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Spacing young conifer stands

TreeTopics - Fri, 01/29/2016 - 10:26am

Brad Withrow-Robinson, Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Agent, Benton, Linn and Polk Counties.

In a previous article , I wrote that many folks in NW Oregon are growing too many trees in young stands given some common family forest landowners’ objectives, including doing a commercial thinning when the trees are in their mid 20s.  Since most people are hoping to do a commercial thinning on their way towards a variety of longer-term objectives and stand conditions, we need to focus on reaching that first commercial thinning in a timely manner and leaving the stand in a good condition to meet future objectives. Let’s begin by looking at what it takes to have a commercial thinning.

My contacts in the business around the mid-Valley tell me that while the first thinning should provide a mix of saw logs and chip logs, most of the surplus trees removed in the thinning need to produce a sawlog or two if you hope to break even or make a little money (a mix of around 2/3 saw logs and the remaining 1/3 chip logs is a rule of thumb used by some). Too many small logs and you are losing money. That sawlog will vary according to the mill it is headed to, but is generally 20 feet to 32 feet long with a 6 or 7 inch top. Smaller wood goes to chip and saw or pulp.

Roughly speaking, you need a stand with an average size of about 10 inches dbh (or bigger) to get this desired mix of products to have a profitable operation in recent market conditions ($475 to $500 per MBF).

So why are people having trouble achieving that? It has to do with how trees grow in stands.  Let’s review nature’s rules:

  • Bigger trees need to use more site resources (mainly light, water and nutrients) than little trees.
  • The resources available on any given site are limited.
  • As a group of trees grows, it reaches a point where there are not enough resources to go around and trees begin to compete, leading to winners and losers.
  • Eventually some trees have to die (the losers) for others (the winners) to have room to grow.

What’s neat is that there is a regular and reliable pattern to this process which applies generally to all species (when growing in groups of similar age). There is a predictable maximum number of trees of a given size that can grow together in a group.

So it follows that there is a predictable maximum average size for any given number of trees growing together in a group, according to its species.  As a group of trees grows towards its maximum size for that number (its spacing or density), it will pass through certain stages along the way.  These stages (e.g. crown closure) or zones (e.g. self-thinning) all correspond to different and increasing levels of competition among the trees, each occurring a  predictable point. See illustration below.

 

 

 

As covered before, the idea in spacing a young stand is to have the “right” number of well-distributed trees to allow them to grow until they are big enough to support a commercial thinning, and to be able to do it “on time”, before future opportunities are affected by overly-intense competition. This generally means aiming to thin the stand when it is in the Goldilocks zone (yellow or gold), and avoiding slipping into the self- thinning zone (red).  Bad things happen in the red zone. Trees start dying, starved to death for want of resources by excessive competition among their neighbors.  This is euphemistically called “self-thinning”.  Self-thinning is an entirely natural process that gradually allows room for surviving trees to grow larger.  But in the process live crowns get smaller, individual tree growth slows down and all the trees suffer.  If allowed to proceed too far (approaching the brown zone), the stand becomes  too weak and unstable to be thinned effectively.  That leaves few options besides letting the stand grow (and self-thin) for another decade or so until it can be clear cut, then start over.  This is not necessarily a bad decision, but not the outcome many family landowners are aiming for.

This relationship of predictable stages (commonly expressed as a ratio of the maximum) also gives us predictable average tree sizes at which different stages are reached. This lets us know if trees growing at any particular spacing will reach a given target, like the 10 inch average size needed for a commercial thinning, before becoming too crowded and stressed.

 

Let’s consider some young Douglas-fir stands.

Growing at the commonly planted spacing of 10×10 (about 440 tpa, the column on the right), trees will just be 6” (on average) when they enter the Goldilocks zone, and barely 8” when they are pushing up against the red zone. We saw why it is hard to have a profitable operation at that size.  But delaying the thinning operation is unlikely to fix the situation, since we won’t have reached even a  10” average before approaching the brown zone.  Generally many the trees we’d like to remove in an early thinning will be smaller than average.  A delay for any reason at this spacing is likely a big step towards a short rotation.

