A forest owner’s tale
If you’ve ever been tempted to create your own forest, or more likely, woodlot, to provide for your retirement years, this account by a long-time forester makes worthy reading.
EARLY IN 1993 A MATE CALLED BY MY HOME AT ONEPU, in the Bay of Plenty, and wanted to yarn about forestry in general; not a problem for me having had many years involved in the industry.
He asked a lot of questions which I answered as best I could, one of his queries being “how profitable is growing wood?”
I didn’t know the answer as there are many issues that influence profitability. What I did know was that in 1993 log prices were very good, particularly for export. He then went on to say that there were two part planted blocks of land for sale locally and would I have any interest in purchasing one as a joint venture – I was.
We missed out on the 5ha block that we initially agreed to purchase, so without hesitation, settled for the much larger block of 15ha, comprising 2ha of 24-year-old Pinus Radiata, 9ha of 2-yearold Pinus Radiata and 4ha of flat lucerne paddock with an existing airstrip in situ. Settlement was the first day of July, 1993.
Our first task was quitting the older age class, which was done without delay, it being a stand suffering from what I’ve always termed, farmer syndrome – if there is a blade of grass there, it’s got to have some bark eating, four-footed animal on site, much to the detriment of pruned butts. The bark damage on some trees created by stock was bad enough to reduce the first log from ‘pruned grade’ to ‘oversize pulp grade’ – more than a $100 per m3 loss. That’s 2,500 *^&#!@ dollars a truck load.
The 9ha age class was badly toppled due to strong winds, so we set about staking where necessary. The planted stocking was light at only 700 stems per hectare (spha) so we needed to have some guarantee of crop selection.
With the block in reasonable shape we turned our attention to establishing the bare land into what I intended to be a model crop of Radiata.
When considering land on which to grow trees, one of the factors that influences the decision to proceed is known as the Site Index. This is determined by combinations of aspect, soil type, rainfall, nutrients etc and is expressed as a number – the higher that number the more likelihood that the land is suitable for growing wood fibre. I understand this number indicates the mean top height of the 100 tallest trees per hectare at age twenty. At the very least, it indicates the wood fibre growing potential. The Site Index of our land purchase was 36.0 – high.
Knowing this land’s history (of up to five cuts of silage each season followed immediately by an application of urea) we knew that smart management and good operational timing would be essential if we were going to stay within acceptable silviculture standards. The ground was extremely compacted, as well as being nutrient loaded; two elements that conflict with ideal tree growing. It was the perfect site on which, if mismanaged, would grow ‘broccoli’ i.e. typically per tree one pruned butt, KI, KI, maybe a poor quality saw log, pulp log – this a typical log type from 1970’s ex-farm forest establishment.
We employed the services of an agricultural contractor who deep ripped local maize paddocks every 4-5 years and engaged him to rip rows to a depth of 80 cm. We also effected a sideways shatter by welding a wing either side of the ripper at 40cm depth with an angle to lift the soil thus creating an ideal root formation environment. To provide for intended block management, we deep ripped rows at 5-metre centres precisely by positioning a pipe bar at right angles on a tractor front and hung a chain at the 5m mark – by ripping with the suspended chain set directly above the previous rip we established the perfect row spacing.
The reasons for this “preparation” were:
• Seedling breeding and genetics had progressed to a Growth and Form (GF) rating of GF25. I was very keen to plant as a minimum, a final crop stocking of 25’s at 350 stems per hectare (spha). However; having seen some of this higher rated product and the distinctive unnatural root structure (multiplied and grown in media and without traditional tap root) I figured we needed to engineer points of least resistance for root development therefore assisting tree stability as the trees became established. At our rotation end we had not one single windthrown tree.
• We needed to provide easy grass harvesting opportunities to offset establishment and operating costs and as well demonstrate to the local farming fraternity the possibility of dual land use.
