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Sunday 24 February 2019

How to spruce up those conifers in time to watch profits grow

An award-winning forest in Tullamore was the venue for a masterclass by Teagasc on how best to cultivate Norway spruce

Keep on track: Establishing a proper road early in a forest's development will help you to improve the quality and value of the crop
Keep on track: Establishing a proper road early in a forest's development will help you to improve the quality and value of the crop
Jim Crowley (forestry consultant), Ashling Foy Minnock (owner) and Denis Hennessy (forest works & machine manager). Photo: Teagasc.
Dr Niall Farrelly provides details of his Norway spruce thinning trial to participants. He stresses that thinning on time adds value. Photo: Teagasc.
Ashling Foy Minnock, winner of the RDS-Forest Service 2018 Production Forestry Award with her son TJ and Denis Hennessy (forest works & machine manager).
Steven Meyen

Steven Meyen

Teagasc has been organising forest walks, training courses, information days and large national forestry events for more than 25 years. The latest offering was a recent highly successful national forestry event focusing on the management of Norway spruce.

The event was organised by local Teagasc Forestry Adviser Liam Kelly. The event took place in an award-winning forest near Tullamore. About 200 people wanted to find out how to better manage and carry out a first thinning of Norway spruce.

Teagasc forestry advisers discussed various aspects to consider when preparing for thinning: the importance of health and safety, conifer management, planning for thinning, thinning intensities, timber quality and end uses.

A new research experiment has been established in this forest. Dr Niall Farrelly of Teagasc outlined different methods of thinning Norway spruce and how this may impact on the development of the crop (see panel).

Jim Crowley (forestry consultant), Ashling Foy Minnock (owner) and Denis Hennessy (forest works & machine manager). Photo: Teagasc.
Jim Crowley (forestry consultant), Ashling Foy Minnock (owner) and Denis Hennessy (forest works & machine manager). Photo: Teagasc.

Norway spruce

The species

Norway spruce is a European species with a wide natural range across most of mainland Europe. It is thought to have been introduced to Ireland during the 1500s. Norway spruce is Ireland's third most common conifer with a total area of about 25,000 hectares.

Norway spruce has become a very significant species for timber production and species diversity in the Midlands because of its tolerance to late Spring and early Autumn frosts while young.

First thinning in Norway spruce normally starts later than Sitka spruce (see table) and usually consists of the removal of one line in seven plus selection.

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Subsequent thinning operations are usually selective: gradually removing poorer quality stems concentrating growth on the best stems. High pruning can be carried after the first thinning has taken place. Aim for about 500 stems per hectare.

The forest

The Owner Ashling Foy Minnock

Dr Niall Farrelly provides details of his Norway spruce thinning trial to participants. He stresses that thinning on time adds value. Photo: Teagasc.
Dr Niall Farrelly provides details of his Norway spruce thinning trial to participants. He stresses that thinning on time adds value. Photo: Teagasc.

The forest is located on the Westmeath/Offaly border. Thirty-three hectares of conifers and 17ha of broadleaves were planted in 1999 by Ashling's late husband Brendan Minnock. He felt that forestry offered an alternative land resource which is less labour intensive, freeing up more time for work on or off the farm and for the family.

He also studied in great detail the economics of the decision to switch from livestock to trees on good quality agricultural land. He found that forestry in many cases can compete and surpass agriculture in terms of increasing one's income.

Brendan got advice from the Forest Service, Teagasc and local foresters in order to maximise the income from the future timber resource. The trees were well cared for in the early years resulting in free-growing trees with full stocking at four years.

A local forester set up a 10-year management plan in 2003 with detailed annual tasks to be undertaken. A forest road was installed three years ago. This early management of the forest improved the quality and value of the crop when first thinning commenced in 2016/17.

Ashling took over the management of the forest when Brendan passed away in 2009. "My background had been in legal and corporate consulting in New York and Sydney," says Ashling. "I had no experience in forest management! But I was determined to manage the forest to the highest possible standard and achieve the highest quality product from it while improving and enhancing what we have here for future generations to come."

She adds: "With that in mind, I set up Midland Timber Harvesting Limited (MTHL) in 2016 so that I would have complete control to properly harvest my own timber."