 

 

Trees planted and growing at an 11×11 spacing (360 tpa) may do a little better, growing into the Goldilocks zone at an average size of about 6½”, and reaching the red zone at about 8½”. Still shy of the thinning target while avoiding intense stress, but it might work for some people.

 

So what about a still wider spacing? Trees growing at a 12×12 (300 tpa) spacing have a lot more room to grow before crowding and competition begins to undermine other management objectives. At a 12×12 spacing trees will be about 7½”, when they fully occupy the site and 10″ on average when they approach the self-thinning red zone. It is much easier to see a profitable thinning operation in this type of stand, and less temptation to delay and push beyond the upper end of the desired thinning window. But should life or market conditions mandate a delay, this spacing gives a bit more breathing room. Other advantages of this stocking level include an earlier (if small) cash flow to offset some establishment costs, fewer, larger trees to handle in the thinning harvest, and a residual stand of deep-crowned, wind firm, rapidly growing trees which provides the landowner a wider range of silvicultural options.

 

Oh oh, so what if you planted at 10×10? Watch for an article soon on the nearly-forgotten practice of pre-commercial thinning (PCT).

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Categories: TreeTopics

Many young stands too crowded

TreeTopics - Fri, 01/22/2016 - 3:40pm

Brad Withrow-Robinson, Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Agent, Benton, Linn and Polk Counties.

In my travels around the mid-Willamette Valley, I am seeing a lot of young conifer stands (generally Douglas-fir up to 20 something years old) with just too many trees. Why do I say there are too many trees?
I know many people in this part of western Oregon who are patiently waiting for their trees to grow, hoping to do a commercial thinning (meaning sell the harvested trees to make at least a small profit) when their stand is about 25 years old.

 

All too often it is not working out that way. Instead, as the stand approaches the target age they find that trees have already become too crowded, with too many small, slow growing trees in the stand. The trees are still too small to support a profitable thinning operation yet. To thin at that point is to do so at a cost, although it may be best for the woodland in the long-run. To delay the thinning and wait for the trees to grow enough to make the thinning operation profitable is appealing. It may avoid the short term expense but is likely to weaken the stand at a long-term cost of growth, stand stability and future options. It is a classic “pay now or pay later” situation.


In young stands, the idea is to have the “right” number of well-spaced trees to allow the trees in the stand to grow more or less unchecked until they are big enough to support a commercial thinning, and to do it “on time”, that is before future opportunities are affected by intense competition. This should leave the landowner with a healthy, stable and vigorously growing stand easily shaped to meet any of a wide range of long term objectives that family landowners commonly aim for. These common objectives (see related article about objectives) including habitat diversity, recreational opportunities as well as periodic income, are generally best met by growing trees in longer rotations (>45 yrs) and with multiple thinnings over time. So it is important to get off on the right foot.


Of course there are many nuances in choosing the right spacing for any stand, but I’m saying there is a lot less nuance in the decision leading up to the first commercial thinning of a young stand than there is in later thinning decisions. It is fairly simple. In a young stand, we want to have the right number of trees to support a timely commercial thinning while avoiding excessive competition. This will keep the most options open for the landowner in the future.
We’ll look at what that number might be in another article.

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Understanding vegetation in young plantations: It’s what they do

TreeTopics - Wed, 01/13/2016 - 12:02pm

By Brad Withrow-Robinson, Forestry & Natural Resources Extension Agent, Benton, Linn and Polk Counties

 

photo: VMRC

Last month I spent a morning at OSU attending the annual science meeting of the Vegetation Management Research Cooperative (VMRC). It was well worth the time.

The VMRC’s mission includes conducting applied reforestation research of young plantations from seedling establishment through crown closure and, to promote reforestation success. The VMRC’s research has an emphasis on practical, operational vegetation control, and their research is broadly relevant and readily applied to the needs of family forest landowners, so I do try to keep up on their work.

