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Few acres can yield big timber profits

By Keryn Page

MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Landowners with as few as five acres can manage their land for pine timber production, and an often overlooked byproduct can add to the profits.

Tim Traugott, a Mississippi State University Extension Service forestry professor, said in the past landowners needed 20 to 40 acres of land to make timber production economically feasible. With today's market situation and prices, however, five acres of pine trees is more than enough.

"If a landowner plants five acres of pine trees today and manages it the way it should be managed, he or she can expect a return of $25,000-plus -- it could be much more than that -- when it matures at 35 years of age," Traugott said. "Timber buyers routinely purchase tracts of five acres or less."

Case studies show existing pine stands can earn an average of about $100 to $150 per acre per year.

"That doesn't mean you plant the trees and get $100 to $150 a year -- landowners must properly manage the timber, thinning a few times over the 35-year lifespan. When the timber is harvested after 35 years, the profit will equal about $100 to $150 per acre per year," Traugott said.

Traugott said his data is based on timber that is managed as a crop, much like the management techniques used by producers of soybeans, cotton and other traditional crops. Without proper management, pine trees cannot be expected to generate these high profits.

"No matter how many acres you have, you need to manage it like a crop. If landowners seek professional help, manage the timber just like they would any other crop and market the crop properly, a five-acre pine tract will make them a tremendous amount of money," Traugott said.

Small-acreage pine plantations work because good management produces a higher volume of timber. With proper management, a landowner could produce the same volume of timber on a five-acre tract that could be produced on a 25-acre tract that has not been properly managed.

"Landowners need to understand it's not the number of acres that matters; it's the volume of timber on those acres. If you plant in pine trees and manage it properly, you're going to have high timber volumes," Traugott said.

Extension forester Britton Hatcher said selling timber at maturity is not the only opportunity landowners have to make money off pine trees. An often overlooked source of income is the pine straw that gathers on the forest floor each year.

"A lot of people here in the South are looking at a product every day that they don't realize can make them money. It is possible for landowners with pine stands in the right condition and location to make $150 or more per acre per year by selling the pine needles for mulch," Hatcher said. "If a landowner does all the work on five acres, yields 100 bales per acre and wholesales the straw for $3 per bale, those five acres could yield $1,500 per year."

Landowners can choose to harvest the pine straw themselves or contract with a harvester to do the work for them. The benefits of hiring someone else to harvest may outweigh the reduction in overall profit.

"Landowners who contract with someone to harvest their pine straw can make a considerable income, plus they don't have to do the work themselves. Not only can a landowner make money from their straw, but getting the pine straw up also helps to reduce a potential fire hazard," Hatcher said.

Hatcher said managing a pine tree for straw production is not difficult: pine trees inevitably drop the needles, and landowners can simply gather them for baling.

There are two main methods of harvesting pine straw. Buying equipment to mechanically harvest is less labor-intensive but can become rather expensive. A relatively simple and inexpensive method is to purchase a hand baler, which is more labor-intensive.

Pine stands must be at least 6 to 8 years old to produce enough pine straw to make baling economically worthwhile, and baling can extend until the stand's first thinning. Once logging debris is cleared, needle harvest can continue after the thinning.

Needle fall starts in late October or early November and can continue until April. Pine straw yields, depending on harvest method, are estimated at 100 or more bales per acre for healthy, growing pine stands. Landowners who are willing to fertilize have the potential to see more than 250 bales per acre.

"There's a square bale that averages about 15 to 20 pounds and a round bale that weighs about 40 pounds. The square bale has been known to bring as high as $6 or $7 per bale, and the round bale has sold for more than $12 per bale," Hatcher said. "If you're the landowner and you're doing all the work yourself and start wholesaling or retailing it, you're talking about a good bit of money."

Pine straw contains nutrients vital to tree growth, so landowners should fertilize stands with diammonium phosphate to replace the nutrients lost in baling.

Hatcher warned that producers are not allowed to harvest pine straw on lands enrolled in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program.

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Released: March 31, 2005
Contact: Tim Traugott, (662) 226-6000

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