experienced and skilled contractors. Better operators will maximise commercial returns through improved economies and efficiencies whilst reducing the risk of injury to the product and property. Harvesting will normally occur in commercial lots (loads) to maximise efficiencies of transport and processing. Consequently access to the stand becomes an important influence on harvest efficiency.
Marketing & Processing
Landholders need to effectively market their wood to their customers in order to maximise profitable returns. The greater the level of value adding, the greater the potential to be a price maker instead of a price taker. If growers can tailor the end product to the precise requirements of a particular customer; then the grower will have a greater potential to increase the economic returns from the plantation.
Increasing the commercial potential of plantations requires sound planning, management and harvest techniques. An adequate balance needs to be met between the cost of inputs, particularly labour; and the potential value of the end product. The link between planning, management and harvest is the final product quality, the requirements of the market place and the market value. If the landholder is able to market tailored products direct to the consumer the input costs are higher, however the potential for profitable returns are far greater.
Abel N, et al. 1997. Design Principles For Farm Forestry, RIRDC/LWRRDC/FWPRDC/ JVAP.
Cole-Clark, B. 1999. Planning For Farm Forestry, A Practical Guide. NSW Dept of land and Water Conservation.
Cole-Clark, B. 1997. What Wood Where. NSW Dept of Land and Water Conservation.
Cole-Clark, B. 1998. Pasture Improvement of Dry Hardwood Regrowth Forest A North Coast of NSW Timber/Meat Option. 1998 Proceedings of Australian Forest Growers Conference, July 1998, pp 4l-49.
Reid R, Have you got too many trees? A case for thinning hard and early in eucalypt plantations for sawlogs, Agroforestry News p3-5,
Sandstrom, M (Various). Greening Australia North Coast.
This article is adapted from Agroforestry News, Volume 9, Issue 1 with the kind permission of the publisher. Agroforestry News features practical and timely information for farm foresters growing timber with many examples from Australia. Address: Agroforestry News Editor, NRE Port Phillip Region, Locked Bag 3000, Box Hill, 3128 Victoria, Australia; Fax: +61-3-9296-4722; E-mail contact: email@example.com.
About the Author
Richard Finlay-Jones can be contacted at: Richard Finlay-Jones, Manager Forests and Land Management GHG Management Pty Ltd E-mail: Tel: +61 414-555-864
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #63--Value-Added Enterprises for Small-Scale Farmers
- The Overstory #62--The Seven Secrets of Successful Selling
- The Overstory #53--Nontimber Forest Products--An Introduction
- The Overstory #48--Farm Forestry