Since many of the member groups do use herbicides in their forest management, their research frequently does involve herbicides. But the work is not generally about herbicides per se, but rather about understanding the nature of weed competition and how different degrees of competition and disturbance affect seedling growth and vegetation community dynamics. They are interested in knowing the influence of the timing of competition control efforts on survival and growth, how the length and timing control each affects growth and survival (“critical period threshold”), or the interaction of different seedling stock types and vegetation control methods affects seedling growth and vegetation community dynamics. Good stuff to know.

The meeting was also a chance to meet the VMRC’s new Director and Associate Director, Dr Carlos Gonzalez-Benecke and Max Wightman. They kicked things off with an excellent summary of the past decade’s research conducted around western Oregon and southwest Washington. They also did some broader synthesis of results to help lead the coop forward in another decade of work.

The VMRC currently has 14 members including forestry companies, state and federal agencies. It is one of 11 research coops at OSU’s College of Forestry (http://www.forestry.oregonstate.edu/research/research-cooperatives). Each conducts research and applies the results to solve problems, develop new products, support long-term field studies, and develop decision support tools. A CoF faculty member leads each cooperative and members work together to develop a mutually agreeable research program, pool dues payments to support the cooperative’s operating budget, and provide significant in-kind support to leverage dues payments.

You may have seen my earlier posting on the Swiss Needle Cast Cooperative , and can expect to hear more about the work of the VMRC, SNCC and some of our other research coops in the future.

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Thirty years of private timber harvest trends in northwest Oregon

TreeTopics - Thu, 12/31/2015 - 2:53pm

By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties

“What’s with all the logging going on?” is a comment I’ve heard more than once recently. Rural residents of northwest Oregon seem to be noticing an uptick in timber harvest from their industrial neighbors over the past year or so. I wondered whether these observations were simply anecdotal, or if they signaled a rebound from the recession, or if they were evidence of a more historic rise in harvest rates. So I decided to dig into some local data on recent forest ownership and harvest trends.

Forest land ownership by county. Source: OFRI

For this discussion, I focus only on harvest statistics on private lands – and I will further distinguish between private industrial (i.e. large timber companies) and private non-industrial (i.e. small woodlands, or family-owned forestlands). I looked at data for the three counties I work in.

Did you know that Columbia County ranks #1 among all Oregon counties in terms of the percentage of privately owned forest land? 94% of all the forestland in Columbia County is privately owned – with about two-thirds of that land owned by industry and one-third by small woodland owners. In both Washington and Yamhill Counties, roughly 70% of the forest land is privately owned with the balance in state or federal ownership; the private land is about 50/50 industry/small woodlands (plus a fraction in Yamhill County in tribal ownership). Across the three counties combined, forest industry owns 56% of the private forest land, small woodlands account for 43%, and the remaining 1% is in tribal ownership. These figures come from the Oregon Forest Resources Institute and can be found on the Know Your Forest website, http://knowyourforest.org.

The data shown in the next chart come from the Oregon Department of Forestry and illustrate a few further points about timber harvest trends in this part of northwest Oregon.

First, and most obviously, we see that the vast majority of timber harvested in these counties is on industrial land. In any given year over the last thirty, industrial forest owners account for between 69 – 92% of the total private harvest volume, while the amount coming from small woodlands (NIP on the graph) is between 7 – 31%. Since forest industry owns only 56% of the private forest acres, we see that more volume per acre is harvested by the timber industry on an annual basis than by small woodland owners.

The data support some assumptions often made about small woodland owners; for instance, that they typically use less intensive harvest practices such as partial cuts or longer rotations than industry.  Some small woodland owners, especially those with the smallest acreages, do not harvest at all.  Another interpretation is that small woodland owners’ harvested acres tend to be less productive on a board-foot basis, in that they are less fully stocked or more dominated by non-commercial material.  A combination of all of the above is likely.

Second, we see that harvest rates fluctuate a lot year to year, but patterns are evident. Harvest volume dropped dramatically in the recession, and though it’s been rising rather steadily since then, it had not yet reached pre-recession levels by 2014. Small woodland owners, whose harvest behavior as a whole tend to be very price sensitive, were more affected by the recession – those were the years (2007-09) when they made up the smallest percentage (6-7%) of the total private harvest. And since the recession, small woodland owners’ harvest rates have rebounded more quickly than industrial rates. In fact, in 2013, a year of relatively high log prices, small woodland owners’ share of the three counties’ total private harvest reached 25%, a level not seen since 1993.

