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Farm and Forest Low Grading vs. High Grading

Woodland Management: Low Grading vs. High Grading

Why Would You Want to Leave a Healthy 12" Tree Standing in the Forest?

Thinking of having your woods logged? You'll have a healthier forest and get a better dollar return over the long-run if you don't high-grade. High-grading is taking the best, leaving the rest. Without any other direction it's only natural for loggers to cut the biggest, tallest and straightest trees, while leaving the poorly formed, slow growing, and small trees. Unfortunately, this often means the remaining forest is stocked with trees that are unable to take advantage of the new growing space left by logging. The future growth potential that remains is invested in the worst trees.

Low grade single tree selection means harvesting the poorer trees to leave the better ones to grow longer, make more valuable timber, and spread their seeds to grow more trees. It can be a way to improve the health of the forest while still realizing income from it, since some trees are harvested and those which are left become more valuable trees when they are finally cut. Young trees are recruited into the forest and allowed to grow. Trees are cut based on condition, age, vigor, species as well as their position in the forest.

Here are examples of trees that need to be cut first!
This tree has splits in the bark and a low fork. This tree has a large swell, making it defective.

Since settlement days, a common approach has been "take the best and leave the rest", also known as "high-grading". This leaves the poorer trees to reproduce seeds which result in young trees that grow up smaller, less healthy, and less valuable for loggers. Often the best trees are the fastest growing and tend to be cut first, in spite of the fact that they could grow longer and become more valuable. So, landowners receive less for their trees, loggers have to work harder to make a living, and this lower value forest in turn tempts landowners to bulldoze it for pasture. 

Diameter limit cuts, sometimes called selection cuts, can be a form of high-grading. Usually all good trees over 10-12 inches at breast height are cut. This can rob the landowner of value by cutting trees before they have grown to their most profitable size. Why would you want to leave a healthy 12-inch oak standing in the forest? That 12-inch tree left 20 years ago would be 16 inches today (based on average growth rates for the Ozarks.) Due to both large increases in the lumber volume of the tree as it grew, and the steady rise in stumpage prices over the years, that oak is worth $31.83 today, compared to $3.15 twenty years ago! Large trees also have more valuable grade lumber, in addition to more volume. Additional benefits of leaving that tree, and others like it to grow include increased acorn production and a better looking forest. 

In true selection management, before logging, trees should be paint marked for cutting, with emphasis on taking out many of the worst trees. These could be trees that are poorly formed,  lacking vigor, or with low forks. Taking these trees will open up the forest for new growth. Leave some hollow or large crooked trees as den trees for wildlife. In the average woodland, many of your best, healthiest trees should be left to grow and increase in economic value while providing wildlife benefits (like acorns). Over time you can make significantly more money, while having a higher quality forest, by investing growth in your best trees!

For more information on sustainable forestry, see the Value Missouri web site.

Written by David Haenke and Hank Dorst. Photos by Hank Dorst.