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Managing your woodlot

The payoff isn't just more firewood -- it's a healthy, thriving forest that benefits more than just the trees.
Poor-quality trees should be cut to make space for better trees. All wood can be cut, split, and burned.
A $35 splitting maul is cheaper and quieter than a gas-powered wood splitter.

Most of us with stands of timber don't practice good woodlot management, according to the University of Michigan Cooperative Extension Service. That's unfortunate, because tending a woodlot can not only double timber growth and result in healthier trees, but also it can increase wildlife habitat, improve water quality, and create opportunities for outdoor recreation -- all while increasing the value of our land.

The first step is to realize that woodlots are not self-tending. In fact, properly pruned and tended trees can live up to twice as long as their untended counterparts. Well-managed stands of trees are more resistant to fire, wind, and disease. These stands also promote new growth.

The second step is to consult your state or USDA Forest Service for assistance in planting, maintaining or rebuilding, and harvesting your forest. These organizations can provide you with publications and advice about how to achieve your particular goals.

Harvesting trees

The Kansas Forest Service at Kansas State University suggests you first cut the following types of trees, in the following priority:

  1. Dead trees that are not wanted for wildlife habitat. Standing deadwood provides an immediate source of dry firewood -- something you're likely looking for. Leave two to four dead trees per acre for wildlife habitat. Dead trees provide nesting sites for woodpeckers, which help control insects and keep trees healthy. They also provide observation towers for hawks and owls, which help control the population of small animals.

  2. Poor-quality trees to make space for better trees. Poor-quality trees include deformed, diseased, damaged, or otherwise defective trees, along with trees that produce poor-quality firewood. All wood can be cut, split if necessary, and burned. Process and use these cuttings for firewood until you're ready to start harvesting prime, healthy trees. Make sure five to six species of trees are growing in your woodlot. This reduces your lot's vulnerability to a disease or infestation, as these typically affect one species.

  3. Full-grown trees of good firewood species. Removing full-grown trees allows space for younger, healthier, faster-growing trees.

  4. Young trees to be thinned. Thinning young trees allows the remaining fewer trees to grow faster. In a properly thinned stand, tree growth may double or even triple. Continue thinning every three to five years to ensure that the remaining trees have enough growing space as they get larger.

  5. Additional harvesting may result from cuts made through the lot to create access paths or roads, or to construct a campsite, cabin, or outbuilding.

Keep it growing

The productivity of your woodlot isn't measured in the wood you harvest now; it's measured in the amount of wood the land is continually producing. In order to make sure your woodlot produces high-quality firewood indefinitely, you'll need to regenerate your crop.

You can do this in three ways: 1. allow trees to seed naturally; 2. plant trees; or 3. allow trees to coppice, or grow a new tree from the stump of a tree that was recently cut.

Of these three methods, the third is most effective. That's because the cut trees' root system is well developed and lives on after the tree is cut, allowing the new sprout to grow at a much greater rate than a tree starting from seed. Cut back all but one of the new shoots, so the root systems' energy is focused on growing just one, fast-developing tree.

Small is beautiful

Careful tending, harvesting, and regenerating can create such vigorous wood production that a relatively small lot can serve most people's needs. According to the Iowa State University's Cooperative Extension Service, "A well-stocked 5- to 10-acre stand of young trees composed of species that grow fast and sprout after harvest can provide a continuous supply of wood sufficient to heat most well-insulated homes."

An even smaller stand, as little as 3 acres, can suffice if the lot is managed as an energy plantation -- a stand of trees composed of species selected for their high yield of Btu's per acre per year and for their ability to regenerate by sprouting.

Cottonwood, hybrid poplars, sycamore, silver maple, and green ash, for instance, are all good energy producers and sprout well. Denser hardwood species, such as oak or hickory, produce more energy per volume of wood, but they grow much more slowly and thus produce fewer Btu's per acre per year.

Don't have a lot?

Woodlots do not need to be a lot in the woods. If you have limited land, you can grow firewood along roads, streams, stone walls, fences, edges of fields, or as windbreaks or privacy screens around your house or yard. In fact, trees growing in lines such as these grow faster than those in a dense wood, as they have little competition for sunshine and water.

You can also grow firewood on land that's steep, rocky, or otherwise unsuited to use as a field, garden, or lawn. Avoid swampy areas, as harvesting and transporting wood from boggy, muddy ground can be difficult and dangerous, and can promote erosion.

Lickety-split
Harvest wood in the fall or winter when trees are producing less sap. Split the wood at the time it is cut to promote rapid drying.

To harvest and process wood, you'll need a chain saw and a wood splitter. A gas-powered, hydraulic wood splitter is the easiest way to split wood, but if you're in reasonable physical condition, a good splitting maul will do the job just as quickly and much more cheaply and quietly. A variety of brands are available in home supply stores for about $35. The Splizall brand is available through their Web site (www.splitzall.com).

Finally, you'll need a cart, wagon, or pickup truck to carry the wood from your lot to your wood pile. Ideally, the pile should be located where it is exposed to sun and wind for quick drying, sheltered from rain, and close to your house for easy access.

The brush remaining after harvest can be left in the woods to provide a habitat for wildlife and nutrition for the soil. Or, you can run brush and small limbs through a wood chipper and use the resulting chips for mulching flower beds and gardens, surfacing paths, or processing into compost.

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