The local nursery could not supply 1-year-old 25's but did have adequate 2-year-old (we only needed 1600 seedlings); these were growing like wheat in a corner of the nursery and nearly a metre high. We lopped them back to half that height and planted them at 6-metre centres within the ripped rows. These seedlings were very expensive. To control branch size and provide a production thin opportunity as well add to the final crop potential, we interplanted two GF 17’s (significantly cheaper) seedlings between the 25’s giving us 1,000 spha – adequate trees to achieve our objectives.
As spring approached, a combination of Gallant/Gardoprim release spray sorted any infiltration of competitive grass/weeds. Combined with grass harvesting we had no tree suppression problems and by
year end our crop was looking good at one metre average height.
Directly after the Christmas break we engaged a contractor to cut and wrap pasture grown between rows. Turning the tractor and wrapper was awkward at row ends so we took out strategic trees (sob) to assist; we harvested 20 large bales, which we on-sold to local stock holders and continued to pasture harvest for a further two years. Recall tells me some Tarawera logging contractors who owned stock bought a few of those bales.
To maintain our encouraging growth rates, a second grass spray application in August ‘94 combined with further grass harvest seemed to keep the impetus going with a tree height of near two metres by year end and some even exceeding that height.
The tree growth rates over the first three years suggested we had created a silvicultural monster. A veritable juvenile Tane Mahuta of the Radiata world; absolutely remarkable. With a Site Index of 35 and the soil nutrient retention, growth rates were unbelievable and indicated that to achieve an acceptable DOS (Diameter over stubs) we would need to prune annually. This we did winter 1995, 1996 and 1997 achieving pruned heights of 1.6, 2.9 and 3.9 metres respectively. Early in 1998 and late the same year, fourth and fifth prune lifts realised pruned heights of 5 and 6.4 metres. The measured DOS’s for the five lifts were, respectively, 11.6, 15.8, 15.9, 14.5 and 16.1cm, well within acceptable limits. At each pruned lift we retained a minimum of one-third tree height green crown; so were not stressing the tree (an important element in maintaining optimum tree growth). On completing the fifth prune lift we removed 30% of the crop, leaving 700 spha to grow on – adequate stocking for continued branch control, production thinning and final crop options.
We hadn’t determined the number of GF25’s at this point, but the visual impression was that the number was high.
As an employment opportunity I undertook ‘Tree Tours’ for the Kawerau Paper Mill. These tours were aimed at improving people’s concept/perspective of tree growing and typical participants (though not limited to) were staff of the New Zealand Herald newspaper. Our first stop was the Tree Improvement Centre at Te Teko, where the objectives of tree breeding were explained. Our second port of call was our Clearwater Forest, where the intentions of tree improvement were plain for all to see; tall, straight, light limbed Formula One trees.
In time, we considered the option of pruning beyond ‘normal heights’ (6.3 metres) and completing a not normal prune height of 8-plus metres. One reason not to do the 8-metre prune was that we would extend the crop rotation by two, maybe three, years. We needed 40cm diameter at the 8m pruned height (minimum diameter for pruned logs) to justify this. The reasons we chose to proceed with an extra height lift were; the additional revenue, the ground was flat with fertile and easy work conditions, the branching was small, work can be and is for me, an adult form of play, and I was willing. We also planned to live long enough to reap the extra benefits of this operation. We had a local fabricator built us a 6-metre lean-to ladder and the lift commenced. By 1999 year-end, we completed all pruning with:
• 310 spha pruned to 8.3m with a DOS of 18.3
• a further 35 spha to a minimum of 6.3m
• production thinning crop possibility of 355 stems per hectare. At the same time, as we were establishing and tending the new age class we had four lift-pruned the 9ha stand. This, in itself, was an uneventful exercise other than some weight loss for me, being the main labourer and also helped with my ageing process (this explains some of the aches and pains developed later in life and necessary joint replacements!).
