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The everlasting argument

Thursday, March 06, 2014, John Purey-Cust Ponders

The everlasting argument, whether to prune or not to prune , depends on you. No one who gives you advice knows any better than you, whatever their experience. They can tell you what is happening now but not to- morrow, not next year, let alone in the lifetime of a forestry rotation – then they are guessing, just like the rest of us.

There is also the difference between the views of the large grower and the small – which introduces another problem, what is ‘small’, but that is an attitude of mind which I won’t attempt to answer. I speak for the small grower.

The large grower, the corporation, most probably deals in a commodity such as Douglas fir or radiate pine where constancy of market flow is usually more important than quality of product. They are price tak- ers, creatures of the moment to whom future trends (of a forestry time length) are irrelevant. They are log exporters. Their advantage is size, which the small grower doesn’t have.

Local saw millers may be an exception. They do re- quire logs of a quality, for instance pruned, that the corporates may no longer produce, so increasingly they must find their own.

Let’s start with radiata pine - should the small grower prune (and thin – the two go together) or not ? Long ago it was argued that to get off the commodity mar- ket radiata pine growers should prune and thin to get the advantage of clear wood and large logs, our inter- national advantage of the time. There was an added advantage in Southland that radiata pine down here is of a relatively low density (or strength), marginal for construction uses whilst it’s clean fresh sawn appear- ance made it an attractive finishing or board grade. The only hazard was a rotation requirement of around 30 years

Those were the halcyon years of the domestic sawmilling industry when it was the big log buyer. There was a premium on pruned and thinned stands of around 20% and on good sites pruning and thinning made sense.

About 10 years ago the radiata market fell on hard times. The domestic market (pruned logs) is still down but the export log trade has perked up. There is very little call for pruned logs and even the rotation length restriction has gone – everything has its price regardless of age, size and quality.

So what to do? Markets remain the same, markets change. Oh dear, we have to think, take a chance. If you read the market report in the February ‘14 Tree Grower you would have known exactly what to do 20 or so years ago if a soothsayer had been there with a crystal ball to tell you – don’t bother pruning. But does it tell you anything of value about the future? Nothing, nothing at all.

Read the early articles on the coming Blenheim con- ference and it’s all about possible changes in wood use which all to me smell clear wood. What if the US market picks up sufficiently to be looking for clear wood again? What if the Chinese market, to save en- ergy and freight costs, switches its wood imports from logs towards sawn lumber and in the process becomes more grade conscious? Stick a note on my tombstone in twenty years time where I’m wrong.

So for the small grower owning radiata my advice would be to prune and thin where you can. You won’t have much market pull anyway, and even less if all you’ve got is the rough stuff. The market may change for the better and they will catch the buyer’s eye. And when to sell? As always, when you need the money.
But should the small grower still plant radiata? I’ll try and get an answer to that later, and pruning other species – later too.

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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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