Ashling Foy Minnock, winner of the RDS-Forest Service 2018 Production Forestry Award with her son TJ and Denis Hennessy (forest works & machine manager).
Ashling Foy Minnock, winner of the RDS-Forest Service 2018 Production Forestry Award with her son TJ and Denis Hennessy (forest works & machine manager).

Ashling purchased two second-hand timber harvesters and a forwarder. She now employs a professional forester Jim Crowley and four other people: two chainsaw workers, a harvester and forwarder operator. She is also planning to carry out harvesting for fellow forest owners in the midlands.

"We are extremely proud that Ballycahan farm forest has won the 2018 RDS Production Forestry Award, particularly as we are first-time applicants. The process of applying in itself for the award allowed us to assess in detail and appreciate the value of the hard work that has been done to date," Ashling says.

She adds: "What particularly impressed the judges here was that the entire forest area was mapped, a full inventory was done, and information of yield class and stocking was available for each stand together with a production plan. This level of management information is unusual in farm forestry, but the judges highlighted it as an example of best practice they would like to see for all production forests."

Having won the RDS Award, her next woodland objectives are:

1. Her primary objective is to balance wildlife habitat protection with medium/long-term income generation.

2. Improve access for walking/recreation.

3. Conserving and enhancing soil and water quality.

4. Expand my forestry business whilst working with fellow farm forest owners.

The Forestry Consultant Jim Crowley

Ashling Foy Minnock is very ably assisted by her forestry consultant Jim Crowley. Jim is a third-generation forester with 50 years' experience. In 2016, Jim carried out an inventory of her forest and put in place a management plan. Jim works very closely with her and her forest works and machinery manager Denis Hennessy.

The following summary of his key actions gives forest owners a good idea of what is required when preparing for first thinning:

* Establish inspection paths every 50 to 100m apart;

* Compile a comprehensive management plan;

* Obtain a 10-year felling licence;

* Establish a forest road;

* Identify hazards and complete risk assessments;

* Complete environmental risk assessments;

* Identify markets for the thinning products;

* Prepare and supervise harvesting operations.

Jim had some good advice for forest owners. "Don't sit back, close the gate and throw away the key," he says. "Look after your forest in the teenage years. You will reap the financial benefits on maturity. You have a valuable resource; all it requires is your care and attention."

The Forestry Researcher Dr Niall Farrelly

Dr Niall Farrelly is a forestry researcher with Teagasc. He has a lot of experience researching thinning practices in the private sector. "Many stands in Ireland are often underthinned," he says. "Thinning is often delayed or stands are not being thinned at all."

This research project was commenced in Ashling's forest earlier this year. The aim of the research is to promote good thinning practice of Norway spruce and provide more information on thinning so that the appropriate amount of volume can be removed sustainably without affecting future volume production.

This thinning trial is a combination of systematic thinning combined with low thinning, removing trees from the lower crown classes from between the thinning racks. In low thinning, four different thinning treatments are being examined:

* No thinning;

* Light thinning, 20pc of volume is removed;

* Moderate thinning, 33pc of volume is removed;

* Heavy thinning, 45pc of volume is removed.

Dr Farrelly says: "Little is known about how to manage fast-growing Norway spruce crops - or Sitka spruce for that matter. We will remove 20 to 45pc of the crop at first thinning and monitor the growth response in respect to the increased growing space."

He stresses that thinning will undoubtedly add value to your forest, in that it removes inferior quality trees early in the production process, allowing growing space for more valuable trees to develop into more valuable saw log. He says that "rather than arriving at final harvest not knowing what products are in your forest, it is important for growers and foresters to take control of the production process, to influence what products are produced from the forest and when they should be removed."

Results of the research have already shown that intensive thinning produces bigger logs that have a higher proportion of straight trees that will be ready for final harvest in a shorter time period.

The first thing that Dr Farrelly advises is to thin on time. He advises that thinning should take place when the crop is between 10 and 12m in height, removing one line in seven if possible. This will provide some palletwood improving the profitability of the operation. Then forked and smaller trees are removed from between the rows removing perhaps one in four trees.

"A pulpwood tree is worth around €0.70 and a palletwood tree is worth around €2.20 in a first thinning," says Dr Farrelly. "This will provide a first thinning income of €400 to €600 per productive hectare depending on the volume removed. First thinning is not the new 'gold rush'; it's all about investing in the remaining crop to ensure you can increase its future value."

*Steven Meyen is a Teagasc forestry adviser; email: steven.meyen@teagasc.ie

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