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Secretary: Peter & Nancy Coates
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Small-scale, Low-impact Forest Harvest in Northland, September 2023

The Northland branch of NZFFA held a well-attended field day on 20 Sep 2023, to demonstrate how a small block harvest can be managed profitably and with low environmental impact. 

Pam and Peter Kelly recently sold their livestock farm about 20km north of Dargaville, but they kept the cutting rights to a 14 ha block of 30 year-old radiata that they had planted. They had also planted other younger woodlots but these were sold on as part of the farm. They engaged Peter Davies-Colley to act as harvest manager, and it was mainly he who talked us through the harvesting process. 

The woodlot being harvested is nearly 2km from the road, and this distance made the creation of a normal forestry road for logging trucks, at a cost of about $100,000 per km, take up a large percentage of the profit from the trees. However Peter D-C and his team have a different approach. 

Only a short length of forestry road was built (about 300 metres), so the logging trucks can get from the road to a flat log-collection and loading area. The logs are brought from the harvest site to the logging trucks by a fleet of specially-modified small 4WD trucks (mini loggers), that are light enough to be able to use a temporary dirt track created by simply scraping the topsoil away and pushing it to the side. At the end of the harvest, the topsoil will be scraped back and grassed over again. (This method is certainly helped by the fact that this is sand country). 

There are 4 of these mini loggers, and 2 drivers, and the drivers are constantly on the go, rotating between the trucks as they are loaded at the harvest site and unloaded onto the big lorries at the collection point. 

As an additional cost saving, Peter D-C pointed out that while most forestry trucks and other equipment use 25-45 litres of diesel per hour, the mini loggers use only 16-20 litres per day. 

The farm was set up by the Kellys to use very intensive grazing cells, which involves lots of fencing and water reticulation pipes to keep up the pasture (and lots of fertilizer). The new owner had been concerned that he would not be able to use the grazing cells next to the track due to damage to the pipes and disturbance of the cattle, but Peter’s team has been very careful with the pipes, and because the mini loggers are not very noisy the farming activities have been able to continue through the harvest. 

We went to watch the harvesting in progress also. It is all done by machinery – no manual felling. But again the machinery is selected for being lightweight. The feller-buncher is only 32 tonnes, and the processor was a similar weight. A more usual machinery size would be 45-50 tonnes. This means less damage to the soil, and the machines can move about the site more easily. Additionally, the logs are moved between feller-buncher, processor and the mini loggers by grapplers, they are not “shovelled” or dragged across the soil. 

Peter D-C was pleased with the processor although he winced a bit at the cost - brand-new at just over $800,000, it had only been in action a week. It strips the branches, and cuts the trees into logs (5.2m or 4m in this case, as the Kellys pruning lift wasn’t quite enough to get 6m logs). It also automatically marks the butt end of each log with paint – green for the Kellys. I had never known why the logs are marked like this, but Peter explained it was because the JAS log grading is always done based on the small-end diameter, so it is necessary to know quickly which end is which and it is always the butt end that is marked. 

Peter Davies-Colley talking to us at the harvest site

The harvest site is a small dry-bottomed valley, and at the time of our visit they had been working on it for 5 weeks and had 3 weeks to go. Peter D-C said ideally he likes to move steadily through a block, but owing to weather some of the slopes had been a bit too wet to put even this lighter machinery on, so the site had a slightly patchwork effect. Also he normally likes to clear up as they go, but when booking the logging trucks for the harvest he was told they would only be available for a short period and so he has prioritized actual harvesting so they can get the logs away, and they will clear up afterwards. There will be very little left on site, just the pine needles, which is where he said most of the nutrient of a tree is stored, with the logs themselves being mostly carbon and water. So in this respect, forestry is more environmentally-friendly than intensive livestock farming where nutrient is brought in and all the output goes off-site. 

There are 7 in the Davies-Colley team (including Peter), and all are very experienced and qualified. Several of them are grandfathers. The working day is long, 6am to 5pm, but there are 3 compulsory breaks in the day, and everyone must leave the harvest site for these breaks. There was lots of laughter coming from the tea caravan when we arrived – obviously a team that works well together. 

The Kellys and Peter D-C are hoping to get 8000 tonnes of logs from this 14 ha block, and hoping to net $250,000. The logs were offered to local mills first but they couldn’t take the whole harvest so most is going through the port. Smaller scrubby logs are going to Portland Cement for biofuel. Although the trees are 30 years old, they are not actually huge trees, as this is dry and infertile country. There is no understorey at all under the pines, and Peter Kelly said that even gorse won’t grow on this land. The original native forest here was 2m high scrub. 

The new owner of the block is “not interested in trees” – so it is likely this block will just be re-grassed after harvest and used for stock, rather than replanted. But there are younger radiata blocks sold with the farm, that will be ready for harvest in a few years, so hopefully this landowner will get a chance to consider his options. 

Peter D-C is proud of the harvesting operation he runs. He said not many people ever get to see a small-scale harvest, as they are normally well away from public roads. What the public mostly sees is the large-scale industrial harvests and their aftermath, and this is a real problem for forestry’s social licence to operate. However he did mention that the general manager of Panpac in the Hawkes Bay, with huge remote forests, is keen to come and see his setup! Peter is also involved in the Northland Wood Council, so maybe his ideas and methods will be more widely adopted in future? 

Peter also spoke briefly about managing a harvest. There are 3 parties to the operation – the forest owner, the harvest manager, and the contractors. For the Kellys harvest, Peter D-C is both the harvest manager and a contractor. There are some bad stories about harvesting experiences and returns, so the contract is important. He said owners need to let managers know they are being monitored, and no contract should say the owners are liable if the stumpage is negative.

The converted 4WD mini logger trucks using the lightweight dirt road, and showing the load they can carry.

An empty mini logger. Farm Foresters in high viz.

This was a most enjoyable and informative day – thanks very much to the Northland branch team that put it together, including the Kellys, and Peter and Nancy Coates and Simon Webb from the committee.

Harvest process - the machinery being used - top right corner (yellow machine) is the feller-buncher cutting down trees; centre left of photo, yellow and black machine is the processor about to cut a debranched tree into logs; in front of it a yellow grappler is about to load up one of the mini logger trucks with logs to deliver to the collection point.


Logging truck - at the collection point/loading area, logs brought in by the mini loggers are loaded onto a normal logging truck to go to the port


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