Grazing beef cattle and sheep in the pine barrens of the Southeast dates back to Colonial times. The traditional open range system consisted of un-managed cows and un-managed pine trees. Costs were low but so were returns. Stocking rates were frequently in the 40 acres-to-a-cow range.
Between 1950 and 1970 most of the woodland open range was closed and perimeter fences were required by law to keep stock off the highways. In many instances, the costs of these perimeter fences were considered too great an investment for the low stocking rates common to woodland range grazing.
Due to economic and cultural factors, over the last 20 years, beef cow and yellow pine timber production have largely parted company. However, recent research at the Hill Farm Research Station in Homer, LA, indicates that reintegrating grazing and timber management can greatly benefit timber growth and total economic return.
"In business time is money," explained Forestry Project Leader Terry Clason. "This is particularly true in a long-cycle crop like forestry. Being able to grow a sawlog in 25 years versus 35 years tremendously lowers opportunity costs.”
Clason said the biggest growth limiter to a pine tree was another pine tree. "You have to keep the forest canopy open to produce fast tree growth but when you do that the understory vegetation is stimulated as well. This can be a big problem, or it can be a big opportunity if grazing is incorporated."
Clason said a visit to New Zealand really opened his eyes. "Landowners are really in the resource management business. Most of us are trained to manage a single resource rather than the whole. Once you start managing for the whole, each of the individual components tend to get better as well. Compared to New Zealand, forestry management in Louisiana is strictly third world."
He said traditional forestry management plants 680 trees per acre. Trees are then subsequently thinned as they grow. This tight spacing is used to create a barren forest floor and promote natural pruning as the trees drop their shaded lower limbs. Clason said this system creates three problems: a slow growing tree, loose knots which can weaken the wood's strength and virtually no high-value clearwood.
On the March 1998 pine timber market, regular saw logs were bringing around $550 per thousand board feet. However, clearwood knotfree wood used for veneer and architectural trim and millwork was bringing $800 to $900 per thousand board feet. Clason said the New Zealand system of forestry is designed to maximize the creation of high value clearwood through hand pruning.
"Once we make the decision to hand-prune, we can spread the trees out and go for maximum timber growth as well. Once we spread the trees out we find that an acre of timberland can support virtually the same stocking rate as an open pasture. It's a win-win situation."
Clason recommends that trees initially be planted in rows 24 feet apart and with 6 to 8 feet between the trees in the row. This is 300 trees per acre. If a planting contractor is used, the cost will run around $300 per acre. The wide rows not only provide for excellent grazing but for subsequent easy access for logging machinery.
The trees are best planted in January and grazing should be deferred until the trees are tall enough for the cows to see them. "We have had very little seedling pine damage from grazing as long as there was plentiful grass. However, a hungry cow finds the topmost terminal bud of a pine tree to be very tasty. Personally, I wouldn't take the risk and would exclude the cows until the trees are three to four feet tall. This could take from one to three years depending upon summer rainfall. However, the key to preventing seedling damage is to manage the grazing."
On cutover land, Clason recommends that hardwood brush first be brought under control and then the trees be put in. The pasture can then be planted in the summer of the planting year.
In existing pasture, a planting row six to eight feet wide must be sprayed with herbicide to lower water competition from the grass. The grass between the rows should be hayed or cut for silage in the planting year.
One benefit of adding cattle to a timber operation is that many of the agronomic practices required for the trees can be charged against the cattle operation. This allows them to be expensed immediately rather than carried forward as a basis against future forestry income. This not only saves taxes on current cattle income but lowers the opportunity cost basis of the timber as well.
Yet another win-win is that at high stock densities, there is no need for fire to recycle the pine straw as the cattle's cloven feet mash it into the ground. In this litigious era, not having to worry about smoke and fire escape liabilities can help you sleep better.
Clason said he personally prefers Bahia grass in a timbered pasture due to its low fertilizer requirements, but that common bermuda is good if your grazing operation is going to use a lot of prepared seedbed annual ryegrass. "The common bermuda seems to tolerate the annual tillage better," he said.
He said the Hill Farm was set up to produce 800 lb. plus feeder cattle from its own cow herd. He said this required a total of five acres of timbered pasture for each cow/calf/yearling unit. Annual ryegrass is used extensively for the post-weaning stocker phase and grows well under the trees.
Cattle and timber prices run on different cycles and can therefore both compliment and subsidize one another during the down phases of their cycles. Timber prices follow the interest rate cycle and rise when interest rates fall. During recessions, saw timber demand can virtually disappear and trees are best "stored on the stump."
Hand pruning should start when the trees are eight to ten feet tall. They should be pruned again after an additional eight to ten feet of growth and can be pruned a third time if a very large sawlog is desired. Clason recommends that a New Zealand pruning shear called a “lopper” be used rather than a saw.
“The beauty of this to a cattleman is that all the forestry work can be done when there is nothing else to do. Adding forestry can help keep hired labor fully employed year around."
Once the trees reach eight inches in diameter, 200 of the trees should be removed as pulpwood or chipand-saw. This will usually occur at age 10. The wide rows and lack of lower limbs greatly facilitate this thinning.
At 11 to 13 inches DBH, or 10 to 15 years of age, take out half the remaining trees and leave 50 trees per acre to grow to high value saw timber. Timber income will just about equal harvesting costs until this point. It is at this point the big profit phase begins.
Clason said that forestry is kind of like the stocker business in that most of the expenses are front-loaded and most of the profit comes from the “pop” at the end. In such a situation, in trees as in cattle, owning fewer longer can be much more profitable.
At age 25 to 30, Clason said one can clearcut or take half and leave half for another five years depending upon market conditions. "At today's clearwood prices a fast growing big tree is really increasing in value fast."
In yet one more example of wholistic serendipity, large pine trees have been found to respond exceptionally well to the pasture's fertiization program, particularly to nitrogen. Clason said they have seen growth increases as much as 30% on nitrogen fertilized pastures compared to legume based pastures. "At $45 to $50 more tree growth per year, the increase in tree growth almost completely pays for the pasture fertilization program."
Clason said on today's open market the final harvest grosses between $6000 and $8000 per acre. This is a net of $2400 to $4000 over average land and direct opportunity costs. He said this return could be greatly increased by delivering one's trees to the mills rather than selling them on the stump. "A little knowledge about grades and classes of lumber and being able to sort your logs by quality and grade prior to sale can add tremendous value. If you have your own little sawmill and start to cut clearwood for high value specialty markets, it can really get financially exciting."
Excerpted by permission from an article published in The Stockman Grass Farmer, May 1998.