At some stage a production thinning would be necessary to maintain maximum growth rates and help pay the rates. Consideration was given to two thinnings but because of ease of damage to the residual extra-high pruned stems the concept was abandoned. Crop assessment in Winter 2003 revealed a volume of 500 tonnes, which combined with our neighbours volume of 430 tonnes made an adequate volume for the local firm of Asset Forestry to submit a price; this was accepted and production commenced immediately after the paper mill agreed to purchase our product. Based on the young age class, therefore a less-than desirable density, the mill were hesitant to purchase but eventually did agree to buy.
Asset Forestry’s complement of equipment, a Ponnse feller/ processor and a forwarder, suited our needs perfectly. A skid site was created adjacent to our sealed road frontage and production ensued. Self Loader Logging, from Taupo, offered an acceptable cartage rate (thank-you Brian Smith and driver Dennis) and combined with a lead distance of only 10 kms to the paper mill, we were a shoo-in to make a little profit. Being a conservative person, I was always going to be biased towards retaining more stems than less. As some trees had too large a diameter to prune to 8m we retained 30-to-40 of these per hectare; less pruned height but All Black front row props at the very least – those trees were cranking, as my son would describe them.
In gathering the supporting information prior to production thinning, a rough calculation of 506 tonnes was derived. That the final delivered volume was 503 demonstrates that ‘bush’ calculations ought not be scoffed at. As the last silviculture activity towards establishing a final crop, we as owners, were chuffed to say the least. The percentage of GF25’s that made our final crop was 85%. Awesome. The balance? The best of the rest, so to speak, still fine trees. Visual assessment indicated most stems would produce a pruned log maybe two, saw log, saw log, round wood and ground wood pulp. Not a hint of ‘broccoli’. The combination of superior seedlings and the high nutrient presence justified the retention of 345 spha. Standard stockings at the time were 250 spha plus.
Time passes by, we are a decade into a new millennium, trees grow, volumes accrue, improved tree genetics become more and more apparent, the clock ticks, I finally win the battle and quit smoking and log prices are good.
In discussing the forest with my business partner, the dialogue centred on “what’s next?” Much to my horror the possibility of selling our fibre was raised, but the good log prices made this a sensible question. I hadn’t devoted my time and energy to cut the trees just as the volume and value graph was about to soar, or had I? There were good reasons not to cut, all discussed at length, the most relevant being “we didn’t have to”. Providing revenue for the later part of our lives had always been a focus and objective. WHEN that revenue is realised is arguably unimportant. With log prices as they were, (high) NOW became an influence, and something we would be foolish to ignore. Who knows what life’s going to deal you, so the decision to cut was agreed.
We sought the services of an agent able to manage all the nonoperational requirements – the right contractor, best complement of equipment, log sales, consents, harvest plans, docket books, cut plans, legal exits onto state highway, local council requirements, all the ‘stuff’ that most of us hands-on people take for granted; we found our agent in Ross Green (Rusty) of Forest Link Ltd.
By Springtime 2011, Ross had every requirement in place and we were ready to harvest.
Our contractor was Ross Balderstone, a very experienced logger with South Island West Coast blood in his veins. His logging fleet was a Timberjack 2618 with a 20-inch Waratah head and a Kobelco 235SRLC track loader. For track access down to the stream, Ross dryhired a ten tonne Hitachi as and when required.
I had met Ross way back when he ran an FMC in Nelson pulling wood in Golden Downs, as well as doing some Department of Conservation (DoC) work. Ross employed an acquaintance of mine from yesteryear, Wayne Lowe from Taupo, who operated an F65 skidder with a grapple. I had worked with Wayne in Tauhara in the late 1970’s. It was nice to have these two ghosts from my past on board. Ross also employed a tree faller.
At this point our outlet was going to be export logs through the Tauranga port with a small volume of pulp to Kawerau, but out of nowhere an alternative customer became available – the local paper mill for most of the cut.
The Kawerau Paper Mill operates throughout the calendar year on sawmill chip with spasmodic top-ups of small volumes of whole log chip. When the Bay of Plenty Sawmills shut down at Christmas for maintenance there is no chip available, so we were approached as one of their top-up options. I was uncomfortable with the thought of all our hard work going down a pulp chute but appropriate log prices were negotiated for all existing grades within the stand. Not
purchased by the Mill were any pruned logs with minimum diameters of 40 centimetres, these were destined for export markets.
