Mon June 18, 2007, 10:29 am

Planting vs. Natural Regeneration - Which is Better?

Landowners sometimes ask, "What's better - planting or natural regeneration?" Generally, we answer this with another question: "How do you define better?"
Both methods are viable options for regenerating a forest, but each has some advantages and trade-offs. Here's a summary of some of the key considerations.

Financial Returns. From a purely financial standpoint, planting genetically improved seedlings on a well prepared site generally provides a greater return over the life of the stand. This is because the trees are uniformly spaced and at the proper density for optimum survival and growth, so the stand can be harvested sooner and the eventual harvest yield should be greater. Planted pine stands also provide greater income from pulpwood thinnings and the income often comes at earlier ages.

Up-front Investment. The greater returns from planted pine stands do come at a higher up-front cost for site preparation and planting, although the cost-share assistance programs can help subsidize these costs. But natural regeneration - done right - is not "free". Landowners delay income from seed trees until the new stand is established.   Harvesting costs may be higher to preserve the seed trees and later take them out in a second harvest. Some of the seed trees may also die before they can be harvested. Costly operations may be required to reduce excessive natural regeneration and allow the crop trees room to grow. As with planted stands, some vegetation control is generally needed to release naturally regenerated pine seedlings from competing hardwoods. Finally, it takes years to properly prepare a stand for natural regeneration-it's generally not a last minute decision as the harvest is being planned. Although some landowners have the mistaken impression that natural regeneration is a "cut it and forget it" proposition, continuous management is vital to maintain a sustainable and productive  forest.

Site Conditions. Planting offers many opportunities to improve existing site conditions or correct site problems. Some landowners who want to naturally regenerate pines find that their seed trees aren't of sufficient quality to do the job. Planting allows the landowner to take maximum advantage of some site preparation techniques such as bedding, sub-soiling, fertilization, etc. which will not work in conjunction with natural regeneration. Planting also provides the opportunity to improve the genetic quality of the seedlings.

The Bottom Line. Deciding between planting and natural regeneration is a fairly complex question. Because of the long growing cycle, decisions made today must be lived with for years to come. Justifying natural regeneration over  planting by saying "That's the way granddaddy did it", may not help a landowner take advantage of the attractive income opportunities offered by improved forest management knowledge, both present and future. On the other hand, ignoring opportunities to take advantage of natural regeneration may also reduce your return on your forestry investment.

If you would like an objective assessment of your reforestation options and their long-term financial impacts, please gives us a call.

Reprinted from "Forest Management News" Spring 2002, Volume 22 Number 1, published by Timber Marketing & Management of the Carolinas, Inc.

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