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Why pruning/clearwood is one of our major competitive advantages

Denis Hocking's blog
Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Most members will be only too aware of this, but sometimes I feel it is worth restating and discussing the obvious.

I will start by pointing out that knot free clearwood is a premium product. The Accoya and Kebany woods with their much more environmentally friendly treatment processes, also the thermally treated Abodo wood, are all climbing onto the top shelf and they all want clearwood for their top shelf products.

Producing good clearwood from plantation grown trees requires two distinct steps:

  1. We need to cut the branches off before the tree diameter gets too large, and do it neatly just outside the collar that surrounds the base of the branch. This leads to quicker healing in the occlusion zone.
  2. Just as important is the second step - thinning the trees so that they grow faster and put on a good sheath of knot free clearwood surrounding the knotty core and occlusion zone. I was told by one ‘old school’ experts that we should aim for about a 15 cm. clearwood sheath which requires quite a substantial log. I have achieved it occasionally, but never regularly.

This growth has to be relatively fast because time is money and while we may accept a 20 year delay in getting a return on the significant investment needed for pruning, 50 years would be another story. So we need tree species that can grow fast along with a climate and stocking rates that allow them to reach, or at least approach, their potential.

As we all know, different tree species and even provenances, grow at different, or very different, rates and show varying responses to environmental changes, including stocking rates. Wink Sutton, our former patron and long time advocate of pruning and clearwood, tells an interesting story about the range of responses to thinning in his trials. While heavily thinned radiata pine rapidly picked up the slack, with the remaining trees growing at 2, even 3 times the rates of un-thinned trees, this wasn’t true of all species in his trials. Some, such as Corsican pine showed remarkably little response. Fortunately, many of our popular production species do behave like radiata pine and respond well to thinning. This includes the cypresses though pruning is harder work with all their rather prolific branch habits.

There are not a lot of countries that share our advantages of fast growth and short rotations to make pruning attractive. The obvious ones are Chile and Australia, but neither has a history of pruning with regimes that instead focus on pulp and structural timber. We do lead the world in pruning, but it was a bigger lead 20 years ago.

I also believe there are other advantages in lower stocking rate, clearwood regimes. I stumbled across the “Wink Sutton” effect, without any planning I should add, when I started production thinning teen-age plantations in the ‘80s in response to “Rogernomics”. I was very impressed by the growth rates of the remaining trees and, rather late in the piece, I also noticed that the branches on the second and third logs were, for the most part, still carrying green foliage but not really growing. I think the term is “moribund” but it meant that above the pruned but I was growing above average diameter structural logs that still had tight green knots. And these trees were adding much of this diameter in their 20s ensuring that it would be the denser, stiffer adult wood, grown by older trees.

In the 1990s, Mark Dean put 10 permanent sample plots into plantations here; stands ranging from 100 to 150 sph. and 20-30 years old. The average volume increment over 2 to 10 years prior to harvest was 25 cubic metres per hectare per year. This would be a very respectable growth increment for stands at three to four times that stocking, and especially when you considered they were 1960’s genetics. Translate all this into log volumes and prices and the annual value increment left, and still leaves, sheep and beef farming for dead.

While this sort of silvicultural manipulation is not applicable to all sites, it does demonstrate the versatility of radiata pine and also other species that respond in similar ways. Yet the message coming out of Scion in recent years, heard 2 or 3 times at NZFFA Conferences, is to lift stocking rates to maximise total yield. While there was some acknowledgement that this might not apply to pruned regimes the overall message seemed to be chase quantity not quality. I find this reminiscent of the meat industry in the 1980s, when, thanks to Muldoon’s subsidies, we wound up with cool stores all around the country full of skinny little lamb carcasses that the world just didn’t want.

Let me repeat - there was nothing very original in my regimes. In many ways they were similar to the Silmod recommendations of the early 80s to prune and then take the final stocking down to 200 sph. The difference in my case was that I did the thinning later and in multiple steps. But regardless of how you get there, the idea of low stocking rates, (200 sph and below), seems to be an anathema for the current generation of forest researchers. I think they are too narrow minded and I am also worried that we may be looking at another case of “institutional amnesia”. There don’t seem to be the old heads to educate young researchers on what we already know, or should know, and how to fit it all into the big picture. Now, there is some bait for you other opinionated farm foresters. Let’s hear your views.

Pastoral farming, belief and propaganda

Dean Satchell's blog
Saturday, May 28, 2022

When I think about Ukraine's plight for freedom and the disinformation coming from the Russian propaganda machine, I am reminded of just how strong human belief is, and how easily this can be manipulated by spin.

Propaganda is also used by industry to influence the publics perception of that industry. Mainstream media is the platform of choice, and if the industry lobby can infiltrate this, the impartiality expected by the public can be reduced to a powerful weapon of influence. People tend to believe propaganda if it comes from a trusted source.

Nobody seems to deny the power of the agricultural lobby in New Zealand. The sphere of influence seems to be accepted without question by both politicians and the public. Agriculture is, after all, the backbone of the economy, with plantation forestry just a thorn in the side because it competes for land.

