5 min read
Prescribed burning in a forest.

One concern landowners may have when making forestland management decisions is the cost of forestry practices. They may worry that they cannot afford to complete activities such as planting or understory control, so they choose to do nothing. Knowing even a range of costs for forestry practices can help make decisions and lead to better forest management.

Figure 1. Physiological regions in the south that were used in the 2020 Cost of Forestry Practices survey showing the Southern Coastal Plain (A), Northern Coastal Plain (B), and Piedmont or similar uplands (C).

Figure 1. Physiological regions in the south that were used in the 2020 Cost of Forestry Practices survey showing the Southern Coastal Plain (A), Northern Coastal Plain (B), and Piedmont or similar uplands (C).

This report summarizes the results of a 2020 survey to examine the cost of forestry practices across the southeastern United States. The 2020 survey underwent changes to improve access, the time required to complete, and participation by designing a new format online that allowed more efficient and effective distribution and return of the survey. As a result, the number of usable surveys completed and returned for 2020 is the greatest on record, surpassing the previous high by 80 percent.

For this survey, three physiographic regions in the South were considered: the Southern Coastal Plain, Northern Coastal Plain, and Piedmont regions (figure 1). The results presented are based on 264 usable responses, up from 85 usable responses received for the 2018 survey. Of those, 63 percent were from private family landowners, 16 percent were from consulting firms, 15 percent were from private forestry firms, 1 percent were from publicly funded organizations, and 3 percent of respondents reported “other” for their organizational type. The remaining 2 percent did not list an organization type. Results presented are adapted from the “2020 Cost and Trends for Forestry Practices in the South” Special Report in the November/December 2021 edition of Forest Landowner magazine.

Results

Mechanical Site Preparation

Mechanical site preparation was reported on 86,235 acres at an average cost per acre of $159.75 (table 1). This activity included practices such as shear-rake-pile- bed, subsoiling, and drum chopping. Of the total acres reported, 84,435 included information on the number of passes—single-pass operations was the most common reported consisting of 79 percent at an average cost per acre of $136.08. The cost of single-pass operations averaged 34 percent less than double-pass operations. There were not enough responses to report triple-pass operations.

 

Table 1. Mechanical Site Preparation Costs Per Acre

* Too few responses.
Site Preparation TreatmentNumber of PassesAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average
AllAll86,235131.44164.05200.88159.75
All166,418102.01155.83123.41136.08
All218,017169.41200.56*182.12
All3*****

 

Planting

Pine seedlings were the only seedling type planted that had enough data to report in 2020. A total of 172,599 acres of pine seedlings were planted (table 2). The majority of respondents (53 percent) reported hand planting, 13 percent reported machine planting, and 34 percent reported both methods. Most of the pine seedlings planted were bareroot loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), which made up 72 percent of the total acres reported.

Pine seedlings planted averaged 582 per acre for hand planting and 570 per acre for machine planting (table 2). Overall, hand planting cost 31 percent less to plant than machine planting, and bareroot seedlings cost 25 percent less than containerized seedlings.. The average cost of machine planting bareroot pine species on cutover land was 25 percent more than the average cost of hand planting all bareroot pine seedlings on similar sites.

 

Table 2. Hand and Machine Planting Costs Per Acre and Cost Per Seedling to Plant

* Too few responses. Overall planting costs per acre do not include seedling cost.

Planting MethodAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per AcreCost Per Seedling to PlantOverall Average Seedlings Per Acre
Hand Planting
Cutover land, all pine, bareroot66,45767.0065.7374.3268.820.12589
Cutover land, all pine, container35,59385.3390.0281.8286.400.15575
Cutover land, loblolly pine, bareroot65,24768.7566.5076.8070.430.12588
Cutover land, loblolly pine, container23,39485.6789.7383.4086.800.16555
Cutover land, all pine102,05077.8674.4076.9975.880.13582
Oldfield, all pine2,368*85.24*80.980.14585
Oldfield, loblolly pine, bareroot1,538***81.140.13604
All hand methods, all pine104,41878.2976.5275.7676.590.13582
Machine Planting
Cutover land, all pine, bareroot64,21382.21100.52101.6694.210.17571
Cutover land, loblolly pine, bareroot56,99585.10102.47101.6698.800.17573
All land type, loblolly pine, bareroot57,81585.10103.4495.2197.670.17580
All machine methods, all pine68,18183.3999.5696.2994.000.17570

 

Prescribed Burning

Forty-seven percent of survey respondents reported prescribed burning in 2020. A ground drip torch was used in all cases for a total of 136,456 acres at an average cost per acre of $31.12 (table 3). Regional differences in costs were reported. In general, prescribed burning practices reported in the Piedmont were more expensive than in other regions.

 

Table 3. Prescribed Burning Treatment Costs Per Acre by Ignition Type and Burning Purpose

* Too few responses.

Ignition TypeBurning purposeAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per Acre
Ground, drip torchSite preparation29,838*33.7239.4734.76
Ground, drip torchUnderstory control84,96123.7131.90*29.11
Ground, drip torchAll136,45625.8732.1933.6531.12

 

Chemical Application

Chemical applications were reported by 53 percent of respondents who treated 280,959 acres in 2020 (table 4). Site preparation, midrotation release, and herbaceous weed control were the top reasons for treatment with the majority of acres (54 percent) treated as part of site preparation activities. Sixty-one percent of acres treated were aerially sprayed. Overall average cost per acre for all treatment purposes and all methods was $77.11 (table 4). Overall, aerial application methods were less expensive than ground application methods. Additionally, average cost per acre was higher in the Piedmont than in other regions.

