The terms “precision silviculture” and “precision forestry” have popped up here and there over the past few years without, however, becoming stable concepts in the forest industry. What are the terms all about?
Precision forestry is an umbrella term which represents activities that are made more precise by using big data, ranging from harvesting to forest raising and regeneration. Precision silviculture in turn refers to regeneration and seedling stand tending whose effectiveness and functionality can be improved using more precise data.
“Precision silviculture means that the properties of the growth location and other environmental and condition factors are used more precisely in forest regeneration and raising”, says Timo Saksa, principal scientist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke). Growth is affected, above all, by the nutrient content and moisture of the soil, as a result of which there are changes in the relative differences between different tree species. By saying “other environmental factors”, Saksa means, for example, landscape and water protection factors, recreational values or, say, cultural heritage. With the use of correct tools, all of these can be addressed more precisely.
Precision cannot be improved without data
The terms of “precision silviculture” and “precision forestry” cannot be separated from digitalisation. “Precision silviculture” is based on having open access to more data which can be used in different ways”, Saksa says. Currently, open data is used to a much higher extent in logging than in silvicultural activities. According to Saksa, the reason for this is that development inputs are directed at sources of income. However, significant cost savings can be achieved by developing precision silviculture: for example, it is possible, already during regeneration felling, to identify the areas in which further management would be unproductive.
In other words, cost savings are based on higher proactivity: unnecessary work can be minimised by having access to more precise data. Then again, risk management improves, for example, through a more precise selection of tree species. When the tree species to be regenerated is selected more precisely by using a larger processing pattern, this results in mixed forests in which risks are easier to control and which are more resistant to damage. “Similarly, the spreading of root-rot disease can be kept under control by identifying the worst location-specific seats of root-rot, and then change the tree species in these locations”, Saksa says.
Following the example of Sweden and working together with other industrial sectors
In Finland, application development and, therefore, the spreading of precision silviculture are still in their early stages. Various pilot projects have been carried out, such as EFFORTE coordinated by Luke. Sweden has already taken the next steps: for example, soil cultivation is already based on routine tools that use open data, such as digital maps that represent the shapes of the land and the moisture of the soil in high precision. Timo Saksa believes that the use of digital maps can increase in silviculture in Finland through the introduction of different systems, such as the ASTA documentation system. Contractors have shown significant interest towards development.
The most well-functioning solutions for real needs are not developed individually. Research and application development related to precision silviculture have been started together with Metsä Group in the EFFORTE project. Grid maps were produced for six regeneration sites in the Pirkanmaa region, in which growth potential was defined for each pixel and the most optimal tree species considering growth were defined for each grid. The purpose is to make the selection and patterning of tree species a semi-automatic routine and, finally, to improve tree growth.
It is essential that the forest industry is involved in application development so that the tools being developed serve those who make daily decisions on forest management and harvesting. What does Hannu Pirinen, development manager at Metsä Group, have to say about cooperation and new opportunities? Read more about field tests and plans for the future from the attached article.
Intriguing development with high expectations – precision silviculture is a potential future for Metsä Group
Metsä Group is one of the industrial partners of the EFFORTE project and an active participant in the development of precision silviculture. Its activities have been part of the thesis work conducted by Esko Häyrynen, a graduate student and operational supervisor. In his work, Esko focuses on the big data-based regeneration chain and the choices made in it. The purpose is to build a tool to support decision-making processes in the regeneration chain. Esko’s work is supervised by Metsä Group’s development manager Hannu Pirinen.
The practical phase was carried out at six regeneration sites. The purpose was to apply precise data to the selection of the tree species and cultivation method by setting up precise grids of 16 × 16 metres. The most ideal tree species and cultivation method were defined for each grid or a combination of grids. The total area of nearly 60 hectares had room for a range of growth locations. “At this stage, we limited our research almost exclusively to mineral soil. Later, this method can, of course, be expanded to peatlands”, Pirinen says.
According to conventional forest regeneration methods, a forest expert analyses the properties of the growth location and the tree species that succeeded well or poorly in the location. Of course, any requests made by the landowner are taken into account. The forest expert acts as an advisor and offers assistance in decision-making processes, as well as evaluates the tree production potential and, for example, any susceptibility to damage.
“What precision silviculture and precision forestry add to the system is the possibility of having more precise evaluations. When we know the tree production potential in more detail, we can, for example, define the seedling volume more precisely, select the best possible regeneration method and tree species and, in some cases, produce savings in office work and, possibly, also in the amount of management”, Pirinen says.
Practical work started by measuring test areas. Information about the lengths of stems was obtained from the HPR files of harvesters and the age of trees was determined in test areas. On the basis of the age and length, it is possible to identify annual growth, based on which the fertility of the growth location can be analysed. As a result, it is possible to tackle two key questions: more precise activities help to maximise the expected net income and to evaluate them earlier and more precisely than at present, and help landowners to select the best regeneration and processing chain according to their expectations.
The journey from conducting the first field tests to building practical tools is a long one. The new tools of precision silviculture and precision forestry will become part of the day-to-day activities of forest experts at some stage, also at Metsä Group, but it is still too early to say how.
“The amount of potential is incredible, but integration always takes its time. One possibility is to present precise data in conjunction with open data about forest resources. In the future, precise data about the nutrient content of the growth location can also be produced, for example, regarding tree growth defined on the basis of laser screening. This method would produce exhaustive data before any felling and without any additional field measurements. Therefore, this method would also help to identify any special areas important in terms of nature management. As a result, this method would present significant improvements in the positioning of precise forest and nature management sites”, Pirinen says.
What is the cost of more precise activities? It is difficult to measure any direct benefits but Pirinen believes that, in the long term, precision silviculture will be financially feasible. “All investments have their repayment periods and, in addition to financial benefits, they also include benefits in terms of nature management”, he says.
Pirinen considers the soon-to-end cooperation with Luke to be valuable. Metsä Group’s highly advanced research and development activities always start from their own needs, which is why this cooperation with Luke adds something extra.
“This type of cooperation is highly valuable, something we would not be able to do on our own”, Pirinen says. Luke can also agree to this: research activities obtain similar benefits from industrial partners. Well-functioning cooperation with companies offers the best way to ensure that data is processed from research data into productive tools.