Finally, there have been some differences among the counties in terms of forest industry harvests, as the third chart shows. Specifically, in Columbia County industry harvests rose rather sharply in 2014, to the highest level in a decade, whereas industry harvests in Washington and Yamhill Counties dropped that year. Industry patterns are driven by many factors including changes in corporate ownership.  In 2013, the dominant industry owner in Columbia County, Longview Timber, was bought by Weyerhaeuser. Aggressive harvesting often follows a purchase in order to reduce the debt load incurred by the purchase.  Small woodland owners are really no different, in that often timber is harvested to finance the buyout of a family member.

Data for 2015 were not available at this writing. Given what we know about harvesting behavior, what might we predict? Log prices in 2015 were down overall from the year before. So, small woodland owners’ harvests might have dropped as well. On the industry side, the “uptick” noticed by many, noted at the beginning of this article may well play out in the data.

A final note: this analysis addresses only volume, and says nothing about value. Fortunately for small woodland owners, volume isn’t the end of the story. The practices espoused by many small woodland owners alluded to earlier (i.e. longer rotations) can lead to a higher value product, as long as there are markets for that wood.

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Preparing for the worst

TreeTopics - Tue, 12/01/2015 - 3:45pm

Brad Withrow-Robinson, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension agent, Benton, Linn and Polk Counties

Image from http://www.readyforwildfire.org/

At our home, my wife has resolved to work on emergency preparedness this year. Sure, we have a pantry full of food, jugs of water, flashlights and batteries. Heck, anyone living in a rural area keeps those things on hand for comfort in semi-regular storm events.

But how about the really big events or when something very different, like a wildland fire happens? Are you and your family ready?

Some supplies recommended for emergency preparedness

My wife’s activities are triggered by a growing scientific and public awareness of the likelihood of a massive earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. Not just fear mongering, there is an abundance of good information about the risk, but also about prudent steps people can take to be prepared. Seems that being prepared is not just for Boy Scouts anymore. So we are putting up supplies to help us ride out the usual as well as a very irregular event.

As rural woodland owners and/or residents, many readers are probably pretty well-versed in preparedness. You are probably better prepared than average for regular winter events, keeping more supplies on hand than many folks do, given the distance to the store. But you face risks that most folks do not. The barrage of stories and information from the likes of me has hopefully made you think about wildland fire, and also to take action regarding prevention and preparation of your house and property to survive a fire.

But how about you and your family? Will you survive?

The summer of 2015 was a dramatic and wrenching reminder of the power of fire. Lives, homes and property were lost across the West. We saw communities and homes burn, with people fleeing with little more than their lives. Although more common on the east side, wildland fire is a major concern here around the Willamette Valley too.

Are you prepared for a fire in your neighborhood? Preparedness for fire does not share a lot with preparedness for other disasters, where the key may be stocking up to hunker down. With fire, the key may be escape.

Image from http://www.readyforwildfire.org/

Do you and your family have an evacuation plan?

If not, please make a commitment to prepare one. Make it a goal for this winter’s indoor work.

What does fire evacuation preparedness look like? Not surprisingly, California has some great resources on that. I recommend you visit the Ready for Wildfire website http://www.readyforwildfire.org/ to start your planning process. It walks you through the steps of Being Ready (themes of: Defensible Space and Hardening your Home), Getting Set (Family Communication Plan, Wildfire Action Plan, Emergency Supply Kit) and GO! Evacuation Guide (Pre-evacuation Preparedness, Evacuation Steps, and What to do if Trapped).

I know everyone hopes (and subconsciously believes) they will never need this, which makes it hard to get around to. Also, we assume we will have some warning. After all, most fires start in some distant wilderness, right? No! Fire is more likely to start around people, like from some neighbor’s burn barrel. You cannot assume there will be much time.