 

Table 4. Chemical Application Costs Per Acre by Treatment Purpose and Method of Application

* Too few responses.

Treatment PurposeMethod of ApplicationAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per Acre
Site preparationGround42,57973.1691.40*87.08
Site preparationAerial108,970*79.5485.7784.58
Site preparationAll151,14982.3484.3893.1086.07
Mid rotation releaseAll32,99172.7483.5493.8783.13
Herbaceous weed controlGround47,909***51.98
Herbaceous weed controlAerial48,142*52.49*55.13
Herbaceous weed controlAll96,05153.8054.3961.8756.09
AllGround110,63964.5283.23100.2479.91
AllAerial170,197*67.3075.4773.62
AllAll280,95973.0975.5684.4877.11

 

Fertilization

Few respondents (16 percent) reported using fertilizer as a forestry practice. Those who used fertilizer reported treating 66,082 acres at an average cost of $87.83 per acre (table 5). Aerial application of fertilizer accounted for 72 percent of all fertilization treatments reported in 2020.

 

Table 5. Fertilization Costs Per Acre by Purpose of Application, Application Method and Fertilizer Type

* Too few responses.

Purpose of ApplicationApplication MethodFertilizer TypeAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per Acre
AllGroundAll18,717***83.79
AllAerialAll47,365***93.50
AllAllAll66,082***87.83

 

Fire Protection

In 2020, twenty-eight percent of respondents reported using some method of fire protection on 173,375 acres at an overall average cost per acre of $19.49 (table 6). Protection methods reported included firebreaks, fire plows, and tractors. Primary methods of fire detection included self-observation, forestry commissions, neighbors, and hunting clubs.

 

Table 6. Fire Protection Costs Per Acre

* Too few responses.

Primary Method of Fire ProtectionAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per Acre
All173,375***19.49

 

Timber Cruising and Marking

Timber cruising was reported by 39 percent of survey respondents. Most respondents (73 percent) reported using variable radius plots at an overall average cost of $12.45 per acre (table 7). The overall average cost per acre for all methods was $13.31 (table 7).

The majority (46 percent) of the 35,875 acres of marked timber operations reported in 2020 were completed for thinning purposes. Only 27 percent of respondents reported completing any type of marking activity on their lands.

 

Table 7. Timber Cruising Costs Per Acre by Inventory Purpose and Method Used

* Too few responses.

Inventory PurposeMethod UsedAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per Acre
AllFixed plot186,569*13.91*14.19
AllVariable radius500,38815.409.86*12.45
AllAll687,11115.8112.1114.4113.31

 

Table 8. Timber Marking Costs Per Acre

* Too few responses.

Timber Marking PurposeAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per Acre
Thinning16,501***32.17
All35,875*32.3330.2131.52

 

Precommercial Thinning

Precommercial thinning is often completed early in a rotation and when trees may be in an overcrowded condition. For the 2020 survey, only 9.5 percent of survey respondents reported precommercial thinning on 3,797 acres (table 9).

 

Table 9. Precommercial Thinning Costs Per Acre

* Too few responses.

Primary Thinning MethodAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per Acre
All3.797***144.05

 

Custodial Management

Custodial management costs may include activities such as road construction and maintenance, boundary line maintenance or surveys, insect and disease management, or legal fees. In 2020, 86 percent of respondents reported custodial management activities on more than 3.1 million acres (table 10). Due to the increase in respondents who participated in this question, we were able to list acres and cost for multiple operation types. The overall average cost per acre for custodial management should be used with caution due to the differences in costs among a variety of operation types.

 

Table 10. Custodial Management Costs Per Acre by Operation Type

* Too few responses.

Operation TypeAcresSouthern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Northern Coastal Plain
Average Cost Per Acre
Piedmont
Average Cost Per Acre
Overall Average Cost Per Acre
Insect and disease detection and treatment635,542***47.52
Road construction and maintenance1,909,393*125.21102.6498.08
Maintaining property boundaries1,625,779***15.62
Legal fees1,416,067***2.49
All3,112,43536.4663.4052.8452.25

 

Figure 2. Percent change in costs of forestry practices from 2018 to 2020 (A) and from 2016 to 2020 (B).

Figure 2. Percent change in costs of forestry practices from 2018 to 2020 (A) and from 2016 to 2020 (B).

Changes in Costs Estimates

When comparing 2020 to 2018 averages, the majority of costs decreased except for chemical application and timber cruising (figure 2A). Comparisons to 2016 averages show that all costs increased (figure 2B).

Summary

Forestry practice costs in the South have been more variable in the last ten years than in past decades. This is due, in part, to the forest industry being affected during much of this time by suppressed stumpage prices. The economy and housing market crash in 2008 put financial pressure on corporate forest products companies. This pressure caused restructuring of many companies into Timber Investment Management Organizations (TIMO), Real Estate Investment Trusts (REIT) or to divest of timber-land management of investments completely. In addition, the low softwood stumpage prices during this time likely influenced decisions of landowners and managers that may have played a role in the variability of cost of forestry practices. Compared to 2018, the price for diesel and other petroleum products were less in 2020, which in part, could explain the decrease observed in many of the forestry practice costs. Further, liability concerns and labor issues seem to be impacting costs of forestry practices, particularly in relation to tree planting, timber cruising, and prescribed burning. This should be something to keep an eye on in years to come.

 


Peer ReviewAdam Maggard, Extension Specialist and Assistant Professor, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University

New December 2021, Costs & Trends of Southern Forestry Practices 2020, FOR-2115

Download this article as a PDF

Did you find this helpful?