Provided we could agree on log grade out turn, there was no value loss for us and the operation was greatly simplified. Apart from the export pruned logs there were no set length cuts, just random logs so no hassles with log length accuracy.
My initial discomfort was alleviated when Rusty informed us he had also negotiated log price movements relative to export schedules for our pulp-destined wood. Go you good thing. Export prices were trending upwards and continued to do so for the duration of our harvest.
The block to be logged was divided by a beautiful spring-fed stream, the Mangaone, with 8 of the 12 hectares to be harvested on the western side (over the stream). Unable to access this without spending too much money (it would have negated lots of revenue) we asked for and were granted permission to use our neighbour’s property provided we left his farm lanes in as good a state or better than operational start-up. Was that ever going to be an issue? Never.
In early November, we got started (putting some diesel on it). We needed to begin on the western side of the stream as the land owner had silage to cut and we were carting through his paddocks. By Christmas that side of the stream was almost completed. Compared
with set length cutting, our random length pulp cut plan meant less log making hassles. With the small volume of prune logs, production was uncomplicated. Our consent demanded conditions that we needed to comply with, one being to take due care and attention with the streamside harvesting. We had 100% compliance and also left a nicely pumiced and graded farm road for our accommodating farmer.
Early in 2011, we commenced the logging of the genetically superior stand on the State Highway 30 side of the block. Considering the previous history regarding this stand, logging it was simplicity itself and completed without hassle. A little extra effort and skill was required to safely deal with the trees within two lengths of the SH30, which the contractor handled with consummate skill. We delivered 6,000 tonnes to the paper mill in Kawerau and 500 tonnes of pruned logs to Mt Maunganui.
With little doubt the high price we paid for the land would probably not be what long term investors in ‘wood growing’ would consider sensible. In 2013, after some replanting and combined with some pasture establishment, we sold the land for a sum appropriate for the period of time with which we had had ownership. Therefore, the land use was simply the vehicle for fibre creation and the cost was of no significance.
Confirmation for me, in assembling this history, was how much time and effort is the reality in establishing a crop of trees. The application of silvicultural skills and physical effort necessary in creating a high value product is labour intensive and hard work. A day spent ladder pruning is as tough a day as any logging role, bar maybe manual trimming in production thinning. And I hear you – “we don’t do that now!”
Interestingly, the venture demonstrated that growing wood fibre on high value land is not a wasted use so long as intensive silvicultural practises are adhered to and log sales are not a forced issue. Being able to sell when it suits you as the owner is important and can be an ideal optional use of farmland to supplement income.
When comparing man hours spent per hectare in creating a crop of trees versus the man hours in harvesting a hectare of trees it seems that the logging is but a time blip. If we examine the capital outlay, skill requirement, exposure to potential dangers and actual realisation of value then harvesting appears to be the icing on the cake. Let’s be conscious of and acknowledge there is a significant human effort made way before we are able to ‘put some diesel on it’ and make some stumps.
Don’t forget to leave some holding wood.
Again, I hear you – “we don’t do that so much now!”
Harvesting contractor, Ross Balderstone, beside a stack of export pruned butts ready to be loaded.
Main: Logging is well under way, with Wayne Lowe’s F65 grapple skidder and Ross Balderstone’s processor hard at work. Above left: Standing trees prior to harvest. The tree nearest to the camera has a 63cm diameter breast height at age 18! Above right: One of the Watchorn trucks waits to be loaded with pruned logs.
Above left: Brian Reader and his woodlot business partner take the opportunity to harvest hay from their young forest. Above left: A loaded truck about to leave the skid site with lengths of pruned logs, bound for the port at Mt Maunganui. Below: A fully-laden Watchorn truck on the weighbridge with a load of pulp for the Norske pulp and paper mill.