So here is a reality check about your most basic readiness.
The Ready for Wildfire website tells you to remember the Six “P’s”
• People & pets
• Papers, phone numbers & important documents
• Prescriptions & eyeglasses
• Pictures & irreplaceable memorabilia
• Personal computers, hard drives and discs
• “Plastic” (Credit Cards, ATM) & cash

If you had to start right NOW, how long would it take you to identify, find and pack all those things? It should be a matter of minutes, not hours. So, how ready are you?

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Cooperative seedling purchases – a proactive approach for and by woodland owners

TreeTopics - Mon, 11/30/2015 - 2:14pm

By Amy Grotta, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension – Columbia, Washington & Yamhill Counties

Recent posts on this blog have examined the problem of forest seedling supplies for small woodland owners, and the compromises that sometimes come with limited seedling choices. While the situation has gotten worse in the last couple of years, it is not a new dilemma. Cooperative seedling buying programs, where a group of landowners collectively contract with a nursery for their seedling needs, are one way that small woodland owners have worked to ensure a reliable seedling supply for themselves and their neighbors.

Loading seedlings into WCSWA trucks and trailers. Photo: Bob Shumaker

Both the Columbia and Washington County chapters of the Oregon Small Woodlands Association (CCSWA and WCSWA, respectively) have organized annual seedling programs for their members for the last 15+ years. The two programs have much in common, with a few differences. They each sell about 50,000-70,000 seedlings/year, distributed among dozens of members. Paul Nys (CCSWA) and Bob Shumaker (WCSWA) have been organizing forces behind these programs since their outset. I talked with Paul and Bob to shed some light on the benefits and challenges of keeping these programs going for the benefit of groups in other areas that may want to consider this approach.

Why did you start the seedling program?

Bob: We started this as a service to our members. We wanted to provide good stock at a reasonable price and make it easier for people that needed only a few bags of trees to get them. Importantly, the sale is also a revenue source for our chapter. A small markup on the trees provides several thousand dollars each year that we can spend on chapter activities and community service.

Paul: Same here, although in our case the service to our membership has taken a priority over revenue generation. We keep the margin on our seedlings as small as possible for members, and we sell at a higher price to non-members. Access to improved planting stock is also really important for our members, which is why buying seed from ODF’s Schroeder Seed Orchard and contract growing is so critical. We used to buy seedlings from various suppliers and found that that the quality was inconsistent.

Take us through the process from start to finish.

Bob: It is a two year process. Seed is purchased from the Schroeder Seed Orchard and delivered to the nursery that we contract with. The nursery stratifies and sows the seed, and then cultivates the seedlings for two growing seasons. During that second year, we send out order forms and collect orders and deposits. The following winter, volunteers pick up the seedlings at the nursery and transport them to a cooler owned by one of our members. The seedling chairperson then coordinates with member buyers for pickup from the cooler.

Seedling bags stored in cooler. Photo: Bob Shumaker

Paul: It’s important to emphasize that we must decide how many seedlings to grow for our members two years before they are sold; thus we are assuming any risk of unsold seedlings or not having enough to meet demand as in the last couple of years. We (the association) are also outlaying the capital for those two years. We handle distribution a little differently. Our buyers must come get their trees at one of two Columbia County locations the day after we pick them up from the nursery. It’s more efficient for us, but puts the burden on the buyers to either get their seedlings in the ground right away or find their own cold storage.

What are some of the challenges to this model?

Paul: We could not do it without our volunteers. We have a coordinator to work with the nursery and to handle all the member orders, and then several people with trailers need to go pick up the seedlings and handle distribution. Also, Mother Nature always has her own game plan, which complicates nursery operations and affects our supply. One year, lifting the seedlings had to be delayed due to the weather and we had to re-organize all of our pickup and deliveries. Other years, there has been freeze damage or low germination, and the nursery hasn’t been able to fulfill our order.

Bob: Like Paul said, it’s a 100% volunteer effort. I calculated that it took 80 volunteer hours in one year, with most of that on the shoulders of 1-2 people. We used to supply a wider variety of seedlings, but it was too difficult to manage. Now we only sell Douglas-fir and western redcedar of a single stock type, but these seem to work for the majority of our members.