Lobbies exist to overcome opposition and divide stakeholders into the "us and them". Beyond competing for land, the two key issues for land users are environmental sustainability and social responsibility. Agricultural lobbies such as Beef & Lamb, Groundswell Aotearoa and 50-Shades of Green like to play their trump card, that providing food overhadows all else, including environmental sustainability. The anti-forestry ploy is simply to condemn pines as evil. They destroy the soil and are ugly.

Combine the negative press that has villified pines, with an unwanted land use change from pasture to forest cover, and you have a story to tell on Country Calendar about a 2,400 hectare South Island farm called Hossack Downs. The story aired on TV1 in February, and, well... got me fired up.

The farm was presented to the viewer as requiring fire to control wilding pines, fire being the necessary tool to overcome adversity:

The reality is that this farm is using fire to clear mostly regenerating native scrub, specifically beech, kanuka and matagouri. The presence of wilding pines is the excuse for what might otherwise be labelled as environmental vandalism. From the amount of regenerating bush and scrub, clearly the land has been subject to neglect for some time.

Any good pastoral farmer knows that to retain a quality pasture, control of woody weeds should take place before they seed. Once that pesky forest cover has regenerated, its kind-of a wee bit late... unless all along you were intending to use fire to remove it again. Watching the show, I was thinking that maybe 2400 hectares is just too much land for one owner to manage properly. Rather than admit this, the show came across to me as asserting the right to burn large areas of land for the purpose of retaining the pastoral land use... "By burning this country, getting rid of the pines and getting productive pasture established just gives us the confidence that we're doing the right thing".

The claim supporting that action was that this is "good livestock country", therefore land use change was out of the question. Apparently nearly half the farm is "under threat by wilding pines". What I saw on the show was poor farm management practices on display, practices that allowed wilding pines to mature and generate seed in the midst of strong native regeneration:

The claim was that the seed all came out of the Hamner forest, which isn't true. The reality is that whatever the original seed source was, these wilding pines aren't being managed, with seed production and spread being the consequence. Good practice would be to chemically thin the wilding pines amongst the native, to remove the seed source spreading into the pasture.

Fire in this case is simply a tool for generating wealth. This land owner knows that fire is the "best bang for your buck" for clearing land. Fire has always been used for this. Environmental consequences aside, what got to me was that the use of fire was justified to rid their land of pines. That was disinformation designed to excuse the practice so that environmental consequences could be overlooked.

The cold, hard reality is that if the wilding pines weren't there, the farmer would still want to burn their land to control the kanuka, matagouri, tussock and regenerating beech. They just wouldn't advertise it over the television. The steep hill country in question will continue to regenerate into scrub and bush, and fire is the tool of choice to delay the inevitable. This is marginal country only because the ongoing cost of fighting woody weeds eats into pastoral profits. In a few years they'll need to burn it again.

Please undertand that I'm not having a go at the use of fire for clearing land. I just don't like the narrative. The show could have instead provided objective commentary to inform the audience on the pros and cons of this practice.

Instead, to alleviate any niggling concerns among the believers, the land owner played the native card... "We have 24 hectares of bush we're looking at fencing off and keeping the stock out". Not that they have actually fenced off the last 24 hectares of bush in their 2,400 hectare land holding, they're just thinking about it. Their livestock have been browsing that bush for god knows how long, depleting the last remnant of biodiversity. While creating a pastoral biodiversity wasteland of exotic grasses and animals, somehow pines "are a real threat" to the vision of "native plants, native bush, native animals and restoring our land back to how it used to be". Sorry, but I don't buy the narrative that "wilding pines, if they get into this bush they have got the ability of taking over the native, you'll end up with a monoculture of trees, and it's not what we're after, you know, to protect biodiversity out here". That is just confirmation bias.

These scorched trees weren't pines. To my eye they look like native beech.

Actually pines, like kanuka, are the coloniser. They come first, not later. A lesson in forest succession might be in order, pines don't take over the native, they just get there first. But propaganda is about belief, and once the general consensus is that "pines are horrible", the message that "we're killing pines" is worthy of the Country Calendar pulpit. Disciples flocked to the Country Calendar Facebook page with thoughtful comments like:

"It is so good to see how much the farmers care for their land by getting rid of the wilder Pines with burn offs."

"My mind is blown that you can get carbon credits for wilding pines, if we are not careful they will take hold of all of nz and there will be nothing left."

"Brilliant seeing a controlled burnoff killing off pests an unwanted weed seeds."

"Outstanding, god I love a good fire!"

"All things green and have the word pine in them are poisonous to our land and need to be destroyed."

"This is what farming is all about, looking after both land and animals."

"Good to see some farmers fighting the pine tree trend! worst thing that has ever happened to this country! pine trees and the ETS!"

"Only after the last pine has been planted will mankind find out a pine cone won’t replace a lamb chop"

"Keep up the good work, great to see wilding pines being eliminated!"

From the comments above, the disinformation campaign was a success. The show never touched on the wider issues that would otherwise inform the masses, because that's not how indoctrination works. The message from the pulpit:

(the bad)...

"wilding pines are bit of an eyesore... they're not helping anyone really"

"We're killing pines and it's definiately worth doing"

(can be fixed with the good)...

"Since we've started using fire I can see real positives, I can see big wins"

"Such a good tool to have and one we just gotta use now"

Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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