Breaking the Profit Barrier

Published Forestry Bulletin – 24 June 2014

You Planted Your Trees 15 Years Ago. Now you are Locked In, With Nothing You can do to Increase Productivity or Profitability.

Right? Wrong.

 Scion scientists believe there are many opportunities to dramatically increase the earning power of existing and future forests. So does the Forest Growers Levy Trust, which is channelling half of its research budget into a programme known as Sustainable Intensification.

To compete for land for new plantings and to justify keeping existing forests on farmable land, much more wood of a better and more consistent quality needs to be harvested from each hectare. But it must be done sustainably if forest owners are going to have freedom to operate and enjoy access to high-value markets.

Doubling productivity and improving wood quality are targets of the forest industry’s Science & Innovation Plan. Forest Research Committee (FRC) chair David Balfour says these are ambitious goals, but with funding from government and forest growers, they can be achieved.

“Forest owners will directly benefit. And it will give wood processors greater confidence to invest in high-tech wood processing – which is also in the long-term interests of forest owners,” he says.

“I envisage that our largely passive forest management systems will be replaced by ones that are more hands-on. These will use latest advances in sensor technology, tree physiology, genetics, forest ecology and complex problem-solving, an approach known as ‘precision forestry’.

“To compete for land, we need to do what sheep farmers have done. Twenty years ago most farmers had low productivity management systems. Since then, many of them have incorporated new genetics and are being more precise in their pasture management and animal feeding. As a result, lambs produced per ewe have greatly increased, along with farm profitability.”

The forest managers of the near future will target points in the forest growing cycle where they can intervene to increase productivity. To inform these interventions, they will have access to data about the performance of their forests, based on remote sensing technologies.

These technologies now allow individual trees to be identified in LiDAR images. When this information is overlain with information about the attributes of these trees – such as their genetic origin, the characteristics of the site and management history – scientists, tree breeders and forest owners will be able understand how all these factors interact to affect productivity and wood quality.

This process, known as forest phenotyping, will enable trees to be selected on the basis of their performance in different locations – aspect, altitude, climate and soil type.

It will also help provide insights into how sites and stands can be manipulated to increase the volume of wood at harvest. This may involve applying fertilisers or endophytes; weed, pest and disease treatments; or better matching of tree genetics to a particular site. An early project will be to estimate the gap between current levels of productivity and the potential, or in other words ‘the size of the prize’.

Because of public and market concerns about the sustainability of land-use systems – witness the dirty dairying campaign and concerns about forest debris flows following harvesting on steep land – the research will take a close look at the impact of forest management systems on soil, water and biodiversity.

The annual budget for the six-year programme is $5.12 million, with $1.6 m of this coming from levy funds. Up to 50 researchers will be involved at any one time. Scion, the principal research provider, is collaborating with a number of local and international scientists who bring specialist skills to the programme.

In Scion’s bid for public-good science funding and on its website, this project is referred to as Growing Confidence in Forestry’s Future. To make the objectives of the project clear to growers, the FRC and the Levy Trust refer to it as sustainable intensification.


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