Any advice for those considering starting up their own cooperative effort?

Paul: Don’t reinvent the wheel! Model an existing program. Find a nursery that is willing to work with you. Recognize that you’ll have to put up the cash for two years until you start selling your trees. Good communication with your members about the ordering and delivery process is very important: it will streamline your workload; and they are your customers.

Bob: Maintaining good relations with the nursery is critical. Realize that you are in it together. Be sure to pay them on time and be flexible. You are not their biggest customer. Having access to a cooler has really helped us. If you don’t have one, consider renting commercial cooler space and factoring that into your seedling cost. Cultivate volunteers within your organization so that the seedling program can be sustained over time without reliance on any one person.

Seedling pickup volunteers after a job well done. Photo: Bob Shumaker

Many thanks to Bob and Paul, and to the many other volunteers that have made these programs work for small woodland owners. Those wishing to dig deeper into what it takes to pull off a cooperative seedling program will benefit from Bob Shumaker’s detailed writeup that was published in the WCSWA newsletter a few years ago.

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Categories: TreeTopics

How much can you compromise when buying seedlings?

TreeTopics - Thu, 11/19/2015 - 3:50pm

By Brad Withrow-Robinson, OSU Forestry & Natural Resources Extension agent, Benton, Linn and Polk Counties

I got a call a while back from someone having trouble finding the seedlings she wanted and wondering if she could make do with something else.

A bed of western hemlock seedlings in nursery

The caller wanted large, bare root hemlock seedlings from her Coast Range seed zone, but all she could find was container stock from a Washington seed source, and wanted to know if that was an ok choice.

Given the current seedling supply situation, I am thinking many people may be facing a similar choice between the “right” planting stock type and the “right” seed source, if they have any choice of seedlings at all.

When is compromise a sound choice?

The seedling you buy reflects the way it was grown, resulting in a size and shape that makes it more or less suited to different conditions in the field (as well as more or less expensive), and is thus an important factor in successful establishment. We use terminology such as 1-1 or 2-0 to convey cultural history of different seedling types.

The seedling you buy also has a genetic heritage, usually described by its area and elevation of origin, which reflects its adaptation to particular environmental conditions. We commonly use seed zones as a guide to help assure adaptation of seedlings to their planting site. When not done right, we see unhappy trees that are often described as “off-site”.

So we are talking about different scales of impact, and so different scales of risk.

Seed zone map

If you look at the seed zone map for western hemlock (from Sources of Native Forest Nursery Seedlings at right) you’ll see they are fairly generous in their north-south orientation and rather narrow east to west. This suggests that you may be able to move hemlock a fair distance north or south, but not as far east to west.  A short distance one direction can be as important as a long distance in another. This is consistent with the experience of Rick Allen, a Forester for Starker Forests, who says that difference in behavior of coastal sources can be dramatic if planted inland no further than Blodgett or Burnt Woods, rather than near the coast. You can find more about that in the publication above as well as in this publication on selecting native plant materials. This issue is likely be of even more concern in the case of climate change.

Yes, people are experimenting with longer moves beyond the traditional seed zones, but unless being done with good bioclimatic information (likely with help of a computer model), it is more likely to be a roll of the dice than a sound management strategy.

So back to the type and scale of the risk. An inappropriate stock type may make the task of plant establishment harder (due to browsing or competition), and be quickly evident. But we can and often do address this culturally (with Vexar tubes or more rigorous weed control). An inappropriate seed source is likely to affect long term growth and survival, but not to be evident for years or even decades. Poor adaptation cannot be easily addressed afterwards.

All this seems to add up to an answer that it might be okay to buy a less-than-ideal type of planting stock if you think your management skills can provide for the shortcoming, but since we are talking about trees in the forest rather than tomatoes in the garden, you ought to be much more cautious about compromising on source of origin. In that case, you would likely be better off delaying the planting a year or so to get the genetics and stock type you want.

Which is just what the caller did.

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